Encanto -- Disney's latest animated musical, a fantasy set in Colombia with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda -- hit Disney Plus after one month exclusively in theaters. Marvel's spent two months as a theatrical exclusive before it arrived to stream on Disney Plus in mid-January. And after all of Disney's films since August have premiered in theaters exclusively for some period of time, Pixar's next feature film, Turning Red, will in March.
What's going on? Just as post-pandemic life has remained frustratingly out of reach, it's hard to get a grip on when and where Disney releases all its movies now.
Disney reimagined the service as an outlet to release big new movies while cinemas were shuttered or limping.was up and running only about four months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the nearly two years since,
And for movies like Encanto, Marvel's Eternals and , the time you had to wait before they hit Disney Plus has varied. That return to a theatrical-exclusive strategy helped fuel the box office performance of those movies, but it has crimped options for fans who got used to greater choice in how, where and when they watch new movies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And in the case of a family film like Encanto, the theatrical exclusive kept a damper on its popularity. Only after Encanto hit Disney Plus did the Encanto soundtrack climb Billboard's music charts to hit No. 1. Videos of its musical numbers are among the most popular songs on YouTube now. The track "We Don't Talk About Bruno" became a TikTok meme.
What is the release date for Pixar's Turning Red?
Pixar's Turning Red will be available to stream on Disney Plus at no added cost for all subscribers on March 11.
In all countries where Disney Plus is operating, Turning Red is essentially skipping theaters. In all countries where Disney Plus hasn't launched, the company will release the film in cinemas on various timelines.
Pixar's last two movies -- Soul in late 2020 and Luca in the middle of 2021 -- were released this way, too.
But Disney hasn't released a movie straight to Disney Plus since Jungle Cruise in July, and even then, Jungle Cruise was available to stream only by paying an extra $30 fee through its Premier Access model.
Can I stream Encanto 'free' on Disney Plus?
Yes, Encanto became available to stream on Disney Plus on Dec. 24, at no added cost to all subscribers. That was just one month after its theatrical release. As part of the standard streaming catalog, it doesn't require an extra fee to watch. Some people refer to Encanto as "free" to stream, but everything on Disney Plus requires a paid subscription.
That's a longer wait than for some other Disney movies that were released earlier in the pandemic. As mentioned above, Pixar's Soul and Luca, for example, went straight to Disney Plus. Walt Disney Animation Studios' last movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, was available on Disney Plus the same day it hit theaters -- though it required an extra $30 fee to stream for the first few months.
But it's much faster than Disney's theatrical releases hit the streaming service before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, it typically took five to eight months for a movie to reach Disney Plus after it hit cinemas. And it's faster than even Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which were in theaters for about 68 and 70 days, respectively. Encanto arrived on Disney Plus after 30 days.
Can I stream Eternals 'free' on Disney Plus?
Eternals hit Disney Plus on Jan. 12, available to stream at no added cost for all subscribers as a part of the standard streaming catalog. Some people refer to this as the date Eternals started streaming "free," but everything on Disney Plus requires a paid subscription.
Like Shang-Chi, Eternals arrived on Disney Plus much later in its release cycle than other Disney films over the last year. The streaming release date for Eternals is about 68 days after its wide release in theaters.
While this streaming release timeline is quicker than the norm pre-pandemic, when it would typically would have taken five to eight months for a theatrical movie to reach Disney Plus, Eternals still had a theatrical exclusive period nearly as long as some lasted before the pandemic shook everything up. Eternals was exclusively in theaters for about 68 days; the pre-pandemic norm for theatrical exclusives was about 75 to 90 days.
The difference now: Disney is essentially skipping Disney Plus ahead in line so it's first after theaters. Previously, formats like online rentals, Blu-ray and DVD would be the first home-viewing options after a film's theatrical run, and the Disney Plus release date would follow months later. Eternals arrived on Disney Plus at no added cost the same day the movie became available to buy online on all the major digital platforms like Amazon Video and Apple's TV app.
The price of Eternals outside Disney Plus ($20 as a digital download) is more than twice the cost of a Disney Plus one-month subscription ($8 a month).
Why are Disney's movie release plans all over the map?
Turning Red is going straight to streaming. Encanto went from theaters to Disney Plus in a month. Shang-Chi and Eternals spent nearly as much time in theaters as the pre-pandemic norm. What's going on?
When the pandemic first hit, Disney made a big change to its movie release practices. As cinemas shuttered or slashed capacity, Disney Plus became a way to get new movies out to wider audiences, especially as the stockpile of delayed films swelled.
Some Disney movies -- typically midbudget live-action movies and Pixar films like Luca and Soul -- skipped theaters entirely and were available to stream on Disney Plus at no extra cost. For the biggest films, Disney Plus introduced its Premier Access model to sell streaming access to new, big-screen movies for an extra fee. Disney Plus members could stream brand-new movies at home for $30 on top of their subscription price. Disney has released five movies with this Premier Access option, notably Marvel's Black Widow in July.
Then as vaccinations widened, Disney reintroduced theatrical exclusives -- but with a shorter commitment to stay in cinemas exclusively than before. The first movie to hit theaters this way was Free Guy, a video game comedy from Disney's 20th Century Studios. It was released in cinemas Aug. 13, with a 45-day commitment to be available only in theaters. Shang-Chi followed, hitting theaters (and only theaters) on Sept. 3, also with a 45-day commitment.
But with theatergoers flocking to those films, Disney extended their theatrical-exclusive periods longer than 45 days. Shang-Chi was in cinemas exclusively for about 70 days, nearly getting back to the pre-pandemic norm that kept movies only in theaters for about 75 to 90 days.
Shang-Chi was a box-office smash. Shang-Chi's box office performance didn't keep pace with a pre-pandemic Marvel Cinematic Universe release like 2019s Spider-Man: Far From Home. In the first four weeks of Spider-Man's 2019 release, it hauled in more than $340 million at the domestic box office, while Shang-Chi's first four weeks just barely crossed $200 million. But Shang-Chi still did better at the box office than several pre-pandemic Marvel movies, such as 2015's Ant-Man.
Shang-Chi essentially proved that -- for a film belonging to the world's biggest blockbuster movie franchise -- fans will turn up at cinemas again if they can't stream it at home. That's one of the main reasons Disney moved back to theatrical exclusives for its biggest films.
And Disney makes some seriously big-budget movies. For those movies to be profitable within Hollywood's current economics, they need to be box office successes. Streaming movies the same day they hit theaters definitely plays to consumers' and fans' best interests, giving them the most choice about how and when to watch movies. But same-day streaming takes a bite out of box office performance. Lately, movies like Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home have proved that big franchise films can pack theaters again.
But family films, Pixar's specialty, have struggled with theater attendance by comparison. Parents, compared with other adult filmgoers, are likely more sensitive to the risks of bringing their young ones into crowded cinemas while the coronavirus continues to circulate and infections surge. Children under five still don't have a COVID-19 vaccine available to them, and a kid's coronavirus infection could mean missing weeks of school and toppling the first domino that derails other family plans.
Putting Pixar movies directly on Disney Plus is, at its core, a strategy to both lure in more subscribers and keep the ones it has. Kareem Daniel, the Disney executive in charge of distribution calls like this, noted in the Turning Red announcement that both Soul and Luca were "enthusiastically embraced" by Disney Plus subscribers when they went straight to the service.
And by sending three Pixar films straight to Disney Plus, Disney may also be protecting Pixar's pristine reputation for critical and box-office successes, according to some experts: If Disney doesn't put Pixar movies in theaters, it can't have a disappointing theatrical run.
Some of Disney's upcoming smaller movies have already been switched to be Disney Plus originals instead,entirely. This strategy mostly applies to midbudget movies, including Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks; a Peter Pan reboot; Disenchanted, a sequel to Enchanted that'll have Amy Adams reprise her princess role; and Sister Act 3, reviving the comedy franchise about nuns.
But unlike those, Pixar's Turning Red had been destined for theatrical release. The movie was on Disney's calendar for a March 11 release in theaters for more than a year.
"Given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions," Kareem Daniel, the chairman of Disney's media and entertainment distribution arm, said in a statement about Turning Red.
Like the cuddly main character of Pixar's next romp, the new normal for Disney's movie releases is still shifting shape.