'Doctor Strange' Won't Hit Disney Plus for Weeks (or Months). Here's Why

Disney's last big movie hit Disney Plus right away, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will take weeks or months to stream. What's going on?

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
6 min read
A poster gives glimpses of Doctor Strange's and the Scarlet Witch's faces

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hit theaters Friday, but even though Disney's last big film, Pixar's Turning Redskipped theaters almost entirely to stream on Disney Plus, don't expect Doctor Strange to be streaming anytime soon.

The company's other theatrical releases have been all over the map. Encanto spent a month in theaters before streaming. For Marvel's Eternals, it was two. West Side Story -- the Steven Spielberg reimagining of the musical -- hit Disney Plus about three months after it played exclusively in cinemas. What's going on? Just as post-pandemic life stayed frustratingly out of reach for much of this year, it's hard to get a grip on when and where Disney releases all its movies now.

Disney Plus was up and running only about four months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the two years since, Disney reimagined the service as an outlet to release big new movies while cinemas were shuttered or limping. But lately, for movies like West Side Story, Encanto, Marvel's Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, their time spent only in theaters has been almost as long as the prepandemic norm. 

That return to a theatrical-exclusive strategy helped fuel the box office performance of movies like Shang-Chi, but it has crimped options for fans who got used to more choices in how, where and when they watch new movies during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here's what to know about how Disney and Marvel are releasing Doctor Strange -- and why it is the way it is. 

Is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness streaming on Disney Plus?

Not now, but it will eventually. Doctor Strange is being released May 6 exclusively in theaters. 

That's a departure from Disney's last big movie, Turning Red, which essentially skipped theaters to stream on Disney Plus instead. Pixar's two movies before that -- Soul in late 2020 and Luca in the middle of 2021 -- were released the same way. 

But Disney has been giving its live-action theatrical releases long stints in theaters. Marvel's Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were in theaters for about 68 and 70 days, respectively.  West Side Story's streaming release was more than 80 days after the film was released in theaters -- that's back to the prepandemic norm for theatrical exclusives, which was typically 75 to 90 days.

Except for Pixar films, 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.

When is Doctor Strange's streaming release date? 

Disney hasn't set the streaming release date for Doctor Strange yet, but it's likely to be sometime in mid-July. Marvel's last two movies were in theaters for roughly the same amount of time before they started streaming. For Shang-Chi, it was 70 days; for Eternals, 68. If Doctor Strange sticks to that timeline too, it would become available on Disney Plus around mid-July. 

Disney typically confirms the streaming release date about a month or two in advance.  

Why are Disney's movie release plans all over the map? 

Turning Red went straight to streaming. Encanto went from theaters to Disney Plus in a month. West Side Story, Shang-Chi and Eternals spent nearly as much time exclusively 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. Eternals, not as much. By the time Shang-Chi started streaming, it had racked up more than $224 million at the domestic box office. When Eternals reached Disney Plus, it had generated more than $164 million. But Shang-Chi's success essentially confirmed 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, Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Batman have proved that big franchise films can pack theaters again. 

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. Children under five still don't have a COVID-19 vaccine available to them in the US, and a kid's coronavirus infection could mean missing multiple days of school or daycare and derailing other family plans. 

Putting Pixar movies directly on Disney Plus is, at its core, a strategy to both lure in more streaming 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, they can't have disappointing theatrical runs. 

And in the case of a family film like Encanto, the theatrical exclusive actually appeared to put a damper on its popularity.

Encanto was released in theaters on Nov. 24, but its box office performance was mediocre. The film's total domestic ticket grosses failed to cross $100 million. By comparison, Disney's Frozen 2 soared well past that in its first weekend alone, pre-pandemic.  

It became available to stream on Disney Plus on Dec. 24 at no added cost to all subscribers, one month after its theatrical release, and it grew into a phenomenon. The soundtrack climbed Billboard's music charts to hit No. 1. Videos of its musical numbers are among the most popular songs on YouTube. We Don't Talk About Bruno, the best-known song from the movie, became a TikTok meme. Disney is now referring to it as its next animated franchise. 

Some of Disney's upcoming smaller movies have already been switched to be Disney Plus originals instead, skipping theaters 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 was previously destined for theatrical release. The movie was on Disney's calendar for a March 11 release in theaters for more than a year before the company abruptly switched its release plan to skip theaters entirely. 

"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. 

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