We are in the middle of a war. No, I am not talking about the Middle East wars, or the ill-fated and racist ‘war on drugs.’ I am talking about something far less serious – the streaming wars. The major players include Netflix and Disney+ fighting for supremacy.
One level down there is Hulu and Amazon Prime Video fighting for that elusive third spot. A number of studies have shown that most consumers are willing to pay for three streaming services, making that third spot very important. Hulu was one of the first streaming services, along with Netflix, to appear on the scene. Its growth has been much slower than Netflix, but it is steady and consistent. Currently co-owned by Disney and Comcast, with Disney owning a majority interest and will soon own it outright, the service continues to grow and provide original content and impressive licensing deals. Amazon Prime Video has had a number of critical hits that have won awards, but haven’t taken off with the public, shows like Transparent. However, there is little doubt that the only reason Amazon Prime Video is a top contender is because it is owned by one of the largest companies in the history of the world.
Then there is Peacock, Paramount+, HBO Max, and AppleTV+ all sort of flailing around, trying to find their identity. HBO Max has had anemic subscriber growth and their parent company, AT&T, went from an aggressive advocate for their entertainment division, to quickly merging the division with Discovery this last week. Adding another level of confusion to an already bungled rollout. Peacock is owned by Comcast, who lost their bid for MGM Studios to Amazon within the last 24 hours. This is after Comcast lost their bid for 20th Century Fox to Disney two years ago. The biggest tell that the Peacock rollout has been lackluster was when Comcast announced subscriber totals at their most recent quarterly earnings call, they refused to separate paid subscribers with those receiving the service for free. Not a good sign. Paramount+ got a lot of airtime during CBS’s broadcast of the Super Bowl, too bad it was one of the lowest rated games in history and no one has heard about the service since. Then there is AppleTV+, full of quality programs that no one has ever heard of.
So those are the players. While some may quibble about the second and third tier streamers, there is no doubt that Netflix and Disney+ sit on top. There is no question why Netflix sits in the top tier. They wrote the script for streaming over the past 13 years, the service was the first, by more than a decade. They also have a long string of original hit shows and movies, which Netflix needs to continue because the production studios are pulling their films and series from Netflix for their own services, leaving Netflix with an unimpressive list of licensed content, making them lean hard on new and original programming. With a strong subscriber base and a name that has woven itself into pop culture (“Netflix and chill”), Netflix will reign in the top tier for the foreseeable future.
It is the other service sitting alongside Netflix that might seem a bit odd, how did Disney+ pull itself away from the pack and, in less than two years, become a top tier streaming service that appears best suited to take down Netflix as King? The answer is Hamilton.
I hear the clicking of millions of keyboards ready to take me to task. How could I attribute the success to a filmed Broadway musical, when the service provides a home for the biggest film franchises in history, including Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, and more. It includes the vast library of Disney films that served as a backdrop for our collective childhoods. The service also provided us with The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda (Grogu) and WandaVision. Not to mention the Frozen films, with the sequel holding the title for the highest grossing animated film of all time, Avengers: End Game which held the title for the highest grossing movie of all time, until it lost that title recently to Avatar, another Disney owned film that is available on the service.
This highlight reel of box office champions should be enough to explain Disney+’s dominance, right? Not so fast. Other streaming services host some of the biggest franchises and they are not considered top tier. Lord of the Rings can be found on HBO Max, along with the entire DC comic collection, which includes the highly successful Batman films. You can also stream a number of the films from the huge Fast and the Furious franchise. They also paid a lot of money for the rights to stream Friends and South Park, two of the most successful television series of the past three decades. The failing Peacock is home to the wildly successful Harry Potter franchise, along with the most streamed television series year after year, The Office. But, these services are still deemed to be third tier streamers.
It is clear that simply owning the rights to stream highly successful franchises is not enough, nor is paying hundreds of millions to secure the rights to binge-worthy television programs. While these two things help, they are not sufficient.
Disney+ has the strongest libraries of any streaming service, no one could argue that. This helped the streaming service have a highly successful launch right out of the gate. This was followed quickly by the pop culture juggernaut that was The Mandalorian, a critical darling that audiences loved.
After the initial buzz regarding the massive library and the smashing success of The Mandalorian the service was put into a tough spot as covid-19 hit and productions all over the world came to a halt and the pipeline of new content dried up quickly. The pandemic forced hundreds of millions in front of their televisions and computers for days that turned into weeks that turned into months. While Peacock and HBO Max were tripping over themselves to see who could screw up their launch the worst, Disney knew it had to make some big moves to capitalize on the terrible situation.
First, Disney moved their Pixar film Onward to Disney+ after a brief theatrical run that was shortened due to covid-19. They followed this by moving up the streaming release for Frozen 2 along with Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. Both films were released theatrically during the previous holiday season and were expected to be released later in spring. Disney moved their releases up in a move that felt more like a gift to a covid-wary audience, rather than what it truly was: a brilliant business decision to boost new Disney+ subscribers and retain those already signed up.
As the fallout from covid-19 continued to grow, Disney made a big decision for the upcoming summer. They moved the release of the filmed stage version of Hamilton from fall of 2021 to July 3rd, 2020. Not only moving the date, but also taking the film from a theatrical release to Disney+.
This move put tremendous space between Disney+ and the rest of the pack and catapulted it into the top tier with Netflix. Disney+ had already pulled in Star Wars and Marvel fans, they had already found themselves in the homes of millions of children and secured that spot for the years to come. But Disney needed a moment to reach outside of these groups and assert themselves as a major player.
The decision to release Hamilton, one of the most successful and awarded Broadway musicals of all time, was announced in early May 2020. Later that month the world watched in horror as George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. The video of the incident spread like wildfire and Black Lives Matter protests popped up all over the country. The issue of police brutality against Black persons was thrust into the spotlight as huge demonstrations erupted over the following weeks. America was forced to have a difficult discussion it had avoided for decades.
The country was reeling from this tragedy and the uncomfortable truths it brought to light, the world was reeling from hundreds of millions dead from a raging pandemic. People were seeking escapism but there was a sense of unease and guilt felt throughout the country from the month long reckoning with race.
As our country’s independence day came into focus, there were thousands of events canceled due to the pandemic. Aside from the public health concerns, many Americans did not feel very celebratory after such a tumultuous month. As we do so often in times of unease, we turned to our televisions and our computers.
There was no way Disney could have known what the country would be dealing with at the time they announced Hamilton’s release date of July 3rd in early May. But the events that transpired created a hunger from the country for something that provided hope about the country. Not only did Hamilton provide that by reminding us the true ideals that our country was founded on, but it was also noteworthy because of the diversity of the cast. This was a musical about the founding fathers that was written by Lin Manual Miranda, a man of Puerto Rican descent, who also stars in the titular role. The majority of the principal cast consists of persons of color portraying characters that were all white. This was always an important aspect of the show and it helped to make the film’s release feel even more important.
The show provided an escapism that people stuck at home due to covid-19 needed, all while providing a hopeful view of our country, created and performed by a racially diverse cast. It was the perfect film at the perfect moment and Disney+ soared because of it.
According to statistics reported by Variety, downloads of Disney+ increased by 74% when Hamilton was released. Seeing the moment materializing in front of them, Disney stopped offering their 7-day free trial in mid June, ensuring that those who signed up to see Hamilton were going to be signing up with a credit card.
The only ones who know the exact number of new subscribers that signed up the weekend Hamilton was released is Disney and they aren’t talking. But, according to every third-party tracking service, the release of Hamilton created a flood of new subscribers. The film was a trending topic on Twitter over the Fourth of July weekend and sales of the soundtrack spiked. Watch parties popped up on social media, with the cast hosting a party on Twitter the weekend of the release. The reviews were phenomenal, the response from diehard fans of the Broadway show was overwhelmingly positive, and the millions of new fans were created as the uninitiated checked out what all the fuss was about.
The release of Hamilton was a moment for the entire country and it was the pinnacle of Disney+’s first year.
In November of 2019 Disney+ launched and investors and audiences were excited for its huge catalogue of classics, its massive box office hits like Avengers and Star Wars, and the laundry list of original series that were slated to be released. All of these things were impressive, but all of these were known and expected. It was announced a few months after Disney+ had launched that Disney had purchased the rights to the filmed version of Hamilton for $75 million. Meaning, the release of Hamilton was also planned and expected, albeit, about 16 months earlier than planned.
So what makes the July 3rd, 2020 release of Hamilton such a defining moment for the success of Disney+? It was everything that could not have been planned and expected. The scale and scope of the covid-19 pandemic, leaving people stranded at home and feeling lost and hopeless. The country ripping apart at the seams from a long-overdue uprising about race and police violence. These were two of the worst moments in modern American history, a deadly pandemic and a deadly racial reckoning. The country needed something to feel good about without feeling guilty for feeling good. The answer came in the form of one of the greatest musicals ever written and performed by Broadway’s most talented actors who happen to be racially diverse. Through song, dance, and storytelling, it told a hopeful story about America. A moment where entertainment provided temporary relief from illness, both physical and social.
Occasionally art meets a moment and something is created, something that cannot be replicated. Moments like Whitney Houston’s Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, or Jimmy Hendrix National Anthem at Woodstock, or David Letterman’s first show on air after 9/11/2001. The release of Hamilton in our time of need ranks with these classic events.
While we cannot calculate the full extent that Hamilton benefitted Disney+ in terms of subscribers or revenue, none of that is necessary to determine that the July 3rd, 2020 release of the movie was the single most important release for Disney+ in their first year.
It secured a large number of new subscribers, but it also met the moment on a scale that no one could have predicted. Due to the strength of Disney+’s catalogue, the streamer would have likely crawled its way into the top tier by now, 19 months after launching, but it didn’t need to crawl, because Hamilton catapulted it there nearly one year ago.
Disney can always green light another Star Wars project or another Marvel series, but the one thing they cannot order is the magic that happened last summer with Hamilton. These moments are rare, but they can change the world when they happen.
While the world may not have been changed forever, Disney+ and The Walt Disney Company will forever be changed because of Lin Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece Hamilton and how it pulled the country out of the dark deep pit of a public health pandemic and long term systemic racism.
I’ve fought hard to not use quotes from the show throughout this piece, but I can’t help it for the conclusion: Disney should be very proud that they did not throw away their shot to boost their subscription service and make a social statement in favor of diversity and equality.
Famously it is said that Disney was all started by a mouse, a reference to Mickey Mouse. Since then, the Mouse has been bolstered by the worlds of Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, and the heart wrenching films of Pixar. This powerhouse added even more new projects that brought us Baby Yoda (“Grogu”). But, it wasn’t until a musical written about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, that the streaming service had what it needed to leave the rest of the streaming world behind and truly battle for the top spot.
It has been a wild ride, I wonder what the next moment will be and where will it come from. But, that is pointless, because if I can predict the moment, then it is not the moment.