Why Disney+ Will Be Tough to Beat

Though it’s entering a crowded field, the new streaming service will be cheaper than Netflix and have an incomparable library of original film and TV.

Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida
John Raoux / AP

As giant companies such as Apple and Disney continue to dramatically announce the details of their new streaming services, only two pressing questions really matter: What exactly is the product, and how much does it cost? The March keynote for Apple TV+ barely answered the first query and ignored the second, broadly promising big-ticket TV with major stars. Intentionally or not, Disney’s recent demonstration of its forthcoming online powerhouse, the similarly titled Disney+, felt pointed in its attention to detail: Chairman Bob Iger is promising a database of hundreds of hours of TV and movies, old and new, for $6.99 a month.

Had Iger gone out onstage last week and announced just the monthly subscription cost (an annual fee will be $69.99, working out to $5.83 a month), the presentation still would’ve probably counted as a success. Netflix’s and Amazon’s status at the top of the streaming heap isn’t going to change anytime soon—Netflix boasts 139 million subscribers worldwide and Amazon has more than 100 million, with their closest competitor, Hulu, quite far behind at 25 million. Disney is a late entrant to the world of online-only media, and so, like Apple, it’s making an argument rooted in prestige, announcing new shows and films that are part of big brands such as Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar. But unlike Apple, Disney also has a massive archive to roll out alongside that new material, which will guarantee a wider audience base.

Among the projects in the works for the November launch of Disney+ are a show called The Mandalorian, a sci-fi Western of sorts set in the Star Wars universe; a laboriously titled mockumentary series called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series; and a docuseries hosted by Jeff Goldblum. Original movies will include a live-action, CGI-heavy remake of Lady and the Tramp and a Christmas-themed comedy starring Anna Kendrick called Noelle. But there’s far more to Disney’s plans for its big media properties. More Star Wars shows are in the pipeline (including one centered on Diego Luna’s character, Cassian Andor, from Rogue One), while Marvel heroes including Loki, Scarlet Witch, Vision, the Falcon, and the Winter Soldier will get various spin-off programs.

For superfans of those titles, the prospect of dedicated shows will probably be enough to justify a $7 monthly charge. Another fledgling streaming service, CBS All Access, has attracted subscribers by focusing on being the exclusive purveyor of new Star Trek shows. The success of the company’s launch program, Star Trek: Discovery, helped CBS reach its goal of 8 million users two years early (and now more Star Trek shows are on the way). Fortunately for Disney, Marvel and Star Wars have similarly devoted fan bases. It also appears that Disney+ will be a home for films that, in years past, would’ve been solid, mid-budget family offerings at the cinema, including Julia Hart’s adaptation of the novel Stargirl, a family comedy called Magic Camp, and planned remakes of Peter Pan and The Sword in the Stone. Now that Disney’s theatrical strategy is focused entirely on giant blockbusters, Disney+ will exist for projects less guaranteed to post an impressive opening weekend.

The biggest advantage Disney+ has over its emerging rivals, however, is the archives. The company will be ending its fabled “Disney vault” approach to its animated library—a strategy by which the studio allowed only a rotating group of titles to be available for purchase at any one time. Disney+ will now serve as the home for all the studio’s films (about 500 titles), and its catalog will only grow as individual deals with streaming companies such as Netflix expire. For families with younger children, that trove of animated entertainment (combined with about 7,500 episodes of Disney TV shows) could easily be worth the monthly cost. That’s all before you even consider Disney’s newest acquisition, 20th Century Fox, which has its own vast cinematic library and major properties such as Avatar and The Simpsons (the latter’s entire episode archive will be available on Disney+).

For Disney, the appeal of this new venture is twofold. A streaming service has come to be an essential part of any big media company’s offerings (WarnerMedia is working on a similar bundled product of its own). But companies such as Netflix have also benefited from licensing Disney titles for their own streaming libraries; as those rights lapse, those movies will vanish, and Netflix will be forced to rely more heavily on its own original content. It’s exactly why every major tech company has been pouring money into original television and film: to prepare for the approaching landscape of à la carte online viewing. Consumers will have to pick which services seem most worth the monthly price to them, and the better the archive, the more valuable the commitment.