But daunting challenges lie ahead. Building streaming services is monstrously expensive, and Disney now has four: Disney+, Hulu (39 million subscribers), ESPN+ (11.5 million) and Star+, an overseas version of Hulu that will roll out in Latin America in the coming months. Losses in Disney’s direct-to-consumer division totaled $2.8 billion in the company’s 2020 fiscal year. The company has given up billions of dollars in licensing fees as it has amassed library content on Disney+ rather than selling to outside companies like Netflix.
Disney also faces an increasingly competitive streaming environment. HBO Max, CBS All Access (soon to be renamed Paramount+), Peacock, Apple TV+ and the recently announced Discovery+ are determined to make inroads. Netflix and Amazon continue to pour billions of dollars a year into original programming.
A significant portion of the presentation was dedicated to Star, which will be stocked with programming from Disney properties like ABC, FX, Freeform, Searchlight and 20th Century Studios, which Rupert Murdoch sold to Disney last year. In Latin America, Star+ will roll out as a stand-alone service in June and also include some ESPN coverage of sporting events. In Europe, Canada, Australia and several other markets, Star+ will be integrated directly into Disney+, which will add a vast amount of more mature programming to the service (“Deadpool 2,” the “Family Guy” cartoon series), allowing Disney to potentially reach an audience far beyond families.
The addition of a Star channel inside Disney+ will also justify a price increase of roughly 28 percent, to about $11 a month.
New programming is also headed to the Disney-owned Hulu, including the series “Nine Perfect Strangers,” a mystery from David E. Kelley and starring Regina Hall, Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy — what Dana Walden, chairman of entertainment for Walt Disney Television, called “juicy, can’t-turn-it-off content.” The Disney-owned FX, which funnels its programming to multiple Disney streaming services, is working on a television spinoff of the “Alien” movie franchise and a retelling of “Shogun,” the James Clavell saga, along with a half-dozen other high-profile projects.
As part of the presentation, Disney discussed its evolving approach to movie distribution. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Disney and other studios to push back the releases of big-budget films — more than half of the cinemas in the United States are closed — and reroute others to streaming services. In September, Disney debuted “Mulan” on Disney+ as part of a “premium access” experiment, charging subscribers $30 for indefinite access. “Soul,” the latest Pixar film, will arrive on Disney+ on Christmas Day for no additional cost.