Details first: Disney has finally revealed that its long-discussed Netflix-rival streaming service, Disney+, will launch November 12. For a scant $6.99 a month it will provide you with almost the entire Disneyome, a corpus of hundreds of movies (all of Disney, most of Marvel with more to come, almost all of Pixar, all of Star Wars, lots of Fox—which Disney recently bought) and even more hundreds of TV shows (Disney Channel stuff, National Geographic stuff, and new originals from those subgroups I just mentioned, The Simpsons).
Candidly, if you live in a house with children, I don’t know how you avoid buying this. At my place, the kids and I will be slurping down The Mandalorian, set in the Star Wars universe and a co-joint of Iron Man and Lion King director Jon Favreau with longtime Star Wars cartoon ace Dave Filoni. We’re also going to be there for the new season of Filoni’s Clone Wars. But Disney’s corporate domination of family entertainment makes this into a black hole from which no human child can escape. (Hey, come to think of it, I didn’t see The Black Hole on the list of Disney movies from the back catalog. The Trons were there, though.) It is All the Disney Things, All of Them.
But I suspect it’s the little grace notes that will garner the most attention. As Netflix has evolved away from being the place where you could watch movies to being a place with weird, niche TV shows, part of the joy of scrolling through those feeds is finding one’s own niche. I like the science fiction, but I also like watching one or two episodes of whatever cop drama Turkey or South Korea are cooking up, just to see what’s going on in a different entertainment space. But Netflix has to have all that stuff; global audience growth is the company’s only path forward, and with no brand of its own the streamer has to rely on diversity.
Disney+ is in a different situation. It’s sowing greenfield content in a well-plowed brandscape. That said, I love that Marvel will have a What If? animated series, based on the old Marvel comic that posited alternate stories for familiar characters. In the first one, Marvel honcho Kevin Feige said in Disney’s presentation on Thursday unveiling the streaming service, they’ll ask what would have happened if Peggy Carter became a super-soldier instead of Steve Rogers, Captain America. Cool! Similarly, I don’t have enough chill to handle the idea of The World According to Jeff Goldblum, a documentary series where the famous, ah, actor delves into the, ah, connections behind things like ice cream. Well!
Whether people will redirect $7 of their monthly entertainment budget toward Disney—and from which other budgeted item—is the great unknown here. But in this, Disney has an advantage over any of the other players entering the world of streaming video, from the already extant CBS All Access (the only place to watch Star Trek: Discovery and Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone) and DC Universe (the only place to watch Young Justice) to the yet-to-come NBCUniversal one. That advantage is dominance of the battlespace and experience in the unsettling, creepy world of cross-pollinated marketing.
The wonderful world of Disney has always used itself to market itself, back to when Walt Disney used his early-days TV show to introduce people to his theme parks. Disney Channel shows have long been a kind of weird training ground for young performers.
In storytelling—especially genre storytelling—”worldbuilding” is, roughly, the construction of the scene in which the action plays out. The backdrop becomes the foredrop. It’s an understanding of how the magic works when a witch casts a spell, of the economics behind mining the fuel for that stardrive, of what the war between the elves and the dwarves (or the robots and the aliens) was about all those centuries ago. It’s the kind of thing that a Pixar movie is great at doing subtly, helping you understand why poor Wall-E is all alone, or why the Incredibles aren’t super anymore. Marvel’s great at it, interweaving asides and backstories into a decade’s worth of comic-book movies. And, whoa, Star Wars, right? You can just keep zooming along or into that fractal timeline if you want more, original trilogy to prequels to Clone Wars to, I don’t know, the Lego movies.
That’s what Disney+ could be, handled correctly: a built-out world. Imagine advance tickets going on sale for Captain Marvel 2, but a day earlier for Disney+ subscribers. The network is already going to be full of documentary series about all of the sub-studios, from Pixar to Marvel to a show set at the veterinary hospital at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. Now add on the possibility of—I’m just pitching, here—riding along with cast members to a premiere, exclusive to Disney+. Cheaper entrance to the theme parks if you’re a subscriber. Access to hidden levels or new characters in Disney games with a subscriber code. One-night-only showings of movies from the vault, or maybe even same-day releases in theaters. In this respect, Disney+ might not be a Netflix-killer but an Amazon Prime-hunter. Netflix doesn’t have a world; Disney does. And Disney+ could be the door, with a subscription getting you past the bouncer.