For the past few years, the same small collection of streaming services has vied for the attention of UK viewers; Netflix as the default choice, Amazon Prime Video as the alternative, and a handful of other, smaller options of less notoriety. But things are set to change rapidly in the coming months, as practically every big media company will pitch their own tent in an increasingly competitive media landscape. Warner Bros. has HBO Max, Apple has Apple TV+, and NBCUniversal will have… NBC Universal. Yet it’s hard to ignore the effort most likely to take a stab at Netflix’s pole position; Disney+.
Disney has spent the last couple of decades steadily accruing a massive stake in the entertainment industry by buying up mega-companies like Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, and Disney+ looks set to be a monument to its now-unstoppable success. They’ve leveraged what seems like property of remote notoriety under their ownership for a slate of both original content that looks like it’ll dwarf any competitor. No fewer than seven Marvel TV shows are on tap; and unlike the segregated efforts of Daredevil and co over on Netflix, these will star favourites from the movies like Loki and Scarlet Witch, as well as much-loved characters from the obscurities of the comics such as She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel. The same treatment will apply for Star Wars – the first on the slate, The Mandalorian, will drop at launch and, from the looks of the trailer, has the same glitzy special effects and star-studded cast of the big-screen entries, and it was recently confirmed that Ewan McGregor will be back as Obi-Wan Kenobi for another series – and an assortment of characters from the beloved Pixar roster.
And that’s just for original content. Disney+ will also be home to practically the whole classic Disney library – and, in a move that would have seemed completely baffling before Disney snapped up 20th Century Fox, it’ll be the streaming home for every episode of The Simpsons. It’s a hugely impressive package, backed by a seemingly limitless pot of money, and available for a reasonable price of $7 a month on launch (so probably about £6 when it eventually comes down the pike for the UK). Apple TV+’s offer of a handful of untested original shows, or even the dwindling slate offered by Netflix, who will lose rights to the Friends and The Office when the new streaming services kick in, doesn’t seem all that appealing by contrast.
Unfortunately, not a lot that Disney does these days can be viewed in isolation. They’re an industry behemoth whose influence, with the Fox merger, now seems monopolistic; five of the top six highest-grossing movies this year belong to them, with new Frozen and Star Wars near-certain to join the ranks this winter. Some might argue that this isn’t anything sinister, but rather a reflection of Disney’s ability to make better and more appealing movies than its competitors, and there’s certainly some merit to that; Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 have been two of the most satisfying cinema experiences I’ve had this year. But both those properties came under Disney’s stewardship because of record-breaking acquisition deals; ones which other studios, self-evidently, simply didn’t have the resources to strike. And there’s another pair of billion-dollar successes from this year that bear further examination; the remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin. Plenty of critics and fans have decried Disney’s new strategies of taking their old animated classics and giving them a reskin in live-action form, with few (if any, in the case of The Lion King) substantive narrative changes. Disney didn’t attempt to make viewers forget the old versions in order to enjoy the new – the marketing strategy for their remakes is built upon cultivating nostalgia for those childhood classics, and then loyally reproducing them in full. It’s not as if this is a wholly creatively bankrupt exercise, because the classics are full of antiquated gender roles or racial stereotyping that a modern version can fix or even choose to scrutinise through a more modern and progressive lens. But it’s certainly the case that Disney has proven that it doesn’t need a great deal of new or original ideas to fill their coffers; the ones they’ve already come up with, or those under their ownership, are more than enough. That philosophy is just as true for the ‘original’ series set to hit Disney+ – one of which is titled, maybe ingeniously, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. It’s open to parody, but nostalgia sells like few other things.
While it’s a smaller issue, there’s also the slippery nature of streaming content itself. Millions of customers have abandoned physical media such as DVDs in favour of the multitude of more convenient options for downloading or streaming films and shows online. But as streaming has come to dwarf physical media, some genuine issues have come to light. For one, because streaming content exists in the cloud, it’s completely malleable; if a company wants to amend one of their films, or if a streaming licence has expired, it’s just one click of a button. All control is in the hands of the company rather than the consumer, and the content available is subject to change at any moment. As Disney+ is set to be Disney’s main ‘vault’ for all of its properties rather than physical media, with Disney having ended deals with Netflix and the like for their content to be available elsewhere, that means that viewers will only have access to a library which Disney has sanctioned as appropriate for 2019, as opposed to the more straightforward sense of ownership granted by physical media. This is an endemic to streaming, and most consumers have happily accepted that they don’t really own content in the same way anymore; but when Disney’s massive influence and very specific brand vision is taken into account, it’s a concerning step forwards. We’ve seen some of these concerns manifested already, with cinemas in the US reporting that Disney have elected to stop sending out prints of classic 20th Century Fox movies such as Die Hard for screenings, in order to prioritise films more readily identifiable as ‘Disney’.
There’s a lot to be excited about with regards to Disney+, in how it looks set to blur the boundaries between film and TV more than ever before, and the sheer wealth of resources dedicated to it. But it’s also a testament to Disney’s firm status as the biggest and most influential force in entertainment today, and its willingness to leverage that status to get anything it wants for its properties, and as such, should certainly be viewed with caution as it launches across the world over the next year or so.