Why Disney Decided to Turn a Series Into a Theatrical Movie

In 2020, at the height of the entertainment industry's love affair with streaming, a sequel to Disney's animated hit “Moana” was intended to become a television series for Disney+.

But like the film's shapeshifting demigod Maui, who crosses the seven seas with the eponymous Polynesian warrior, the project morphed into something entirely new. In a surprise move, the “Moana” sequel has been retooled into a feature film, scheduled for theatrical release on November 27.

It's a boon for movie theaters after last summer's strikes forced studios to postpone many blockbusters to 2025 and beyond. It also speaks to Disney's renewed enthusiasm for the big screen at a time when Hollywood has begun to prefer the economics of selling movie tickets to a business model of solely trying to steal the spotlight from Netflix. “Moana 2” joins the studio's upcoming “Alien” spinoff “Romulus” and the 2022 horror film “Barbarian,” as well as the musical-psychological thriller “Smile” from Paramount's “Mean Girls,” in as projects commissioned for streaming but ultimately scored. exclusive theatrical releases.

“Disney's strategy is no longer to spend a lot of money on streaming in the hope of attracting [Disney+] subscribers,” says Eric Handler, senior research analyst at Roth MKM. “They're asking, 'How can we maximize revenue and profitability?' » »

After much trial and error (and plenty of time to experiment during the pandemic), traditional studios – and some streamers – have primarily deduced that the best financial value lies in releasing films exclusively in theaters. A theatrical premiere is seen as generating awareness and buzz to fuel revenue from secondary windows, such as home entertainment, DVD sales and the eventual debut of Disney+. Not to mention all the ancillary gifts – every possible consumer product from dolls to nightgowns to water bottles to slippers has Moana's face on them – that come with making a kid-friendly movie .

Beyond the extra currency, it is hoped that theatrical releases will have a more lasting cultural impact. There's an argument that straight-to-streaming movies tend to disappear from the conversation quickly. 'Moana' Offers Best Example of Sustainable Demand Over Eight Years. The 2016 film became a hit for Disney, grossing over $680 million at the worldwide box office. It is now resonating with new generations after exploding in popularity last year on Disney+. The musical parable was the most watched film of 2023 in the United States with 11.6 billion minutes watched, according to Nielson.

“Movie theaters have a proven track record when it comes to awareness and money,” Chris Randleman, chief revenue officer of the Texas-based Flix Brewhouse chain. “It’s great to see studios returning to the traditional model, which has always worked.”

Disney regularly releases an animated film around Thanksgiving, but it no longer has a flawless track record for Turkey Day. Recent holiday releases, such as 2023's “Wish” and 2022's “Strange World,” have been huge disappointments. Meanwhile, 2021's “Encanto” only became a viral sensation on TikTok when the musical fable landed on Disney+ more than a month later. These hiccups were contrary to pre-pandemic hits like 2013's “Frozen” and its 2019 sequel, as well as 2018's “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and 2017's “Coco.” Analysts believe part of the problem lies in caused several COVID-era Pixar films to leave theaters in support of Disney's new streaming service and inadvertently trained audiences to watch family films at home.

“They can’t breathe,” Handler says. “A beloved franchise is an optimal Thanksgiving release.”

“Moana 2” will arrive in theaters the same day as Universal’s “Wicked,” the first of two big-budget adaptations of the long-running Broadway musical. It's still possible that one or the other will slightly change its release date to November. But theater owners don't seem to worry about the threat of cannibalization between two musical films that also attract female audiences. “Barbenheimer,” the nickname given to last summer's highly memorable viewings of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” proved the power of counterprogramming — as long as the films have the quality to live up to the hype.

“This is a huge win for movie theaters,” says Randleman. “'Moana 2' and 'Wicked' are different enough that the two can co-exist.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger said during the company's latest earnings conference call that “Moana 2” was made into a movie after executives were wowed by early footage. “We were impressed with what we saw and knew it deserved a theatrical release,” he said.

But Disney has learned the hard way that familiarity with the brand is no longer enough to convince audiences to visit the nearest multiplex. In 2023, “The Marvels,” “Haunted Mansion” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” were among the studio's sequels and remakes that failed to meet box office expectations. “The Little Mermaid” struggled to get off the ground but eventually rebounded with $569 million worldwide.

“The movie still has to be good,” Handler says. “A lot of sequels have failed because the quality is bad.”

Cinemas also risk oversaturation of “Moana” in particular. The studio is developing a separate live-action version with Dwayne Johnson returning as the tattooed deity Maui. Even if its release is scheduled for June 27, 2025, it will probably be delayed to put a little distance between the Polynesian adventures.

Although Auli'i Cravalho will not return for the remake, she and Johnson reprise their voice roles in the “Moana 2” cartoon. Not all original talent revisits Motunui Island. Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements (of “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules”) have handed directing duties to first-time director Dave Derrick Jr., whose animation credits include “Raya and the last dragon” and “Encanto”. .”

Notably, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote “How Far I'll Go,” “You're Welcome” and other “Moana” earworms, won't be back either. Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the duo behind “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” are writing new songs with Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina, who worked on the first film.

The sequel reportedly began as Moana receives an “unexpected call from her orienteering ancestors” and must “travel to the distant seas of Oceania and into dangerous, long-lost waters on an adventure unlike anything ever seen before.” she never faced.” At the box office, Moana faces an equally unpredictable and often perilous environment.

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