A year ago, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek extolled the “artistic triumph” of Pixar’s Soul during an earnings call and said he was “absolutely thrilled” with the results of sending the film straight to Disney in the U.S. amid the pandemic. Soul’s Christmas Day debut on the service in 2020 helped lure new subscribers and prevent churn. That month alone, Disney added 8.1 million subs.
But now, with the decision to dispatch the third Pixar movie in a row, after Soul and Luca, to Disney , some are questioning whether Chapek and his team are diminishing the storied animation company. Turning Red, a coming-of-age tale directed by Domee Shi about a young Chinese Canadian girl who morphs into a red panda whenever she gets too excited or stressed, was intended for theatrical release March 11. Disney said those plans were disrupted by another surge in COVID-19 cases and the rise of the Omicron variant. (Chapek has repeatedly said that flexibility is key during these complicated times.)
Many wonder whether Pixar animators are seeing red over the Jan. 7 announcement. According to several sources with close ties to Pixar, that’s not the case. Disappointment, not outrage, is a more apt description. “Everyone is really bummed, but most of us get it. Families just aren’t going to the movies,” says one person at Pixar.
Grosses did improve somewhat for family films this past fall once kids over 5 could be vaccinated. Still, Walt Disney Animation’s Thanksgiving offering, Encanto, and Universal/Illumination’s Christmas sequel, Sing 2, did a small fraction of pre-pandemic business even though they were perceived as successes. Faced with a lackluster box office, Universal made Sing 2 available for rental on premium VOD on Jan. 7, several weeks earlier than planned.
Disney has a different version of PVOD. Films including Walt Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon launched simultaneously in March in theaters and, for a $30 fee, on Disney Premier Access. The separate release strategy for Turning Red — i.e., making it available at no extra charge, like Soul and Luca — allows Disney to capitalize on the prestigious Pixar brand in growing the service at a time when every streamer is seeing subscriber growth slow.
Luca and Soul were among the most viewed streaming movies of 2021 in the U.S., according to Nielsen, though exact numbers won’t be released until later this month. “We were told that Soul brought a ton of subscribers to Disney . Luca started off slower but essentially did the same,” the Pixar source says separately. Doing a dual release in theaters and on the service might dilute that impact, the person says. (Turning Red will play in theaters in countries where Disney isn’t available.)
The next Pixar movie after Turning Red is Lightyear, a Toy Story spinoff based on the beloved character Buzz Lightyear. Disney already has started its marketing campaign for the summer 2022 tentpole, including placing a trailer before Spider-Man: No Way Home. If the pandemic persists, the contained disappointment among Pixar staffers over Turning Red’s altered release plan will likely sour into another kind of emotion should Lightyear receive anything other than a theatrical release.
Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.