Disney has made more money in the first seven months of 2019 than any studio has ever made in a single year, earning $7.67 billion to date at the worldwide box office. It’s an understatement to call that a major accomplishment for the House of Mouse. It’s more like a testimony to how powerful Disney has become as a monolith.
But it’s an achievement that inevitably won’t roll over into 2020. 2019 is an anomaly for Disney. A big part of that impressive number comes from the record-breaking success of Avengers: Endgame, which pulled in more than $2.8 billion worldwide and usurped Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Captain Marvel was another unusually high earner, the sixth-highest-grossing Marvel movie of all time, crossing $1 billion at the box office. The company’s remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin performed well at the box office (though Dumbo was a financial disappointment), and Pixar’s Toy Story 4 brought in more than $900 million on its own. It was a major year for brand recognition and payoff.
Disney’s 2020 is far less packed with anticipated movies. There are a couple of major titles from almost every big Disney subsidiary studio, including live-action adaptations of Mulan and 101 Dalmatians, Black Widow and The Eternals from Marvel, and Onward from Pixar. None of those have the cultural weight and recognition of Endgame, The Lion King, or a Toy Story film. West Side Story, New Mutants, Bob’s Burgers, and The King’s Man, all from the recently acquired 20th Century Fox, will help round out Disney’s year, but investors are still expecting Disney’s 2020 theatrical releases to be far less of a win than 2019’s.
Usually, a big, highly visible earnings drop-off would be a bigger concern for Disney, but 2020’s theatrical releases won’t be the company’s primary focus. Disney+, the company’s streaming service, launches on November 12th. It’ll go head-to-head with other direct-to-consumer streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max in early 2020. It’s one of the biggest ventures Disney has taken on in recent years. Instead of focusing on getting people out to theaters to watch movies (which they’ll still do), it’s about getting people to spend $7 a month for yet another form of home entertainment.
Disney executives have thought about this. They’ve turned a number of theatrical titles into Disney+ exclusives (the Lady and the Tramp remake, Noelle), and pulled almost all of the company’s films and TV series from streaming competitors so they can exist on Disney+ exclusively. Disney will take a financial hit from earmarking titles like Lady and the Tramp as streaming exclusives, but the company is willing to accept that risk for a strong launch lineup.
“Shifting titles from the theater to SVOD may, at least in the near-term, cost Disney more in foregone revenue than it would collect on SVOD,” analyst Matthew Bell wrote. “But it does mean that Disney can ensure the success of its most important business unit at the flip of a switch. No other service has pocket cards that strong.”
Disney is projecting that it will have approximately 12 million subscribers in the United States by the end of 2020. That’s estimated to grow into 60 to 90 million subscribers within the next five years, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne, as reported by Variety. Those are exciting numbers, but it’ll still take until 2024 for Disney+ to turn a profit, according to executives. And in a crowded marketplace full of consumers who are tired of separate streaming services, they’ll only reach those numbers with a catalog of exclusive titles that have major ongoing appeal.
Essentially, Disney doesn’t need an Endgame or Lion King in 2020. It just needs to get those films on Disney+. As Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co., told Bloomberg in May, “This is a big empire now, so no one film affects it as much as before.”