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Not Just in Theaters: How the Pandemic Has Changed How We Watch Disney Films

Updated: Aug 26, 2023


This blog was partially adapted (with permission) from:

Rowe, Rebecca, and Madeleine Hunter. “Only (Adults) in Theatres: Redefining the Place of Family and Kidult Films During the Pandemic.” The British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Annual Conference. Virtual, April 2022.


 

Fig. 1: Movie posters of The Little Mermaid (2023), Elemental (2023), and Haunted Mansions (2023).


This summer, Disney has had several theatrical releases that were expected to be big box-office draws. Yet critics have noted that The Little Mermaid (2023) has not performed as well as Disney’s other live-action remakes, especially overseas, which has led to speculation that the film will not be able to break even at the box office. Likewise, Pixar’s Elemental (2023) has been called a “Box Office Debacle” (though it has proved to have better long-term sales past opening weekend). It has been reported that the Haunted Mansion (2023) was Disney’s “Lowest Box Office Opening For Theme Park Movie Since 2003's OG Haunted Mansion,” at least partially because Barbie (2023) and Oppenheimer (2023) continued to rule the theaters. All three Disney films have been called failures by some critics because their box-office sales do not live up to other Disney movies released pre-pandemic, but I argue that those evaluations are missing one very important detail: the rise of online streaming services during the pandemic.


Essentially, Hollywood’s new reliance on streaming has changed how we watch family films in particular, affecting box-office sales and thus how we should judge a film’s success, especially films released by Disney which was a leader in training viewers to watch big-budget films at home throughout the pandemic.


 

Shifting Film Audiences: From the Theater to the Home


To put this assertion in context, it helps to understand how Disney has adjusted to various changes in the way we watch films over time.


When Hollywood first began making films, audiences were undifferentiated, with adults and children experiencing various features together in theaters. During the silent film era, “even feature films with clearly adult themes had generally been accepted as suitable entertainment for children, largely because there was no dialogue through which to transmit salacious content” (Brown Hollywood 4).

A black and white image of Mickey Mouse steering a tug boat.
Fig. 2: A still from the Steamboat Willie film.

Going to see films in theaters was an event that involved several different types of entertainment and, “as Eric Smoodin suggests, Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon

shorts were likely to be paired with serious, even classic, feature films in the 1930s—treated as if they too were classics” (Clark 169).


Of course, films such as Steamboat Willie (1928) and Gang War (1928) were paired partially because the only way to watch films was in theaters, and so box-office receipts were a reliable way to measure a film’s success as they measured the only way people engaged with a film.

A small poster with a white background. Headlines of newspapers about gangsters are encapsulating an image of two characters. Giant letters in yellow stating Gang War line the bottom.
Fig. 3: A lobby card for Gang War (1928).



After World War II, Disney began focusing more on making family films rather than material intended for that initial general crowd, and this was the beginning of a separation in film audiences that would continue throughout the century.




As David Buckingham points out, Walt Disney himself “was always insistent that he was offering family entertainment,” which is different than the general entertainment provided by early Hollywood, “and was unhappy at the idea that children would be attending the films unescorted by their parents” (“Dissin’” 286, emphasis in original).


The wording here is important: the implication is still of going and viewing as a family unit elsewhere, outside the home. We can see this wording again in David Forgacs’ description of the formation of the family film: he argues that the original feature-length Disney films “were not targeted at a ‘family audience’ in the modern sense of the term—adults accompanying children as the primary spectators—but over time they helped bring such an audience into being” (266, emphasis mine). As Disney shifted towards the family unit, adults would accompany children as they go elsewhere, to the theaters where family films lived.


These films were watched solely in theaters until the rise of television. As television became a more prominent part of people’s viewing experience, Disney introduced Walt Disney’s Disneyland in 1954.This show combined information about the Park with shorts or even full Disney movies. In the original intro for Walt Disney’s Disneyland, a voiceover explains that: “Each week, as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you” (DellFan Productions). The intro then visually links different genres of film to different areas of the real Park (e.g., science fiction films are tied to Tomorrowland). Walt Disney’s Disneyland was on-and-off air for decades and eventually became The Wonderful World of Disney that so many of us grew up with. This series was Disney’s first foray into the home, a way to think about how family films can be enjoyed on television and not just in theaters, but it would not be their last by a long shot.


Fig. 4: Stills from Walt Disney's Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Disney.


The rise of televisions in most homes in the US eventually led Disney to develop two separate types of films intended for theaters or home viewing. For the theater, we begin to see kidult media. Whereas family film has “different on-screen identification figures” and “parallel plotlines” for adult and child characters, kidult films “pursue[] a less differentiated mode of audience address” that involves “visceral thrills and excitement,” along with “impressive visual spectacle” best suited for the big screen (Brown “Vaguely” 6-7). Disney’s live-action remakes often fall into this category, consolidating attention on one generation of characters (often older adults, as we see with films such as Maleficent (2014) or Cruella (2021)).


On the other hand, VHS tapes and DVDs in the 1980s and 1990s led studios such as Disney to create a new genre of children’s film, called kidvids, intended specifically for children to watch at home, often without parents. These films were a part of the larger trend of what Kristin Thompson famously calls the “electronic babysitter” (qtd. in Brown Hollywood 164)—films and television shows designed to entertain children in the home while their adults were otherwise occupied. This split was deepened by television channels and shows (such as The Disney Channel) and eventually by streaming (as seen in the split between, for example, Disney+ and Hulu in the United States).


 

Streaming through the Pandemic


Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Disney and the rest of Hollywood had to completely rethink their distribution strategies, going around the theater instead of through it. Historian William Mann argues that the 1918 pandemic directly led to the consolidation of production and distribution of the film industry and that the COVID-19 pandemic could have just as large an impact on the American media industry as media conglomerates turn towards streaming. Theaters shutting down in March 2020 did seemingly drive people in larger numbers to streaming media, changing the way Americans watch films.


However, films that were supposed to be released to theaters during COVID were not all treated the same, and the differences can be traced to the age of the primary intended audience. From when theaters first began shutting down and even as studios are resuming their normal distribution schedule (which we are really only seeing in full force for the first time this summer), family films, their creators, and their audiences have led the market in streaming.


It all began with Trolls World Tour (2020), which exasperated commentators have called the “most controversial movie of the year,” “a crucial turning point in the history of the industry,” and “the top of their list of Important Movies of 2020.” Up until that film’s release, film studios and theaters had agreements that studios would not release their biggest films for streaming or home purchase until theaters had run the film for approximately 75 to 90 days.


A poster with the main characters from the Trolls franchise gathering around a black guitar.
Fig. 5: A film poster for Trolls World Tour (2020)

However, as Joan E. Solsman notes, “with cinemas shuttered because of coronavirus, [Trolls World Tour] became a test of what’s known as a day-and-date release, when the theatrical debut and home-viewing release are the same day,” a practice “that Netflix has advocated for years, infuriating theater owners in the process” but which “no traditional studio would touch… until now.” Of course, many children’s films (such as many of Disney’s kidvids) are released directly to DVD or streaming services. However, Trolls World Tour, unlike features designed for home release, was supposed to be released in theaters. Yet, with much of the world unable to go to theaters, Universal distributed the film to whatever theaters were open and allowed viewers to buy 48-hour passes to a streaming version for $19.99. In doing so, Universal essentially sold home tickets and broke from standard industry practices.


Trolls World Tour was just the beginning. After the film’s initial release, NBCUniversal’s CEO, Jeff Shell, explained that the movie was released to streaming to help families through this difficult time. He also stated that the company would “continue to evaluate the environment as conditions evolve and will determine the best distribution strategy in each market when the current unique situation changes.” This announcement received an intense reaction from AMC theaters, one of America’s largest theater groups. AMC claimed that they thought that Trolls World Tour would be a one-time event and were so aghast that Universal now saw this as a viable option moving forward that they said that they would not air any more NBCUniversal films in their theaters. The two companies publicly reconciled weeks later with an agreement that NBCUniversal would play films in theaters for seventeen days before offering any form of streaming, down significantly from the 75- to 90-day industry standard. This agreement charted a way forward that provides some safety to theaters but also makes room for more paid-for streaming. Such agreements across the industry eventually led to Amazon Prime Video Cinema, which allows viewers to rent digital access to films still in theaters (a service that continues today).


Fig. 6: Movie posters for Mulan (2020), Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022).


Disney took up Universal’s torch and ran with it, releasing theater-level films through Disney+. For example, Disney shocked many when it finally released its much-anticipated remake of Mulan (2020) to Disney+ for an extra $30 fee on top of the monthly membership, then released their next three big Pixar films—Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022)—directly to all Disney+ customers. Disney also reorganized their entire company to emphasize their streaming services, which would now oversee all of their media output.


As theaters began to open up, a split emerged, a split that falls fairly clearly along age lines. Whereas family films like Pixar’s films were released only online or simultaneously online and in theaters, more adult-oriented films—such as the newest installments of the Marvel, James Bond, and Fast and Furious franchises—continued to be reserved for theaters.


Other commentators have mostly claimed that the difference between the films that go to streaming and those that don’t has to do with the amount of money spent making the film. For example (one among many), Adam Epstein argues that “the film industry will fracture into two distinct distribution strategies” so that “Most small- to mid-budget films with a lower theatrical revenue ceiling could skip theaters and be released straight to homes,” while “big-budget event films are still way too lucrative to do the same” and “will be the only type of movie still put into theaters.” Such arguments focus on the budget and spectacle of the film without noting who the audience is.


Fig. 7: A movie poster for Black Widow (2021).

However, I argue that what we potentially continue to see is a transformation of distribution practices that is at least influenced, if not wholly dependent, upon the perceived age-range of a film’s intended demographic. During the pandemic, as studios decided which movies to hold until theaters were more viable and which movies they released through streaming, it became clear that studios viewed family films as films that can skip theaters, no matter their budget. This thinking created a separation between family films and movies aimed more specifically at adults. After all, Disney’s Mulan was forecast to be a big-budget event, but it went online instead, whereas Marvel’s Black Widow was held until it could be released in both theaters and streaming. The former was geared more towards family while the latter skewed slightly more towards an adult audience, which may explain how they were released more than the actual budget of the films ($200 million and $150-200 million, respectively).


This trend played out on a wider scale, as can be seen by looking at all of the films released by Disney during the first two years of the pandemic. What we see, as shown in Figure 1, is really three distinct stages: 1) release things only online, 2) day-and-date release, and 3) back to relatively normal release strategies. But even within that timeline, we can see differences due to audience. For example, Turning Red was the last Disney film released within those first two years, yet it was released solely on Disney+ even when its Marvel predecessors were released only in theatres.


Fig. 8: Chart is created by Rebecca Rowe and titled "Shifting Distribution Strategies."

The point I want to make is this: Disney spent the first two years of the pandemic training people to watch family and kidult films at home online. Now, no one should be surprised that audiences learned their lesson well and are choosing to skip the box office. On a practical level, it makes sense for a family to want to see their content at home. It might be easier for adults to watch films at home where their children can play, talk, and sing along with the film rather than taking their children to the theaters where children’s behavior has to be controlled more. Plus, it is most assuredly cheaper, especially for large families, as ticket prices soar.


Just as the 1918 pandemic shifted distribution practices, and just as Disney created their own divide between adult-oriented films in theaters and kidvids released directly on VHS and DVD, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new viewing patterns. These significant changes mean that we need to develop new metrics for studying and understanding a film’s success rather than relying on box-office receipts, which do not capture the complexities of viewing patterns today. The Little Mermaid, Elemental, and Haunted Mansion may not have done as well as other pre-pandemic Disney movies, but that does not mean that they are failures or that people aren’t interested in watching them. It may just mean that audiences are waiting until these films aren’t just in theaters.


 

Dr. Rebecca Rowe is an Assistant Professor in the Literature and Languages department at Texas A&M University-Commerce where she teaches courses on children’s literature and media. Her research focuses on how adaptations, both professional and fan-made, change character identities due to cultural, media, and audience differences. She is editor of the International Journal of Disney Studies and has articles in journals such as Children’s Literature, animation, and the Journal of Popular Film and Television, along with chapters in edited collections such as Fan Phenomena: Disney and Lizzie McGuire to Andi Mack: The Disney Channel’s Tween Programming 2000–2019.


 

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References:


Andreeva, Nellie. “Historian William Mann On How The 1918 Spanish Flu Changed Hollywood Forever & How COVID-19 Might Too.” Deadline, 6 April 2020, https://deadline.com/2020/04/hollywood-coronavirus-impact-spanish-flu-history-lessons-william-mann-interview-1202899630/. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


The Associated Press. “Coronavirus Outbreak: Universal Pictures Releases Trolls World Tour Digitally, Faces Backlash from Theatre Owners.” Firstpost, 29 April 2020, https://www.firstpost.com/health/coronavirus-outbreak-universal-pictures-releases-trolls-world-tour-digitally-faces-backlash-from-theatre-owners-8311091.html. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Barsanti, Sam. “Barbie and Oppenheimer Easily Hold off Haunted Mansion at the Weekend Box Office.” AV Club, 30 July 2023, https://www.avclub.com/barbie-oppenheimer-haunted-mansion-box-office-1850690711. Accessed 31 July 2023.


Brown, Noel. The Hollywood Family Film: A History, from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter. I. B. Tauris, 2012.


---. "'Vaguely Disreputable': Ray Harryhausen and the'Kidult'Film." Messengers From the Stars: On Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2017.


Buckingham, David. “Dissin’ Disney: Critical Perspectives on Children’s Media Culture.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 19, pp. 285-293.


Clark, Beverly Lyon. Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. John Hopkins UP, 2003.


D’Alessandro, Anthony. “‘Little Mermaid’ Swimming Against Strong Tides At Overseas Box Office, Leaving Break-Even In Question.” Deadline, 31 May 2023, https://deadline.com/2023/05/little-mermaid-box-office-profit-loss-halle-bailey-1235383099/. Accessed 25 July 2023.


DellFan Productions. “The Wonderful World of Disney Intro History (1954-present).” YouTube, 4 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcUZKrMMZrY. Accessed 20 May 2020.


Epstein, Adam. “The Spat over “Trolls World Tour” Foreshadows Inevitable Shifts in Film Distribution.” Quartz, 29 April 2020, https://qz.com/1847909/universal-and-amcs-trolls-world-tour-spat-is-over-the-future-of-film/. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Forgacs, David. “Disney Animation and the Business of Childhood.” Screen, vol. 33, no.4, 1992, pp. 361-74.


Horn, John. “Is Universal Trolling Theater Owners With 'Trolls'?” LAist, 10 April 2020, https://laist.com/2020/04/10/is_universal_trolling_theater_owners_with_trolls.php. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Insights Track. “How COVID-19 Will Impact Our Entertainment Beyond Streaming.” MiQ, https://www.wearemiq.com/blog/how-covid-19-will-impact-our-entertainment-beyond-streaming/. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Johnson, Erin. “The Little Mermaid's Box Office Letdown Looks Even Worse Compared To 1 Other Disney Remake.” ScreenRant, 27 June 2023, https://screenrant.com/the-little-mermaid-box-office-lion-king-domestic-comparison/. Accessed 25 July 2023.


Klein, Brennan. “Disney Hits Lowest Box Office Opening For Theme Park Movie Since 2003's OG Haunted Mansion.” ScreenRant, 30 July 2023, https://screenrant.com/haunted-mansion-2023-box-office-opening-disney-comparison/. Accessed 31 July 2023.


Lang, Brent, Rebecca Rubin, and Matt Donnelly. “Six Movie Business Questions After Universal and AMC’s Historic Deal.” Variety, 28 July 2020, https://variety.com/2020/film/news/amc-universal-deal-entertainment-industry-future-1234718942/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.


McClintock, Pamela. “‘Elemental’ Box Office Debacle: Pixar Movie Opens to Record-Worst $29.6M.” The Hollywood Reporter, 19 June 2023, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/elemental-box-office-debacle-pixar-bombs-1235518578/. Accessed 25 July 2023.


McClintock, Pamela, and Patrick Brzeski. “Box Office: ‘The Little Mermaid’ Gets Doused in China, South Korea After Racist Backlash.” The Hollywood Reporter, 5 June 2023, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/box-office-the-little-mermaid-gets-doused-in-china-south-korea-after-racist-backlash-1235505682/. Accessed 25 July 2023.


Mr. DAPS. ““Elemental” Continues to Chug Away at the Box Office.” DapsMagic, 19 July 2023, https://dapsmagic.com/2023/07/elemental-continues-to-chug-away-at-the-box-office/. Accessed 25 July 2023.


Pallotta, Frank. “AMC Bans Universal Films from Its Theaters over 'Trolls World Tour' Spat.” CNN Business, 29 April 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/media/trolls-world-tour-universal-amc/index.html. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Rose, Steve. “Is Trolls World Tour the Most Important Film of 2020?” The Guardian, 6 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/apr/06/is-trolls-world-tour-the-most-important-film-of-2020. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


Solsman, Joan E. “Trolls World Tour Skipped Theaters but Won the Weekend's Digital Rentals.” CNet, 13 April 2020, https://www.cnet.com/news/trolls-world-tour-skipped-theaters-but-won-the-weekends-digital-rentals-coronavirus/. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.


“The Walt Disney Company Announces Strategic Reorganization Of Its Media And Entertainment Businesses.” The Walt Disney Company, 12 Oct 2020, https://thewaltdisneycompany.com/the-walt-disney-company-announces-strategic-reorganization-of-its-media-and-entertainment-businesses/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.


 

Images:


Fig. 1: Disney. "The Little Mermaid." https://movies.disney.com/the-little-mermaid-2023. Accessed on 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 1: Disney."Elemental." https://movies.disney.com/elemental. Accessed on 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 1: Disney. "Haunted Mansion." https://movies.disney.com/haunted-mansion. Accessed on 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 2: D23. "Steamboat Willie (Film)." https://d23.com/a-to-z/steamboat-willie-film/. Accessed on 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 3: A poster for Gang War (1928). https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Gang_War_lobby_card.jpg. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 4: D23. "Disneyland TV Series Debuts on ABC." https://d23.com/this-day/disneyland-tv-series-debuts-on-abc/. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 4: MeTV Staff. "'The Wonderful World of Disney' was must-see TV growing up: What were your favorite movie from Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color?" Dec. 15 2016. https://metv.com/stories/remembering-the-wonderful-world-of-disney. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 5: Trolls, DreamWorks (@Trolls). 2019. "The #TrollsWorldTour trailer drops in ONE HOUR." Twitter, Nov 14, 2019, 10:05AM. https://twitter.com/Trolls/status/1194994646419677184.


Fig. 6: Disney. "Mulan." https://movies.disney.com/mulan-2020. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 6: Disney. "Soul." https://movies.disney.com/soul. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 6: Disney. "Luca." https://movies.disney.com/luca. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 6: Disney. "Turning Red." https://movies.disney.com/turning-red. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 7: Disney. "Black Widow." https://movies.disney.com/black-widow. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Fig. 8: Chart is created by Rebecca Rowe and titled "Shifting Distribution Strategies."



 

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