Disney Over the Top: Bob Iger Bets the Company (and Hollywood's Future) on Streaming
Austin Hargrave

Disney Over the Top: Bob Iger Bets the Company (and Hollywood's Future) on Streaming

Disney+ leads a wave of billion-dollar Netflix competitors that are transforming the entertainment industry and launching a new age of ambition (and anxiety) as Iger, Kevin Mayer and team explain their all-in strategy: "We're locked and loaded."

During the first weekend of October, Bob Iger took a break from his book tour and fired up an episode of a television series about two years in the making. The Mandalorian won't be released until November, but Iger had just received the finished first episode of the Jon Favreau space Western, which follows Pedro Pascal's bounty hunter on a new adventure through the Star Wars universe. No surprise, he loved it. "[There's] nothing like it on the air," Iger tells THR a few days later. "If you're going to do a live-action Star Wars series, this is the way to do it."

With Mandalorian, Iger is setting course for a destination even more distant than a galaxy far, far away. The series' Nov. 12 premiere marks liftoff for Disney+, his multibillion-dollar attempt to break free from the cable TV shackles that have kept his business earthbound and directly challenge streaming leader Netflix and its 152 million global subscribers.

Over the past two years, Iger has been singularly focused on reorienting The Walt Disney Company, founded in 1923 at the dawn of the motion picture industry, for its streaming future. He's invested $2.6 billion to acquire the necessary technology, shuffled his executive ranks to create a new direct-to-consumer division, forgone $150 million in annual income by ending the studio's output deal with Netflix and even spent $71.3 billion for the 21st Century Fox assets to beef up Disney's production capabilities and content library. Though it's a risky bet for a company that most recently generated $6.7 billion in quarterly revenue from its legacy television business, Iger argues that it would have been a bigger risk to sit back and do nothing as customers ditch cable for streaming options. "This is necessary," he says. "The risk would have been essentially maintaining a status quo approach to how we were managing our content."

With its plan to distribute directly to consumers, Disney is a key instigator of what has exploded into an all-out war for streaming dominance. Disney+ is one of the first in a string of new services, including Apple TV+, HBO Max (from AT&T) and Peacock (Comcast), expected to roll out over the next six months. But Disney+ will be hard to top: For $7 per month, customers will have access to nearly 500 Disney titles (from classics like Sleeping Beauty to modern hits like Moana); more than 7,500 episodes of television, including all 30 seasons of The Simpsons; a suite of such original films as a Lady and the Tramp reboot starring Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux; and new TV series like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. "Disney is betting the whole company on streaming," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. "You can feel [them putting] pedal to the metal."

Disney+ will launch as a completely realized product. The promise of 35 originals in the first year alongside a mix of kids' programming, old Star Wars films and, eventually, the full Marvel library was enough to cause lines to form inside the Anaheim Convention Center at fan event D23 in late August as people signed up for the service. (A limited 33 percent discount on a three-year subscription may have helped juice signups, too.) "The early response has been great," notes Iger. Still, despite the high volume of interest from parents whose children watch Frozen on repeat and lifelong Star Wars fans who will pay for the full Skywalker saga, there's lingering doubt about how Disney+ will entice more casual fans to sign up. Ponders Cole, "They're always going to have the kids, but can they keep the late teens and the adults?"

Disney executives are, not surprisingly, downplaying the challenges. The company is projecting between 60 million and 90 million global subscribers by 2024, more than the 28 million U.S. members that Hulu currently has and in line with the 83 million that Netflix had within five years of separating its streaming subscription service from its DVD plans. "We like the hand we have," says Kevin Mayer, who leads Disney+ as chairman of the company's direct-to-consumer and international division. "We've collected some of the most preeminent brands in the entertainment sphere and we're using them aggressively. We have the timing. We have the right price point."

Iger remembers the exact moment when he realized Disney needed to throw out the legacy media playbook and chart a streaming future. It was Aug. 4, 2015, and he was on a conference call with Disney investors during which he'd decided to speak candidly about the state of the company's pay TV business. ESPN, in particular, had been hit by the erosion of the cable bundle and had suffered a loss of 7 million subscribers in two years, though he assured stockholders that he had "enormous confidence in ESPN's future, no matter how technology disrupts the media business." The stock dropped 6 percent that evening. By the end of August, it was down 15 percent.

"That was, in effect, an alarm bell," Iger reflects. "It incentivized us to address the issue quickly and aggressively." The next summer, Disney invested $1 billion in the MLB's industry-leading BAMTech streaming technology business. (It later acquired a majority stake in the company, since renamed Disney Streaming Services, to make it the infrastructure of its D2C product.) It also continued to invest in and distribute programming to Hulu, which at the time it owned as a minority stakeholder alongside rivals NBCUniversal and 21st Century Fox.

But it would take some time before Disney was ready to go all in on its own streaming platform. For one thing, it had its relationship with the cable providers to worry about. For another, it was in the middle of a multiyear film output deal with Netflix estimated to be worth between $200 million and $300 million.

Almost exactly two years from that first revelation, Iger stunned investors with the announcement that Disney would pull its films from Netflix in preparation for the launch of two streaming services: a family-friendly option that would become Disney+ and the sports-centric ESPN+. It was a shot across the bow for Netflix, which saw its stock drop 5 percent on the news.

As Disney began to put the pieces in place for Disney+, one of the first questions concerned the content identity of the service. With the film library coming home, executives knew they'd be able to offer current releases like Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and the remake of The Lion King, but they would need to pad out the offering. "The first thing I did was make sure that the library was going to be ready for our launch," says senior vp content Agnes Chu, a longtime Disney executive who was one of the first to be pulled onto the Disney+ team. "It was everything from going into our vault and physically looking at things that had not yet been restored to [paging through] binders of pieces of paper with legal deals."

She also took meetings with the heads of Disney's divisions, sitting down with Walt Disney Studios production president Sean Bailey and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy to discuss what a Disney+ original film or Star Wars TV series could look like. Bailey soon agreed to move the Anna Kendrick holiday comedy Noelle, once earmarked for theatrical release, to the service. Chu says the conversation around which projects make sense for streaming is guided by their budgets but also focused around determining whether a project warrants a theatrical release. "There are films that work really well in theaters and require the big screen," she says. For those films that are released in theaters, Disney doesn't plan on changing any windows to bring them sooner to Disney+, which means there will be around a seven-month wait for titles like the upcoming Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to hit the service (Toy Story 4 should become available in early 2020).

One of the first TV projects Disney+ ordered was Favreau's Mandalorian, complicated not only by the fact that it is Lucasfilm's first live-action Star Wars series but also because Disney+ is essentially a brand-new network and needed to figure out its deal structure. Sources say Disney has been moving toward a model of buying out the backend for most projects, regardless of whether they air on a network or stream on Disney+, a move spurred by the popularity of the formula with streamers like Netflix. It's a decision that has irked some Hollywood creatives, though Dan Erlij, co-head of television literary at UTA, notes that the introduction of a new service like Disney+ ultimately will "make the competition for branded content — including recognizable intellectual property and brand-name showrunnners — even more heated, with talent reaping the benefits of higher pay." Chu declined to comment on specific deal terms.

Disney is sparing no expense on programming, projecting a 2020 original content budget short of $1 billion. The Mandalorian is said to cost $15 million an episode, for instance, and a source pegs Marvel entries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision and Hawkeye at as much as $25 million per episode. Rounding out the high-end projects are unscripted and shortform series like Encore with host Kristen Bell, on which adults will restage their high school musicals, and One Day at Disney, which will follow employees in various divisions at the company.

There have been a few stumbles to get to the current lineup. Two high-profile projects, Disney villains drama Book of Enchantment and comedy Muppets Live Another Day, were scrapped in the summer over creative differences with producers.

Disney's focus on buying from its in-house studios has meant that it is more selective about outside projects, though it has ordered CBS TV Studios' Gina Rodriguez-produced Diary of a Female President. "Disney was our first meeting," Rodriguez says. "We got a straight-to-series offer and we didn't keep trying to find another home for the show. Our missions just aligned so well." Ricky Strauss, who is overseeing the programming efforts as president of content and marketing, says he will look to outside studios if they are pitching projects that are "undeniably and uniquely Disney." That's made it more challenging for the creative community to work with Disney+, which, because of its focus on its core brands, isn't always the right home for, say, a raunchy comedy or gritty drama. But while Disney+ has been deemed the family-friendly component of a three-service bundle that also includes Hulu and ESPN+, Mayer dismisses the notion that it is in any way a niche play. "We are designing the product and the content within the product to appeal to a four-quadrant audience," he says. "Young, old, male, female — we have content for everyone."

Still, the Disney+ launch slate will be lighter on originals than other streaming services, which rely on specific projects to lure new subscribers and retain existing ones. Though it will offer 10 originals at launch, The Mandalorian is the only true high-budget tentpole project among the bunch. "Original, exclusive shows will matter," says Macquarie analyst Tim Nollen. "That is what has made Netflix so successful, especially in the last six years. That will be important to any of these services. Just doing reruns and old movies isn't enough."

Strauss, a former film marketer, acknowledges that Disney+ is starting small when it comes to originals and will ramp up over time. Eventually, the company expects to offer 50 originals a year between films and returning and new series. "It takes some time to get [the tentpole] shows completed," he says.

While analysts had been dragging Disney for its lack of digital strategy for years, that didn't mean that investors would be immediately on board with an investment in streaming that, by one estimate from MoffettNathanson, would mean $8.8 billion in operating losses over its first two years. So on April 11, Disney staged an elaborate presentation inside the historic Stage 2 (site of the original Mary Poppins set) on its Burbank campus. Over the course of the nearly four-hour presentation, executives unfurled their strategy for the service and revealed a gasp-inducing price of $7 per month, significantly lower than Netflix's standard $13 monthly fee and (later) bested only by Apple TV+'s $5 monthly price point.

Mayer suggests it wasn't easy to settle on that price. "We struggled with [the decision] a little bit," he says. "We wanted to find the right price that we felt reflected the quality of the service and the product itself while also maintaining something that is pretty important at Disney, democratizing the availability of the app." The final decision didn't come down to a lot of consumer research but, instead, what a small team of executives felt was right based on their subscriber goals and the larger competitive landscape.

The pricing is expected to give Disney a leg up as consumers weigh how many of the rash of new offerings they're willing to pay for. Bundling it with 1-year-old ESPN+ and Hulu (which Disney assumed operational control over in May after acquiring Fox's stake and striking a deal with NBCU) for $13 also gives it an advantage and is key to helping Disney reach a goal of as many as 160 million subscribers between all three services in the next five years. But observers expect the low rate won't last for long. "They can't survive at $6.99," says Cole, suggesting that at some point the price will go up. That may be one way that Disney expects the service to reach profitability by 2024. Despite losing out on revenue from licensing to third parties, as well as an estimated nearly $4 billion in direct-to-consumer losses in 2019 (expected to rise to almost $5 billion in 2020), that subscription price could translate into as much as $5 billion in revenue from Disney+ by 2024.

While most analysts expect that consumers will find room in their wallets for both Disney+ and Netflix, the former still poses the most significant threat to Reed Hastings and company. In a tacit acknowledgement of its war with Netflix, Disney has banned advertising from the streamer on its TV networks. "The pricing was rather aggressive but astute also, because it looks like it's a pretty good deal for consumers," says Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management. "That doesn't necessarily mean this is an easy field to enter, even for Disney."

In order to truly compete, Disney+ will need to make significant inroads internationally, where more than 91 million people currently subscribe to Netflix. Following the North American launch of Disney+, much of 2020 will be devoted to rolling the product out overseas, where over time Disney+ also expects to launch local-language programming like Netflix. However, without ESPN+ or Hulu to bundle with the offering, it may be a less attractive option for some subscribers. Taking those products international is challenged, however, by the competitive sports and television rights landscape. "I hope we can, in the not too distant future, have something to say about that with more clarity," Mayer says. China also remains an elusive market where there are some 300 million potential subscribers, per forecasts from Digital TV Research, but Mayer says there is no current plan to offer the services there.

On Sept. 12, two months before the official launch of Disney+, the service quietly went live in the Netherlands. The free pilot trial was offered as a way to work out any final kinks before it begins around the world, starting with the U.S. and Canada. Reviews quickly came in. The Verge called the product — which doesn't include access to originals like The Mandalorian — "empty but elegant" and praised the seamless user experience. A priest who vlogs under the name Father Roderick posted a video demo on YouTube (145,000 views) in which he expressed enthusiasm about the library of Disney titles available. Early testers also praised the service for offering unlimited downloads and up to four simultaneous streams. "We were thinking about the paradigm of the current viewing experience," says Disney Streaming Services president Michael Paull. "Co-viewing as a concept has changed. It's not everybody in front of one TV at the same time watching the same program. People are still there together but watching different things on different devices." A few technical glitches were noted, including the service forgetting where a person had paused their viewing, but Iger says the team "addressed them immediately" and he's "heartened" by the early response.

With the countdown on, there's not much left to do to get Disney+ ready. "We're kind of locked and loaded," Iger says, explaining that Disney will ramp up its marketing muscle. Already, emails have started to go out reminding those who signaled interest to sign up. A subscription service will require frequent marketing to both acquire new subscribers and, once it launches, keep existing ones, so the company is leveraging all its platforms, including signage at Disneyland and Disney World, Disney cruises and hotels. There also will be a Disney night on ABC's Dancing With the Stars and a Nov. 8 preview of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series that will air across ABC, Disney Channel and Freeform. "We're leveraging all of the consumer touch points," says Strauss. "It's a competitive advantage."

Not succeeding with Disney+ isn't really an option for Iger, 68, who has said he plans to step down from his post at the end of 2021. His legacy, and the future of Disney, depends on it. But as he buckles up and gets ready to blast off into an unknown world, Iger is confident he'll reach his destination. "There's only one Disney," he says. For more than a decade, he's been building up that Disney, acquiring the assets — Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic — that are now central to its streaming future. "No one can come out and have a product that's like ours, because no one's got those brands."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.