Disney+ Boss Ricky Strauss on Streamer's Nonfiction Content, Opting Out of Binge Model

At a Disney+ showcase event Friday for its upcoming unscripted projects, the streamer's execs spoke about their content and strategy ahead of the Nov. 12 launch.
Matt Winkelmeyer
Ricky Strauss

With less than a month until Disney+ makes its eagerly anticipated debut, those behind the streaming service are raising the curtain on what to expect — at least on the nonfiction side.

After announcing six new nonfiction projects ⁠— including a Mikey Mouse documentary that is a "passion project" for Disney CEO Bob Iger ⁠— Disney+ president of content and marketing Ricky Strauss told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday that in addition to a platform that includes the full Disney library, The Simpsons, Fox classic films and originals from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Lucasfilm, nonfiction content will be "a significant focus." 

"We've not really had an opportunity at the company to have a platform where all of these stories could be told in a format agnostic way," Strauss said ahead Disney+'s Friday night nonfiction showcase. "We had the network before and we've had opportunities online of course, but with the streaming service we now have an opportunity to serve fans and consumers who love the kind of stories coming out of Disney and then new intellectual property and new stories that are relevant to the mission, vision and values of the Walt Disney company." 

At launch, those stories will include The World According to Jeff Goldblum, Marvel's Hero Project, unscripted series Encore and documentary series The Imagineering Story, with others coming down the pipeline and "thousands of hours" of National Geographic content. Encore, hosted by Kristen Bell, reunites real-life castmembers of high school musicals, and was originally developed as a special for ABC before making the move to Disney+. 

"That's a great example of IP that wasn't necessarily Disney branded but really shares a lot of our company legacy, especially around music and the art of the musical," Strauss said. With Disney managing content for its networks, theatrical releases, Hulu and now its own platform, he says there are frequent discussions across the company on where each piece of content fits best: "Sometimes it really does make sense that it's broadcast and sometimes it makes a lot more sense that it's on a linear channel and in the case of the platform, sometimes it really makes sense for Disney+." 

With such a broad platform that is producing movies and big-budget series like The Mandalorian, the streamer will also be home to shortform content, largely with animated shorts from Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. 

"It takes so long to make an animated feature that to be able to showcase some of the talent at the Walt Disney Co. in a shortform context is really exciting," Strauss said. "There's a lot of great stories that could become longform opportunities that are being incubated in a shortform category."

Unlike biggest competitor Netflix, Disney+ will release new episodes of its content on a weekly basis, but Strauss says they are open to pivoting to a binge model down the line. "We're just getting started so it made sense to build our fan base with episodic content coming out once a week in a more tradition model, because we felt that if we put everything out at once it would be harder for us to build the audience, rather than having people tuning in," he said. "To be honest, also some stuff won't be ready to binge, it's coming in as the months go by." 

With Disney+ launching less than two weeks after Apple TV+'s debut, and other services coming in the near future, the streaming wars will soon be in full swing, though Strauss is counting on the strength of Disney's brands, like Marvel and Star Wars, to separate them from the competition. He also points out the marketing support of Disneyland parks, Disney's broadcast and digital networks and its consumer products ⁠— "everyone's pulling out the stops. We're all in this together, as they say in High School Musical," he says, referencing another source of IP that will be revived on the service. 

Also during the nonfiction showcase, senior vp content Agnes Chu said that in looking for content specifically for Disney+, they are seeking "stories that showcase ingenuity, showcasing what brings people together ⁠— it's optimism, it's community, it's families, showcasing the wonder and decency of what it is to be a human in this world. When I say these things, they sound a little like rainbows and unicorns ⁠— of course we're about the journey there...and not shying away from showcasing the warts of things, but overall the qualities we're looking for are ones that are hopeful, optimistic storytelling." 

In highlighting documentary anthology series Marvel 616, and an episode that Community star Gillian Jacobs will direct on the trailblazing women of Marvel Comics, Disney also offered a glimpse behind the scenes at the making of Marvel comic Ms. Marvel, which will soon become a live-action series for Disney+. 

In the clip, Sana Amanat, who co-created Marvel's first Muslim character in Ms. Marvel's Kamala Khan, said, "We saw this really great spike and excitement and love and passion with Captain Marvel, and it really inspired us to do more because we knew there was a fan community out there that is activated. Captain Marvel was that signpost of change.

G. Willow Wilson, the other co-creator, said that when she heard from Marvel asking her to develop the comic book character she thought it was a joke and didn't say yes right away.   

"To be told, 'Yes, we want to put a Muslim writer and Muslim editor on a book about a Muslim character,' I was like, 'You're going to have to hire an intern just to open all of this hate mail,'" she said. "It just seemed like waving a red flag in front of all of the people who think that people like me and Sana should not be in comics at all," before eventually signing on and five years later, seeing it in development for the small screen.