"Disney+ Needs Product": Why 'Hamilton' Moved to Streaming So Quickly

Hamilton on Broadway - Production still 2- H 2019
Joan Marcus

Theater owners say they are not rankled by the decision to take the filmed chronicle of the Broadway musical off the theatrical calendar.

BBQ. Apple pie. Fireworks. Hamilton. Disney is hoping that Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway show about a key architect of the American Revolution will become part of the Fourth of July tradition this year for millions of Americans stuck indoors due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The company announced May 12 that it will debut a film version of the musical on streaming service Disney+ on July 3, more than a year ahead of its planned theatrical release.

Though the decision to move up Hamilton's release comes as movie theaters reel from the current global shutdown, observers say the move signals less about Disney's theatrical strategy than it does about its focus on six-month-old Disney+, which had few big titles planned for summer release even before the coronavirus hit.

"This is a commercial film but not a blockbuster film, something they had hoped for a theatrical slot and are pulling back simply because they need to put something into that Disney+ pipeline," says LightShed media analyst Rich Greenfield.

Disney+ launched like a rocket ship on Nov. 12 with a deep library of beloved films and high-profile original series The Mandalorian from director Jon Favreau. The strength of its brand helped it amass 10 million sign-ups in its first 24 hours, and over the subsequent months, as the service launched in markets around the world, it quickly passed the 50 million paid-subscriber mark.

But, notes Greenfield, "the Disney+ content engine is running very dry." Outside of marquee film titles, like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, that hit the service after they leave theaters, its had gaps between buzzy originals that are expected to grow wider as production shutdowns slow release plans. (Mandalorian is on track to return in October, but Disney executives have not commented on the status of other projects.)

"Disney+ is the future of the company," says Pivotal analyst Jeff Wlodarczak. "Right now, once you blow through their library content, unless you have kids under 10, there really is not much new or original content. So going forward, I believe you are going to see more and more exclusive original content on Disney+."

Hamilton, which Disney acquired for $75 million earlier this year, is a logical choice to help fill that gap. It's a family-friendly story with legions of existing fans — the Broadway show has been running for nearly five years and has drawn more than 2.6 million attendees, per Broadway World. But there's little risk for Disney to move the film to streaming since its unique genre — it blends three performances of the stage production featuring the original cast, including Miranda as Alexander Hamilton — makes it an unlikely blockbuster. Though it's difficult to gauge, some Hollywood insiders think it could have grossed as much as $75 million to $100 million in North America. Somewhat comparable concert pics like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never grossed $73 million domestically, and the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcasts into theaters rake in millions but are seasonal and only happen on a Saturday.

Theater owners tell The Hollywood Reporter they are not rankled by Disney's decision to take Hamilton off the theatrical calendar. "The movie is done and Disney+ needs product," says one exhibition executive. This is in stark contrast to the uproar over Universal's decision to break the theatrical window and launch Trolls World Tour on premium VOD and in any theaters that remained open in early April. Exhibitors fumed, with AMC Theatres going so far as to threaten to boycott any Universal film.

Disney seems to have gotten a pass because executives have maintained that high-profile upcoming titles, including the live-action remake of Mulan and Scarlett Johansson-starrer Black Widow, will be shown in theaters. Just one day before the Hamilton news, newly anointed Disney CEO Bob Chapek reaffirmed the company's commitment to playing its blockbusters in theaters once they open post-pandemic.

"We believe in the theatrical experience, particularly to launch big blockbuster franchise films. It fuels the entire Disney company, from consumer products to theme parks all the way to Disney+," he told CNBC's Squawk Alley during his first solo interview since succeeding Bob Iger as CEO. But he acknowledged the performance of Disney+, calling it a "viable and important" platform for distributing certain titles. "It will be on a very deliberate, film-by-film basis that we make that decision. There won't be any hard and fast rules," he explained. "If anything, the situation with COVID has taught us you have to remain flexible, you have to be nimble. But we do believe in that theatrical window."

The novel coronavirus has upended the 2020-21 calendar for Disney and every other studio. Jon M. Chu's feature film adaptation of Miranda's In the Heights, from Warner Bros., was pushed from June 2020 to June to 2021. Miranda will have less promoting to do next year now that Hamilton's release has been pushed up. The multihyphenate — whose past work with Disney includes Mary Poppins Returns and Moana — found the time during isolation to beam into a Good Morning America appearance with Iger to announce the film's new release date. Thanks to Disney+ and the work of director Thomas Kail, he explained, audiences will be able to watch Hamilton from "the best seat in the house."