Lightyear, the first Pixar film to go into theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic began, hit Disney Plus on Wednesday, more than six weeks after it landed in cinemas.
It was Disney’s first foray into giving Pixar an exclusive run on the big screen again, but so far, the response to Lightyear has been underwhelming — enough to spur some outlets to dish out the epithet of “bomb.”
Before that, every Pixar movie since Onward in February 2020 essentially skipped theaters to stream on Disney Plus instead: Soul in December 2020, Luca in June 2021 and Turning Red in February 2022. And for Disney movies more broadly, the streaming strategy has been all over the map. Encanto spent a month in theaters before streaming. For Marvel’s, it was two. West Side Story hit Disney Plus about three months after it played exclusively in cinemas.
The last time Disney moved an animated film from cinemas to streaming, it became a phenomenon. Lightyear’s landing on Disney Plus will prove whether the movie can replicate the success of Encanto, or whether the launch of this Toy Story origin story was a misfire all around.
Failure to launch
Last year, ticket sales for adult-oriented movies started bouncing back as movie fans emerged from pandemic lockdown and cinemas started opening back up. But family films, Pixar’s specialty, struggled with theater attendance. Parents, compared with other adult filmgoers, were more sensitive to the risks of bringing their young ones into crowded cinemas while the coronavirus continued to mutate and circulate. The COVID vaccine for children wasn’t available until the day after Lightyear opened, and a kid’s coronavirus infection could mean missing weeks of school or daycare and derailing other family plans.
Putting Pixar movies directly on Disney Plus was, at its core, a strategy to both lure in more subscribers and keep the ones it has. Kareem Daniel, the Disney executive in charge of distribution calls like this, noted in the Turning Red announcement that both Soul and Luca were “enthusiastically embraced” by Disney Plus subscribers when they went straight to the service.
And by sending three Pixar films straight to Disney Plus, Disney may also have been protecting Pixar’s pristine reputation for critical and box office successes, according to some experts: If Disney doesn’t put Pixar movies in theaters, they can’t have disappointing theatrical runs.
A bust or a thrust?
In the months leading up to Lightyear’s release, moviegoers were flocking to franchise films. Spider-Man: No Way Home was the first film since the pandemic to cross $1 billion worldwide at the box office. Since then, Top Gun: Maverick has, too, and Jurassic World Dominion and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are close.
But so far, Lightyear’s box-office take has been underwhelming. Worldwide, Lightyear has grossed $222 million. Toy Story 4, Pixar’s last release free of any pandemic disruption, was inches away from $1 billion at the global box office at the same stage. And it’s not like all family-friendly movies are struggling. Minions: The Rise of Gru came out a month after Lightyear, but it has more than tripled Lightyear’s worldwide gross.
For another Disney family film — Encanto — the theatrical exclusive period actually appeared to put a damper on its popularity.
Encanto was released in theaters Nov. 24; one month later, it became available to stream on Disney Plus, at no added cost to all subscribers.
During Encanto’s theatrical exclusive, its box office performance was mediocre. The film’s total domestic ticket grosses were just $86 million in that period. Disney’s Frozen 2 soared well past that during just its first weekend pre-pandemic, and even Lightyear, at the one-month mark, had cleared $115 million.
But once Encanto started streaming, it evolved into a phenomenon. The Encanto soundtrack climbed Billboard’s music charts to hit No. 1. Videos of its musical numbers are among the most popular songs on YouTube. We Don’t Talk About Bruno, the best-known song from the movie, became a TikTok meme. But none of that happened until Encanto hit Disney Plus.
When Lightyear hits Disney Plus, it may get the rocket boost it’s needed all along.