Last Sunday at the 93rd Academy Awards, Pixar notched its 16th Oscar with Soul’s win for “Best Animated Feature”. While it’s not unusual for a Pixar film to win an Oscar, this was the first time that it had won for a film that did not play in theaters. Last year at the height of the pandemic, Disney made a bold decision to nix the planned theatrical release for Soul and instead release it on Disney+ exclusively. Disney’s logic was that the pandemic would have limited ticket sales at theatres, but by offering it as a Disney+ exclusive the studio could entice family audiences to check out their streaming service, and perhaps remain as long-term subscribers. Disney’s gamble appears to have paid off, since other films that opened in theatres last Christmas struggled at the box office, while audiences for Disney+ and other streaming services were taking off.
Among the staff at Pixar, Disney’s strategy to re-direct films to Disney+ has been met with mixed reviews. Many among Pixar’s creative staff have reported that the dazzling effects they put into their films can only be appreciated fully on the big-screen, in theatres. Disney appears to be doubling down on its streaming ambitions by opening Luca, the studio’s next major production, on Disney+ exclusively on June 18th, despite a marked improvement in the conditions for moviegoing in theatres. Some at the studio are expressing concern that streaming releases may become the standard for Pixar titles, even after the COVID crisis has faded. Exhibitors are equally concerned. Certainly, Disney’s strategists are hard at work projecting the financial impact of these decisions. If movie fans demonstrate that they are interested in returning to theatres, then studios will likely follow them there with their most appealing titles.