‘Hamilton’ Moves to Disney Plus, Leaving Movie Theaters in the Lurch

Rebecca Rubin

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The early arrival of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus was welcome news to audiences, who will now get the chance to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical about the ten-dollar founding father while pent up at home. Movie theater owners, whose businesses have been almost entirely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, might be decidedly less enthused.

“Hamilton” will debut on the studio’s streaming service on July 3, roughly a year before it was scheduled to play in cinemas.

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Disney is holding most major movies — like its superhero spectacle “Black Widow” from Marvel and a remake of “Mulan” — to release on the big screen when multiplexes are able to reopen. But moving “Hamilton” to streaming signals that Disney is more willing to experiment with top-shelf productions, particularly if most movie theaters remain closed for a while.

The shift in release plans also underscores the studio’s increased reliance on Disney Plus at a time when much of the their business has been crippled by the pandemic. Theme parks are shuttered, its cruise line ceased operation, retail stores have closed and film and TV productions have been postponed, leaving the streaming service as one of the lone bright spots.

The company reported last week that Disney Plus has attracted more than 54 million subscribers worldwide. It’s critical that the company not only retain those subscribers, but build that base as stay-at-home measures stretch on. Premiering a zeitgeist-defining show like “Hamilton” goes a long way toward filling the void until the next season of “The Mandalorian” drops.

However, the notion that Disney is softening its stance about theatrical releases should be worrisome to exhibitors. With revenues from movie theaters cut off, it’s in the best interest of companies to bulk up their streaming services with premium content. That could lead to more buzzy titles gracing Disney Plus before they are able to hit theaters.

Some downplay the importance of “Hamilton’s” shift, since it’s not a traditional feature film like movie adaptations of “Les Miserables” and “Mamma Mia” or the upcoming “In the Heights” and “West Side Story.” Instead, the “Hamilton” movie was recorded during a staged performance of the show, filmed at the Richard Rogers Theatre with the original Broadway cast.

Even so, Disney clearly had high hopes for its theatrical prospects. The studio shelled out an eye-popping $75 million to secure worldwide rights to “Hamilton,” which was shopped around town to multiple studios before Disney won out. It was sold to Disney with the understanding that it would run in theaters.

Fallout relating to the coronavirus pandemic may signal a larger, more troubling shift in the way Disney views theaters. Its new CEO Bob Chapek, on a recent earnings call, referred to Disney Plus and the growth of its direct-to-consumer business as a “top priority.” He also said Disney “may have to make some changes to that overall strategy,” referring to theatrical releases, “because theaters aren’t open or aren’t open to the extent that anyone needs to be financially viable.”

Other media chiefs have indicated a similar eagerness to revisit traditional ways of doing business.

John Stankey, the newly minted chief operating officer of AT&T, the parent company of Warner Bros., recently said they would be “rethinking our theatrical model” when the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Universal’s CEO Jeff Shell took it a step further, saying “as soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats,” alluding to simultaneous releases in theaters and on-demand.

Those comments angered theater owners. In response to Shell’s remarks in particular, AMC Theatres, the nation’s largest circuit, said it will no longer play Universal movies.

“Hamilton” isn’t the only new title that’s intended to bolster Disney Plus’s lineup. “Artemis Fowl,” which was also supposed to debut in theaters, will now premiere on the streaming service in June. Nobody cried foul over that film, which some suggest is due to the fact that it had been oft delayed and looked like a bomb in the making.

Future Disney offerings, such as “The Eternals,” “Indiana Jones 5” and other movies with the potential to earn upwards of $1 billion in ticket sales, will likely open initially in theaters. They carry outsized budgets that still require traditional theatrical releases to turn a profit. But that commitment could become harder if cinemas don’t reopen any time soon, particularly in metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. The longer multiplexes remain dark, the more tempted studios will be to launch product that’s ready to go.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners, the trade organization representing movie theaters, had no comment about Disney’s decision to send “Hamilton” to streaming. AMC Theatres didn’t respond to Variety’s request for comment.

Industry insiders propose that the exhibition community has been silent because it would prefer not to poke the beast that regularly produces the highest-grossing movies of the year, especially if it’s not a Marvel or Pixar movie at stake. Disney has flexed its muscles with theater owners before, demanding and receiving more generous revenue splits than other studios and insisting on better screen placement for its films.

Watching “Hamilton” on Disney Plus offers viewers rare bragging rights to see the smash musical with its founding cast members, such as Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs. People regularly pay hundreds for tickets to Broadway or touring productions — and that’s if you can get your hands on one.

Disney Plus costs $6.99 per month. For many viewers, that’s worth it for access to finally be in the room where it happens.

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