Lightyear was the first Pixar movie to land in theaters instead of going straight to Disney Plus in years.
Lightyear, the first Pixar film since the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit theaters, is finally coming to Disney Plus more than six weeks after it landed in theaters.
It was Disney’s first foray into giving Pixar an exclusive run on the big screen again, but so far, the response to Lightyear been underwhelming — enough to spur some outlets to dish out the epithet of it being a 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 Eternals, it was two. West Side Story hit Disney Plus about three months after it played exclusively in cinemas.
Lightyear will hit Disney Plus Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. PT/3:01 a.m. ET. The last time Disney moved an animated film from cinemas to streaming, it became a phenomenon: Next week will show whether Lightyear will too, or whether the launch of this Toy Story sequel should have been scrubbed.
Why did Lightyear take six weeks to stream?
Last year, ticket sales for adult-oriented movies started bouncing back starting 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.
But 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 Lightyear’s take, at least domestically, so far has only been about $117 million now. Toy Story 4, Pixar’s last release free of any pandemic disruption, had grossed more than $400 million at this point of its release cycle in theaters. (Worldwide, Lightyear has earned $219 million at the box office.)
But in the case of 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 before it became available to stream on Disney Plus, at no added cost to all subscribers, on Dec. 24. That was just one month after its theatrical release.
Its initial box office performance was mediocre. The film’s total domestic ticket grosses never crossed $100 million. Disney’s Frozen 2 soared well past that during just its first weekend pre-pandemic.
But once the film started streaming, 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.