LOS ANGELES: Very little is known about Disneyflix, as some people in Hollywood are calling the Netflix-style streaming service that Disney plans to introduce late next year.
How much will subscriptions cost? Disney has given hints but no specifics. The name, roll-out strategy, precise menu of movies and television shows — all still a mystery.
But one aspect is becoming clear: The service’s initial success or failure will depend a great deal on an ascendant Disney executive named Ricky Strauss, who was recently given — to the surprise of many in Hollywood — creative oversight of the service’s programming. He has the power to “greenlight” new episodic series and movies and will develop, according to Disney, the service’s “strategic content vision.”
There’s a big, big opportunity for storytellers inside and outside of Disney to help us. I do believe that this is the future...”
- Ricky Strauss | Creative head of Disneyflix service
Strauss, 51, is a respected promoter. Over the past six years, as president of marketing for Walt Disney Studios, he helped turn movies like “Black Panther,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Inside Out” into box office behemoths. He started his career in the advertising department of TriStar Pictures in 1988, eventually becoming a senior marketer at Columbia Pictures.
But standout success on the production side of the film business has been more elusive for Strauss.
In the late 1990s, as a production executive at Columbia, he shepherded films like “Go,” a crime comedy that received strong reviews but fizzled at the box office. He had his own production company for a time in the early 2000s, delivering “The Sweetest Thing,” a moderately popular Cameron Diaz vehicle. He then became president of Participant Media, where, in collaboration with more established studios, he oversaw the production of hits like “The Help” and misses like “Fair Game.”
Disney is building the streaming service as part of a make-or-break plan to address threats to its vast television business. What matters is that Strauss has a unique mix of skills. He has content and marketing experience — along with “an astute awareness of how audiences connect with the Disney brand,” as Kevin Mayer, chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer and International, put it in a news release announcing Strauss’ promotion.
Known for his personal stylishness and diplomatic manner, Strauss also understands how to navigate Disney’s disparate kingdoms, which include Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, all of which are already making content for the service. “He is hugely supportive of storytellers,” said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. He added that Strauss had exhibited strong “creative instincts and expertise.”
number of cord cutters (adults who have cancelled satellite hookups and continue without it) forecast this year
In his new job as president of content and marketing for Disney’s streaming service, Strauss will be responsible for steering hundreds of millions of dollars in production. As he put it in a brief phone interview, “Quality is going to be critical.”
A live-action “Star Wars” series coming to the platform from Jon Favreau, the director of films like “Iron Man” and “The Jungle Book,” is expected to cost roughly $100 million for 10 episodes. “Star Wars’ is a big world, and Disney’s new streaming service affords a wonderful opportunity to tell stories that stretch out over multiple chapters,” Favreau said in an email. He added of Strauss: “Marketing is about telling a story and his background in that area allows us to collaborate and create new content.”
Original movies will include “Timmy Failure,” which has a $45 million budget and is based on the best-selling books about a comically self-confident boy detective. Tom McCarthy, the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” filmmaker, is directing the adaptation.
Strauss will need to court other top filmmakers, writers and stars to make content for the service — at a time when Apple, Amazon and Netflix are going after talent with wheelbarrows full of money.
“There’s a big, big opportunity for storytellers inside and outside of Disney to help us,” Strauss said when asked what he wanted to communicate to Hollywood’s creative community.
“I do believe that this is the future, which is one reason I wanted the job,” he added.
Now that Disney has secured approval from shareholders and the Department of Justice for its $71.3 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox assets, there is no project more important to Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, than the streaming service. Aimed at families (there will be no R-rated movies), the offering will join ESPN+, Disney’s new sports streaming app, and Hulu, which will come to Disney as part of the Fox deal and focus on older audiences.
“This as an extremely important, very, very significant strategic shift for us,” Iger said when he announced the Disney-branded streaming service last year.
The urgency has only grown.
The number of cord-cutters — adults who have cancelled cable or satellite hookups and continue without it — will hit 33 million this year, a 32.8 per cent increase from 2017, according to a new report by the research firm eMarketer. The annual increase in cord-cutters had been projected at 22 per cent. Most of those people are subscribing to streaming services instead.
To make the Disney-branded service as robust as possible, Disney will allow a lucrative licensing deal with Netflix to expire. Starting with “Captain Marvel” in March, all of the films that Walt Disney Studios releases in theatres will subsequently flow to the Disney streaming platform instead of to Netflix. (There are “no current plans” to move Marvel-themed television shows off Netflix, a Disney spokeswoman said.) Disney has also tried to buy back rights to old “Star Wars” films from Turner Broadcasting, Bloomberg reported last week.
Programming from National Geographic, which is part of the Fox acquisition, will probably be offered on the service. Disney has not decided whether family films from the Fox library (“Home Alone,” “Ice Age”) will be included. Fox’s rowdy animated shows, including “The Simpsons,” are expected to remain on Hulu.
Strauss declined to discuss original movies and series beyond the handful that have already been announced. “Right now, we’re playing with launch dates,” he said.
But two agents and two producers working with Disney, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect ties to the company, provided some details about what the company has planned.
At least nine movies are in production or advanced development, with budgets ranging from $20 million to $60 million. Disney is remaking two musicals from its animation library as live-action films: “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) and “The Sword in the Stone” (1963). Other films headed to the service include “Togo,” a period adventure about a sled dog, and “Noelle,” starring Anna Kendrick as Santa’s daughter.
Also in the mix are a remake of “Three Men and a Baby,” the 1987 comedy released by Touchstone, a defunct Disney label; “The Paper Magician,” set at a school for magic; “Stargirl,” based on the young-adult novel about a quirky teenager; and a new take on “Don Quixote” from the writer and director Billy Ray.
Most series will cost $25 million to $35 million. Already in the works are episodic spin-offs of Disney franchises like “High School Musical” and “Monsters Inc.” The Muppets will probably be getting a new series. There will be Marvel-themed shows. And Disney recently announced that a new season of the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” would head to the service.
Movies from Disney’s library and at least 5,000 episodes of old Disney-branded television shows will anchor the service, which will be overseen from a technology and customer service perspective by Michael Paull, president of Disney Streaming Services.
Strauss, who grew up in Harrison, New York, and graduated from the University of Vermont, plans to hire an array of lieutenants. Already in place when he arrived was Agnes Chu, a senior vice president who joined Disney in 2008 to manage video for ABC.com and recently served as Iger’s de facto chief of staff.
But he also defended his own content credentials.
“To be successful in making content, you need to have a marketing lens on everything you do — who are the people you are driving toward?” Strauss said. “At the same time, I love great stories. I’m very intellectually curious.”
He pointed out that, while at Participant, he had pushed forward “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a film about retirees that ended up becoming a major hit for Fox Searchlight.
“I read the script, and I thought it was fantastic, and not a lot of other people in town were interested,” he said.