Even more important than what the debut does for Disney, though, is what it could do for the broader world of digital content. Since its inception, streaming has been about delivering to users serialized episodes of individualized content, a place of a thousand niches and endless binges. “Hamilfilm” offers the reverse — an attempt to bring old-school, gather-in-the-living-room entertainment values to a digital world.
“Hamilton is not a series but a major one-off,” said Dan Rayburn, a streaming consultant and expert. “And Disney Plus has never had a one-off.”
If it works, he and others say, it could change how many others approach the form.
It would be hard to imagine that any more cultural or economic meaning could be wrung out of “Hamilton.” The rap-driven Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers and Mothers that opened in 2015 swept the Tonys, sold out soundtracks and world tours, grossed more than half a billion dollars in New York alone and ignited a full-blown renaissance for Broadway musicals among teenagers.
Yet the movie’s release has upped the ante. “Hamilfilm” is being planned as a kind of national barbecue. With Americans lacking concerts and ballgames to attend, Disney hopes they will mark the holiday in a quintessentially 2020 manner: by staying home to watch a show recorded in 2016.
Comparisons are running high to other big summer entertainment events, particularly the film “Independence Day,” which on July 4 nearly a quarter-century ago brought tens of millions of people to theaters around the world to watch their city get blown up.
“I think [an at-home viewing of] ‘Hamilton’ is definitely a weird way of uniting people on a holiday,” said Josh Spiegel, a cultural critic and commentator who often focuses on Disney, “but it will be a very effective way. People won’t share the experience in theaters like they do with movies, but they’ll share it with a lot of people on social media.”
A Disney spokeswoman did not comment for this story.
Acquired for some $75 million, the “Hamilton” movie stitches together several performances of the show into a single whole, as Aaron Burr, George Washington, Angelica Schuyler, Thomas Jefferson and, of course, Alexander and Eliza Hamilton mix it up and have it out at the dawn of America. (When it comes to a proper Hollywood adaptation, fans will have to wait; Broadway phenomena become traditional movies only years or decades later, after every dollar is drained from their live stagings.)
“Hamilfilm” was originally slated for a theatrical release in October 2021. But the pandemic created an unexpected domino effect. It forced Disney executives to move a whole group of 2020 releases to next year, prompting them to find a new calendar home for the piece.
Disney executives met with Miranda, the show’s creator, as well as producer Jeffrey Seller and the show and film’s director Tommy Kail. The trio agreed a shift to the small screen and the pandemic-entertainment landscape was the best move.
“In light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story about leadership, tenacity, hope, love and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful,” Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger said in announcing the release last month. “We have the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team behind ‘Hamilton’ to thank for allowing us to do so more than a year before planned.”
Box office revenue will, of course, be lost. But the company is gambling that the chance to see an expensive Broadway show from our living rooms will blow us away, helping market Disney Plus and even attract new subscribers. (Unlike Universal’s “The King of Staten Island,” available for a $20 digital rental, this isn’t an attempt to make money off a single movie but to drive subscribers to a larger service.)
As of early May, Disney Plus had 54.5 million subscribers, with about 60 percent of those in the United States. The service is not only the future of the entertainment company — it’s one of the few pillars of the conglomerate’s business that has been taking in money during the pandemic, as many theme parks, team sports on ESPN and theaters remain out of commission until at least next month.
But Disney Plus faces its own uphill climb because of the virus. The service now won’t have new movies like “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise” — which pre-pandemic would have both been in theaters in the middle of the year and on the service by the holidays — on its platform until 2021. And it remains to be seen if the company can hold on to all its paying subscribers amid a recession.
Enter “Hamilfilm,” which Disney hopes will bring in millions of new subscribers by drawing newbies who have always wanted to see the show or hardcore fans who want to relive it.
“Hamilton is such a phenomenon that it adds a new dimension to Disney Plus,” said Jim Nail, an analyst at research company Forrester who closely follows entertainment. The show, he said, could “attract a segment of viewers that wouldn’t otherwise be interested” in the service.
If just 3 million new people sign up for an annual Disney Plus subscription as a result of “Hamilton,” it would amount to more than $200 million in revenue that goes straight to Disney’s bottom line. The company would need to gross nearly $400 million in theaters to equal that profit. (A studio only keeps about 50 to 60 percent of receipts.)
Of course, if many customers signed up for a monthly plan and quickly dropped it after the airing, that dollar total would plummet dramatically.
The importance of “Hamilfilm” to Disney Plus was evident this past weekend when the French news site Numerama reported that the seven-day trial that had been a promotional tool for Disney Plus since its inception has now vanished from the platform. Disney confirmed the move, with many believing it a tactic to prevent people from signing up for the trial just to watch “Hamilton.” As it is, they’ll have to pay the monthly fee of $6.99 and then cancel.
The unusual move of eliminating a trial is happening because such stand-alone spectacles are new to Disney Plus and the streaming world generally — part of a trend whose reasons and rules are still being worked out.
“There’s a shift where we’re seeing more big events on streaming,” said Rich Greenfield, an analyst at research firm LightShed Partners. “You’ll see it at Netflix as they emphasize movies and at other companies, too.”
If the “Hamilfilm” succeeds, he and others say, it could accelerate the trend, spurring streamers to change their long-standing strategy.
This is true in part because producing new binge-worthy shows can be expensive and a large ask for customers in a world of content overload. Also important: The payoff for the streamer comes much more slowly.
HBO Max executives recently went beyond series to sign up the “Friends” reunion special, a unique stand-alone event they hope people can’t say no to. The move sits in sharp contrast to more traditional material like an “Insecure” or a “Search Party,” which aim to build an audience slowly and then immerse it in dozens of episodes over years of viewing.
“Streaming is reinventing the wheel,” said Forrester’s Nail, borrowing “the concept of ‘tentpole’ events like the Super Bowl and awards programs,” even though it deviates from its own usual devotion to repeat engagement.
Basically, executives hope consumers take note of a service when a spectacle debuts, then come back when they remember it served them well.
But analysts wonder whether the streaming world is wide enough for the experiment. The attention, they say, may not justify the cost.
And the stand-alone nature of a show could make viewers drop the service after they watch it.
“The question I have is what long-term effect ‘Hamilton’ will have on a Disney Plus — not on whether people come but whether they stay,” said Rayburn, the streaming expert.
These events also must strike a tricky balance between the appointment-viewing qualities of traditional big-ticket television and the watch-when-you-want ethos of streaming. While Disney is promoting “Hamilton” as an Independence Day event, it will remain on the service after the holiday.
And some of these stand-alone events could end up not so much attracting a new base as reinforcing an existing one, a less valuable goal.
Some believe that’s what’s likely to happen with “Hamilton.”
“In the absence of original programming because of the production shutdown and the absence of the movie pipeline because of the theater shutdown, Disney didn’t have a lot of alternatives to keep people interested and subscribed,” Greenfield said.
He said the airing is less about a fresh recruitment approach than a need to survive in desperate times.
“This isn’t about new people. This is about feeding the beast. The beast is starving.”