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Why Disney Decided to Turn a Series Into a Theatrical Movie

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In 2020, during the peak of the entertainment industry’s love affair with streaming, a follow-up to Disney‘s animated hit “Moana” was destined to become a television series for Disney+.

But like the movie’s shapeshifting demigod Maui, who traverses the seven seas with the eponymous Polynesian warrior, the project has transformed into something entirely new. In a surprise move, the follow-up to “Moana” has been retooled into a feature film, which is set to debut in theaters on Nov. 27.

It’s a boon for cinemas after last summer’s strikes forced studios to postpone plenty of blockbusters to 2025 and beyond. It also signals Disney’s renewed excitement for the big screen at a time when Hollywood has started to prefer the economics of selling movie tickets to a business model that was all about trying to steal Netflix’s thunder. “Moana 2” joins the studio’s upcoming “Alien” spinoff “Romulus” and 2022’s horror film “Barbarian,” as well as Paramount’s “Mean Girls” movie musical and psychological thriller “Smile,” as projects that were commissioned for streaming but ultimately scored exclusive theatrical releases.

“Disney’s strategy is no longer about spending a lot on streaming content in hopes of attracting [Disney+] subscribers,” says Eric Handler, a senior research analyst at Roth MKM. “They’re asking, ‘How do we maximize revenue and profitability?’”

After much trial and error (and plenty of time during the pandemic to experiment), traditional studios — and some streamers — have mainly deduced the best financial value is found in releasing movies exclusively in theaters. A theatrical-first debut is seen as generating awareness and buzz to fuel revenue from secondary windows, such as home entertainment, DVD sales and eventual Disney+ debuts. That’s not to mention all the ancillary goodies — every consumer product possible, from dolls, nightgowns, water bottles and slippers, has Moana’s face on it — that come with making a kid-friendly film.

Beyond the extra coinage, there’s hope that theatrical releases lead to a longer-lasting cultural impact. There’s an argument that straight-to-streaming movies tend to quickly vanish from the conversation. “Moana” offers the best case of enduring demand over eight years. The 2016 film became a success for Disney, grossing more than $680 million at the global box office. It’s now resonating with new generations after exploding in popularity last year on Disney+. The musical parable was the most-streamed movie of 2023 in the U.S. with 11.6 billion minutes watched, according to Nielson.

“Theaters have a proven track record of bringing awareness and money,” Chris Randleman, chief revenue officer of the Texas-based Flix Brewhouse chain. “It’s awesome to see studios switch back to the traditional model, which always worked.”

Disney routinely debuts an animated movie around Thanksgiving, but it no longer has a flawless Turkey Day track record. Recent holiday releases, such as 2023’s “Wish” and 2022’s “Strange World,” were massive disappointments. Meanwhile, 2021’s “Encanto” didn’t become a viral TikTok sensation until the musical fable landed on Disney+ more than a month later. Those misfires were contrary to pre-pandemic hits like 2013’s “Frozen” and its 2019 sequel, as well as 2018’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and 2017’s “Coco.” Analysts believe part of the problem is that several COVID-era Pixar movies skipped theaters to prop up Disney’s new streaming service and inadvertently trained audiences to watch family-friendly movies at home.

“They can’t have another whiff,” Handler says. “A beloved franchise is an optimal Thanksgiving release.”

“Moana 2” will land in theaters on the same day as Universal’s “Wicked,” the first of two big-budget adaptations of the long-running Broadway musical. There’s still a chance that either could slightly tweak its November release date. But cinema owners don’t appear to be worried about the threat of cannibalization between two musical movies that appeal to similarly female audiences. “Barbenheimer,” the nickname for last summer’s highly memed same-day viewings of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” proved the power of counterprogramming — as long as movies have the quality to match the hype.

“It’s a huge win for theaters,” says Randleman. “‘Moana 2’ and ‘Wicked’ are different enough that both can coexist.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger shared on the company’s latest earnings call that “Moana 2” was modified into a movie after executives were wowed by the early footage. “We were impressed with what we saw and knew it deserved a theatrical release,” he said.

But Disney has learned the hard way that brand familiarity is no longer enough to convince audiences to visit their closest multiplex. In 2023, “The Marvels,” “Haunted Mansion” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” were among the studio’s sequels and remakes that missed box office expectations. “The Little Mermaid” struggled to start but ultimately rebounded with $569 million globally.

“The movie still has to be good,” Handler says. “Plenty of sequels have flopped because the quality is bad.”

Movie theaters also risk oversaturation of “Moana” in particular. The studio is developing a separate, live-action version with Dwayne Johnson returning as the tattooed deity Maui. Though it’s slated to land in theaters on June 27, 2025, it’ll likely be delayed to put some distance between the Polynesian adventures.

Though Auli’i Cravalho isn’t returning for the remake, she and Johnson are reprising their voice roles in the animated “Moana 2.” Not all of the original talent is revisiting the island of Motunui. Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements (of “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules”) passed directing duties to first-time director Dave Derrick Jr., whose animation credits include “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Encanto.”

Notably, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who penned “How Far I’ll Go,” “You’re Welcome” and other earworms from “Moana,” won’t be back either. Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the duo behind “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” are writing new songs with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, who worked on the first film.

The sequel reportedly begins as Moana receives an “unexpected call from her wayfinding ancestors” and must “journey to the far seas of Oceania and into dangerous, long-lost waters for an adventure unlike anything she’s ever faced.” At the box office, Moana faces a similarly unpredictable and frequently perilous environment.

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