The Failure of Lightyear: Does Disney Have a Streaming Problem?

Disney+ is one of the most popular streaming services in the world, but has the company’s strategy handicapped their Pixar and Marvel movies at the box office?

Lightyear and Doctor Strange Box Office
Photo: Disney

It was a very happy Fourth of July holiday weekend for movie theater owners in the U.S. For the second week in a row, the top three highest grossing movies all crossed $20 million when the four-day window is accounted for. More impressive still, all of the weekend’s top five grossing pics are on the road to turning a hefty profit, with the second highest earner, Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick, adding an astonishing $25.8 million to its gargantuan $564.3 million domestic total despite being in its sixth weekend.

It’s giddy news for distributors and exhibitors who bet there was still life in the theatrical model two years after the pandemic, and one year after an opinion piece in The New York Times proclaimed, “Sorry We Aren’t Going Back to the Movies.”

But for all the good vibes, the one disappointing box office story continues to be Disney’s Lightyear, the spinoff to Pixar’s flagship franchise Toy Story. Despite opening only three weekends ago, the Disney tentpole underwhelmed again when it failed to crack even the top five this weekend. Instead it tumbled another 65 percent from weekend to weekend, grossing a mere $105.1 million in total at the domestic box office as of press time.

For context, its family-friendly rival, Minions: The Rise of Gru from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, grossed $107 million. In other words, it made more in four days than what Lightyear earned in 21. That is remarkable when one remembers that for most of the last decade, Disney and its many ancillary studios have been the box office leaders.

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There are various factors to consider when studying Lightyear’s box office troubles. A loud and toxic wing of social media users will insist it has something to do with the film including (in brief montage) a happy lesbian couple, as well as the faux-controversy about Tim Allen’s voice being rather inexplicably replaced by Chris Evans. However, beyond handicapping Lightyear from the rich box office shores of countries with appalling records on LGBTQ+ rights, such as China where Lightyear is expected to be banned, it is unlikely that the bare minimum of inclusivity will affect the franchise movie’s box office—at least in the U.S. After all, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker also included a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kiss between women and earned $515.2 million stateside. If there is any financial liability for not ignoring that same sex couples exist, it is marginal.

Meanwhile some might suggest that Lightyear, as a spinoff of Toy Story, is based on an aged Disney property that debuted almost 30 years ago. Conversely, Minions is a prequel to the much more recent Despicable Me franchise that launched in 2010, and is therefore more relevant to younger audiences. However, this too would appear to be misleading since the last Toy Story picture, Toy Story 4, grossed $434 million in the U.S. only three summers ago, and crossed $1 billion globally.

Ultimately, what appears to be the bigger probable issue is that Lightyear is the first Pixar movie to get a theatrical release since Onward’s truncated theatrical run in March 2020. That original Pixar IP had the unenviable position of opening one week before the world effectively stopped in the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same pandemic is also why Disney prudently elected to release no theatrical films for the rest of 2020, save for a day-and-date release of Mulan where you could watch it at home for a hefty premium at the same time it was in theaters.

But even as late as this past March with Turning Red, all of Pixar’s productions, which also include Soul and last year’s Luca, were released exclusively on Disney+ for free. Meanwhile Walt Disney Animation Studios (the legendary production house responsible for everything from Snow White to Frozen II) saw one of their films get Mulan’s premium day-and-date release strategy with Raya and the Last Dragon. Their other 2021 release, Encanto, was only exclusively in theaters for a scant 30 days. For most families, it didn’t even register as a pop culture phenomenon until their kids could sing “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” at home via the film’s Disney+ release over the Christmas holiday.

All of this of course originates from the need to release content during the pandemic. However, it also speaks to Disney’s greater recent strategy to pivot from dominating the theatrical market to funneling their audiences to Disney+. It’s the same logic that has caused Disney to demand an armada of Marvel and Star Wars streaming series from Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm, as well as part of the reason the latter has transitioned exclusively to television for the last several (and next several) years.

Disney even visibly tinkered with whether they could earn more money off a Marvel movie from a smaller audience of subscribers willing to pay a premium than they could by just releasing said movie exclusively in theaters. Hence Black Widow debuting on Disney+ (with a $30 surcharge) the same day it opened in theaters. The film subsequently sank like a stone at the box office, causing Scarlett Johansson to sue Disney. One of the company’s spokespeople then accused Johansson of having a “callous disregard” for public health. The rather disingenuous attack on Johansson, who was seeking compensation for Disney’s streaming strategy undermining her backend theatrical deal, had a chilling effect in the industry. Even frequent Marvel director Joe Russo told Den of Geek, “That was really not an appropriate way for them to handle that situation. It was disturbing to us as artists.”

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Ever since Black Widow’s theatrical underperformance, Disney has backed away from the day-and-date release strategy, but has still encouraged audiences to anticipate brief theatrical windows between a Marvel movie opening in cinemas and debuting on their popular service. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, like Shang-Chi before it, saw fans wait only 45 days before being able to watch it at home, alongside the latest episode of Ms. Marvel.

At the moment, and judging only from the outside, Disney’s top priority for content appears to be getting it as quickly to streaming as possible. And yet, in the wake of Netflix’s own infamous financial problems, it’s worth wondering if the bloom is coming off the streaming rose.

A year ago, proclamations about theatrical’s demise and the rise of streaming were omnipresent. But this past weekend, an older-skewing adult movie like Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis continued to overperform, earning more than Lightyear did during the holiday and looking poised to gross more in total domestically. Meanwhile for the first time since 2015, the biggest movie of the summer is not a Marvel Studios joint. To be sure, Doctor Strange 2 is an unqualified hit for Disney, earning $187.4 million in its opening weekend and more than doubling the box office debut of the first Doctor Strange from six years ago. It also has earned a total of $410.6 million domestically and $951.5 million globally.

That is a massive hit. But Top Gun: Maverick is bigger. Currently, the Tom Cruise-led sequel to a 36-year-old movie continues to wow audiences as indicated by a high-flying run that sees minimal box office drops week to week. To date, the movie has already outstripped Doctor Strange with $571.5 million domestically and $1.1 billion globally, and it appears on track to crack the top 10 biggest earners of all-time domestically, outpacing 23 of Marvel’s 28 released films to date. And all that comes after opening at about 30 percent less than Multiverse of Madness.

Admittedly, a large element of this could come down to quality. One can reasonably argue Top Gun: Maverick is among the finest action movies ever produced by Hollywood, a feat made somewhat demonstrable by its sterling reviews and “A+” CinemaScore. By contrast, Doctor Strange 2 received a “B+” CinemaScore from audiences, the second lowest in MCU history.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Disney/Marvel spent the 2010s dominating the multiplex, yet this summer a 60-year-old Tom Cruise is stealing their thunder at the box office. And as Cruise prepares to fight his own studio to ensure his next film, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, has around a 100-day theatrical window at the box office, Disney is conditioning fans to realize they only need to wait 45 days for the next Marvel movie to be available at home. For a family of four with children desperate to see the new MCU a second time, that sounds like a bargain.

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Whether streaming is the primary reason for Doctor Strange’s rapid fade at the domestic box office, or for Lightyear’s complete failure, is still somewhat debatable, but a lot of eyes will be on the performance of this weekend’s Thor: Love and Thunder. And, honestly, Disney’s own internal accounting may ultimately surmise diminished box office is a fair trade for a steady, and climbing, subscription base for Disney+. Does the difference between $900 million and $1 billion really matter if a happy and growing subscription pool is spending more in a month than what Doctor Strange 2 is likely to make in its entire global run?

Still, at a time of evidently high pressure and extreme upheaval among Disney’s executive class, Disney—and even Marvel—no longer looking like the king of the box office jungle gives one pause.