Admissions and box office revenues in 2020 will be the lowest in over three decades. The pandemic forced the closure of theatres, putting pressure on cinema to a degree unlike ever before.

The reasonable success of the straight-to-TVOD releases under lockdown has some studios suggesting TVOD distribution will live alongside theatrical in the future. However, simultaneous releases are unacceptable for cinemas and TVOD’s sub-optimal financial reality means theatrical release will remain essential for most films.

TVOD distribution will temporarily play an expanded role, while SVOD will pursue its climb up the distribution chain and big studios will assert their increased power to negotiate more favourable terms with cinema owners.

Recruiting 29 million subscribers in twelve weeks, Disney+ has stormed the US market. Furthermore, the two million gain achieved after the holidays and the completion of The Mandalorian, relatively high ARPU, and rising Hulu and ESPN+ subscriptions bode well.

Conversely, booming (but expected) losses of direct-to-consumer platforms—due to increase as Disney+ launches in Europe in March—are undermining group profitability.

But, with a total of 64 million direct subscribers Disney can now claim a size and momentum that puts it in the league of the pure digital platforms—crucially backing its stock market narrative.

New SVOD entrants are prioritising reach over revenue in the US with extensive ‘free’ offers, including Apple TV+ (to hardware buyers), Disney+ (to Verizon customers), HBO Max (to HBO subscribers) and Comcast’s Peacock (to basic cable homes)

This is the latest development in an unfolding global story of partnerships, continuing on from multiple Netflix and Amazon distribution deals with platforms, bringing benefits to both parties

In Europe, Sky faces price pressure, but it has secured its HBO partnership and can now talk to Disney from a position of strength

Disney announced that it would acquire Comcast’s 33% share of Hulu in a put/call agreement that can be enacted by either party from January 2024, while taking full operational control of the vehicle immediately.

Under the agreement Disney will pay Comcast a minimum of $9 billion for its current stake, provided Comcast fulfils agreed capital calls, which going forward would be just over $500 million/year.

Disney secured the continued licensing of NBCUniversal content for Hulu, contributing about 30% of Hulu’s library, but Comcast can loosen obligations to Hulu for the launch of its own SVOD service in 2020.

Disney now controls third-party content aggregator Hulu, which has 25 million subscribers in the US. Ramped up by Fox content, Hulu’s operating losses are expected to peak in FY2019 at $1.5 billion, with profits by FY2023 or FY2024 

Serving only Disney content, Disney+ launches in the US at the low price of $6.99/month this November, and in 2020 in Europe and Asia Pacific in 2021, aiming to reach the challenging goal of 60-90 million subscribers in five years

ESPN+, Hulu, Disney+ combined could contribute 13% of Disney’s revenues by 2024, which does not intend to disturb existing channels and windows for catalogue and new content, aside from withdrawing content from Netflix

When its acquisition of 21st Century Fox closes, Disney will own 60% of Hulu. If it bought Comcast’s 30% stake (and WarnerMedia’s 10%), it could fully leverage the platform for its US direct-to-consumer strategy

Comcast’s Hulu stake has little strategic value to it. We argue it should sell to Disney in exchange for long-term supply deals for ESPN, as well as for the upcoming Disney+ and Hulu, similar to its recent pacts with Amazon Prime and Netflix

This could naturally be extended to Sky in Europe depending on whether Disney decides to launch all direct-to-consumer or sticks with pay-TV in certain markets

There is a belief in some quarters that there is space for a myriad of large SVOD services in the UK. We question whether there is room for more than the current three pacesetters; Netflix, Amazon and NOW TV

Like the UK, the US market is dominated by three services, and there is evidence of an appetite for further offerings. But the US market is conspicuously different to the UK's, with the forces behind cord-cutting in the States less apparent this side of the Atlantic

Potential domestic UK services would struggle to compete with the resources—supported by debt-funded and loss-leading models—that foreign tech giants can marshal

Disney’s potential acquisition of certain 21st Century Fox assets is assuredly a play for further scale at a time when the company’s traditional domain, the family home, is increasingly welcoming services such as Netflix.

The deal will consolidate Disney’s dominant film business. But also, the robustness of traditional television, especially 21CF’s cable interests, along with IP assets, will allow Disney to better control the inevitable viewer transition from linear to online and on-demand.

Becoming the one media company with both a strong broadcast and online offering—the control of Hulu, a new Disney streaming service, ESPN+ and other add-on services—could grant Disney the ability to navigate the storm of change and dictate its own future.