Moana 2 Makes Way More Sense As A Box Office Bet Than A Disney+ Series

Disney delivered a bit of a shocker recently when CEO Bob Iger personally revealed during an earnings report that "Moana 2" is headed to theaters. What's more, the surprise sequel is arriving later this year and has even gotten a very brief teaser trailer. This was, to say the least, unexpected as we usually hear about these things years in advance. So, why the surprise reveal? The Mouse House decided that a planned "Moana" TV series for Disney+ would actually be better suited as a theatrically released movie. So, here we are. There is much to be said, but it's a move that ultimately makes sense (at least in the short term) and one that indirectly says much about the state of the streaming business.
"We were impressed by what we saw, and knew it deserved a theatrical release," said Iger during the company's earnings call, explaining the decision to turn the series into a movie directed by Dave Derrick Jr. The "Moana" sequel show was originally announced in December 2020. It would be one thing to turn a Disney+ series into, say, a direct-to-streaming movie, not unlike the heyday of direct-to-video sequels to animated Disney hits. But turning that series into a full-blown theatrical sequel to a beloved hit? That's another thing entirely. Ultimately, it comes down to money, as these things always do.

"Moana" was released in November of 2016 and made a tremendous $643 million worldwide. It was met with widespread acclaim and also garnered Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song ("How Far I'll Go"). That's why the studio also announced a live-action remake last year. Not surprisingly, Disney plans to release the sequel in November of this year, clearly hoping to repeat that same success.

Disney has everything to gain, (almost) nothing to lose

Part one of the two-part live-action "Wicked" adaptation is currently set to open against "Moana 2" on November 27, which could make for an unfavorable showdown. That said, one of these movies could easily move off of that date between then and now. Moreover, if "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" proved anything last year, it's that two big movies can absolutely co-exist at the same time under the right circumstances. The Thanksgiving frame can also be a lucrative one, and theaters could use more than one big movie during that stretch.
All of this to say: a sequel to a hit animated movie is a no-brainer for Disney. This is what the studio does and historically does very well. "Frozen" grossed $1.28 billion in 2013, only for "Frozen II" to pull in a record $1.45 billion in 2019. There are numerous other examples, but you get the idea. The notion of a sequel would've never raised eyebrows by itself; it's the way it happened that's gotten tongues wagging.

Without knowing the details, the presumption is that the planned "Moana" Disney+ series would have been made for a lower budget than a theatrical sequel would have. Now? That series is going to be trimmed down to a feature-length follow-up and Disney is getting the original cast members back, including Dwyane Johnson as Maui, to make it feel like the genuine article. If The Rock wasn't already under contract, he would've pretty much been able to name his price, and Disney would've no doubt paid it to make this seem legit.
That's not to say it's not legit, but we can't pretend this was the plan from the beginning. Still, this change provides Disney with a likely box office success in a year that is short on surefire hits thanks to last year's Hollywood strikes.

The state of Disney+ and streaming in a nutshell

Even if "Moana 2" isn't as big of a hit as the original movie, any money is better than the zero dollars the Disney+ series was going to make, save for the subscribers who might have signed up just to watch it. It's also worth remembering that Disney had a rough year at the box office in 2023. It could use seemingly safe bets right now. It's hard not to see the logic in it. Speaking of people wanting to stream "Moana," Iger added during the call that the movie was streamed for more than 1 billion total minutes on Disney+ in 2023. Seven years later, it remains a monster hit for the company.

With a series, Disney would have to hope it can cut through the noise and not feel like a made-for-TV successor to the movie. With a theatrical sequel, however, the studio will get the benefit of the box office, which will bring far more attention to the eventual streaming release on Disney+. That streaming release will, in turn, conceivably be able to attract new subscribers (just like the show would have). It's a win-win. Plus, it helps out theaters at a time when they could really use it, which is good for the industry as a whole.

More broadly, Disney is reckoning with having to make streaming profitable. Expensive direct-to-streaming offerings are tough to capitalize on, especially with subscriber growth slowing for almost every service on the market. Scrapping a Disney+ show and turning it into a theatrical movie says much about the mindset of the industry right now. Streaming may still be the future, but it can't be the sole future of the industry. Theatrical revenue is still important, and a theatrical hit can benefit streaming just as much as — if not more than — a flashy series could. Disney seems to be buying into that logic.

"Moana 2" hits theaters on November 27, 2024.




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