Disney, the Disney+ movies and TV show purge, and who remembers physical media?

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Disney+ is removing Disney-made productions, and there’s not even Disney physical media as any kind of back-up. A few thoughts on the state of the world.

At the end of last year, Disney launched its venture back into the world of Willow with a generally well-received TV show. The promotional campaign was expensive, there was worldwide press organised,  then the show launched on the streaming service in November, and its final episode was unleashed at the end of January 2023.


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Nothing radical there: Disney has ensured there’s a regular flow of fresh shows for its money-gobbling streaming enterprise, and Willow was the latest in a line of intellectual property it was exploring to keep Disney+ fed. So far, so as per the new normal.

But as you may have read over the last few days, the new normal has been replaced by an even newer normal: the removal of material, in order to save money.

Less than four months after Willow’s final episode release? It’s gone by the end of this month. Deleted from the Disney+ service as part of a broader cost-cutting drive at Disney, a business in a degree of flux as it continues to try and mitigate the losses from its drive towards streaming.

Furthermore, Disney made Willow purely and exclusively for Disney+. There’s no physical media release, and it’s not available on other broadcasters or platforms. It is, bluntly, unavailable everywhere.. It’s been removed. There is, at the time of this piece being written, no legal way to watch the show once the delete button is pressed at Disney+ HQ.

The backdrop to this is Disney removing dozens of shows and films from its service, so as to cut the ongoing costs associated with making them available. This includes the likes of residuals to creators, and it’s got to the point in Disney’s eyes that it’s more cost efficient to not let people watch Willow than it is to let them see it.

Warwick Davis as Willow in Disney+'s Willow series.

Willow (2022)

Disney isn’t alone. Netflix has been looking at stripping material back from its service, and Warner Bros’ newly-rebranded Max – nee HBO Max – has turned this into a finely-tuned dark art. Warner Bros hadn’t just deleted near-completed movies – Scoob! Holiday Haunt and Batgirlbut it’s also been taking films and shows off its own streaming services.

It’s a series of moves that changed the perception of streaming on two fronts. Firstly, that streaming is a business with massive pots of gold at the end of it. It certainly may be so, but the ultra-competitive landscape, as well as the market saturation of such services, has seen even gigantic firms struggling to nourish their respective platforms with the right material. Disney is billions down, Netflix is built on debt that it still has to service, nobody at the moment is getting rich quick.

For us at the end of it all, the move from the likes of Disney and Warner Bros smashes a wrecking ball through the second perception: the idea that streaming has some permanence to it. That once a film or show is on streaming, we can watch it whenever we want. That was false anyway, but it’s not an unreasonable assumption that a show made by Disney, for instance, would always be available on a Disney platform.

That has now proven to be false.

Dozens of shows and films are being stripped away from Disney+, as part of its drive to edge towards profitability. Some of those productions are available elsewhere, but worryingly, the majority are Disney originals. And given that Disney all but sacrificed its physical media operation as part of its drive towards streaming, it means there’s surprisingly high profile stuff that you can’t find anywhere. Not on streaming, not on disc.

It seems unlikely that there won’t be some future for the material somewhere, and Disney will presumably be looking to strike some of third party deal that’ll lead to it accruing mainly upsides for it. If it ends up on a video on demand service, that’s a fresh purchase price for each set of eyeballs, and the associated costs can be taken from that.

Yet it feels quite remarkable what’s happening. That we’ve been sold a service, and in many cases sold the individual shows, and thanks to a change of heart in a boardroom, they’re gone. Just like that. It’s not down to the quality of the shows, it’s not down to their importance: it’s just numbers, it’s just business. Never mind if people want these stories, they’re no longer able to watch them.

For me what’s disappointing amidst the high profile casualties was the proposed removal of a film such as Howard, a terrific documentary about Howard Ashman, who was a key part in the revival of Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a film that was never going to get a huge number of eyeballs, but that never seemed like the point. Removing a film history documentary of that ilk feels akin to the local library shutting down the history section, because more people were going to the fiction shelves instead. At the very least, on the upside, the decision to remove that particular film appears to have been reversed.

However, that’s the exception at the moment, not the norm.

Interestingly, Disney’s returning CEO Bob Iger has confessed that he believed they cannibalised their physical media business too quickly, and there are moves within the firm to get their DVD, Blu-ray and 4K disc release schedule back to a place that you wouldn’t describe as near-dormant. That kind of turnaround takes time, though, and for a show such as Willow, it’s too late. At least for now. Disney’s physical media output isn’t expected to be fleshed out again until 2024, and in the meantime, there’s just limbo for the shows involved.

Disney logo

Don’t go hoping for a swift return to Disney+ for any of them, either. The move to remove them from Disney+ comes with what’s described as a ‘content impairment charge’, and the firm has put aside – get this – $1.5bn to $1.8bn to cover this. Nearly two billion dollars to remove material. Nobody is going to pay that amount of money and then be persuaded to put it all back six months later.

It’s all quite dispiriting, and feels like the absolutely nadir of advanced capitalism meeting film and TV.

I’m not naïve: numbers have always had a large part to play in what we get to see, what gets made, and where the industry continues to place its chips. But it feels like a sinister turn this past year or two, where continued access to – and the very existence of – films and TV shows is no longer guaranteed, and there’s not even the safety net of a DVD to count on.

Call me old fashioned, but this does not feel like progress.

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