Did Disney blow it and let ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ skip theaters for a streaming-only debut?

Did Disney blow it and let ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ skip theaters for a streaming-only debut?

The Sanderson sisters enchanted “Hocus Pocus” fans once again — but did Disney miss out by bypassing theaters for an initial streaming release?

The direct-to-Disney+ sequel to the 1993 film — a theatrical flop ($45 million globally on a $28 million budget) that later became a beloved cult phenomenon — debuted the weekend of Sept. 30 with a Nielsen total of 2.75 billion minutes. The film fell hard in its first full week after that opening weekend, which isn’t unexpected, but still posted an amazing 1.099 billion minutes watched from October 3-9.

“Hocus Pocus 2” was also the fourth most requested film during the month of October, behind Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick”, Sony/Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, Warner Bros./DC’s “Black Adam” — all big-screen blockbusters, according to data from Parrot Analytics. “Hocus Pocus 2” even finished ahead of Warner Bros.’ big-screen hit “The Batman” in terms of demand, which Parrot measures by taking into account consumer research, streaming, downloads and social media, among other things.

That’s a level of big-screen demand — suggesting the studio may have benefited from rethinking its streaming-only release plans.

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“While it’s clear that Disney saw the streaming-only release of ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ as a strategy to bolster the profile and popularity of Disney+,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap, “they may have come up with a theatrical strategy that could have leveraged the cache of a big screen release while reaping the benefits of the streaming option.”

A representative for Disney declined to comment for this story; a studio insider pointed to the “Hocus Pocus 2” viewership data that validated the original streaming-only release strategy.

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Nielsen initially reported that the film had amassed a greater week-long viewership (during its first Friday-to-Sunday frame) than any film in Nielsen’s (just over two years and counting) SVOD viewership measurement history. This blowout success flies in the face of conventional wisdom that theatrical (or slated for theatrical distribution) films like “The Batman,” “Sing 2” and “Turning Red” perform better on streaming, especially non-Netflix platforms, than streaming-specific originals.

Save for Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” and “Red Notice,” the other films in Nielsen’s top 10 single-week viewing milestones either played in theaters (“Wonder Woman 1984,” “Encanto,” “Frozen II” and “Onward” ” ) or should have been in theaters before switching to first releases, often due to pandemic factors (“Hamilton”, “Luca” and “Turning Red”).

Multibillion-minute streaming debuts for Disney Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and 20th Century’s “Free Guy” following their theatrical successes suggested that a strong theatrical release didn’t hurt streaming potential on Disney+. Pixar’s theatrical flop “Lightyear” debuted with 1.3 billion minutes, suggesting that its poor theatrical reception ($226 million globally) didn’t make it any less valuable in its early days as a Disney+ streaming title.

The soaring streaming debut numbers suggest that “Hocus Pocus 2” could have succeeded at the box office if it had opened in theaters, brought in a halfway decent global cume and then debuted to near-equal streaming figures. And since Disney+ already took over the production budget, a figure Disney declined to comment on, the only risk would be the cost of a theatrical marketing campaign.

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“As a goodwill generator,” Dergarabedian said, “fans would have enjoyed the opportunity to see ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ on the big screen, and theaters would have appreciated the additional content for their screens.”

That’s especially true given the relative lack of relatively big wide releases between Sony’s “Bullet Train” in early August and Universal’s “Halloween Ends” in mid-October.

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If “Hocus Pocus” had made (educated speculation) about $100 million worldwide on a $40 million marketing spend, that would be about $20 million in “found money” for a movie that was going to be made anyway.

Nevertheless, the strategy would have entailed risk. Playing on nostalgia is no guarantee of success, as proven by recent dud sequels like 2016’s “Zoolander 2” and 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.” And disappointing box office — fueled by middling reviews (“Hocus Pocus 2” earned just 64% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 51% from audiences) — may have hurt what was always meant to be a surefire streaming hit.

That may partly explain why Netflix’s “Green Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” a sequel to Rian Johnson’s $310 million-grossing breakout smash, is only getting a one-week, 600-theater run. Why risk the film being tagged as a box office bomb if it’s already sure to be a streaming hit?

Disney declined to comment, and sources reiterate that the film was always intended for streaming, and the record-breaking viewership confirms this strategy.

“Hocus Pocus 2” executive producer David Kirschner previously told TheWrap that he preferred a streaming release. “I just think (Disney) does such an amazing job that to me it doesn’t make a difference in the slightest, and my preference is this,” he said. “But I’ll leave it to others, if they want it in theaters, I guess they’ll make that argument.”

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It’s worth remembering that “Hocus Pocus” and Disney+’s upcoming Amy Adams fantasy musical “Enchanted” have value only because of their previous existence as theatrical releases. Whatever fortune and glory has been gained from the upcoming episodic TV show “Willow,” or offshoots from “Night at the Museum,” “Home Alone” and other properties that mostly began life as theatrical films and only recently came under the Disney umbrella .

Andi Ortiz contributed to this reporting.

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