Why a Strong Disney+ Launch for ‘Lightyear’ Would Be Bad for Pixar

illustration of "Lightyear" inside a TV
Illustration: VIP+: "Lightyear" Courtesy of Pixar

Having failed to blast off at the box office this summer, Pixar’s “Lightyear” will get another chance to pull viewers into its orbit when the film launches on Disney+ on Wednesday.

The first Pixar film to play widely in U.S. theaters since March 2020, the “Toy Story” spinoff fell far short of box-office expectations, grossing less in its opening weekend than “Toy Story 2” did back in 1999. At $117 million domestically and $219 million worldwide, “Lightyear” currently stands as the lowest-grossing film of the franchise and Pixar’s second lowest-grossing release overall. (Not counting the films that were released straight to Disney+, only “Onward,” which had its theatrical run cut short by the pandemic, grossed less than “Lightyear.”)

It remains to be seen whether the film’s tepid performance will carry over to streaming or if viewers will be more inclined to check out Buzz Lightyear’s origin story at home. But while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually better for Pixar if “Lightyear” underperforms on Disney+ as well — provided the studio wants to see its movies play on the big screen again.

There were many theories floated for why “Lightyear” flopped in theaters, from strong competition to the middling reviews to its convoluted tie-in to the “Toy Story” franchise. Some analysts posited that families with young children were still reluctant to return to theaters amid the pandemic — a theory that was roundly squashed two weeks later by the $100 million-plus opening of “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Instead, a prevailing theory became that, after three films and more than two years, families had simply grown used to watching new Pixar movies in their homes. Perhaps Disney, by using Pixar to boost its streaming success, damaged the theatrical potential of one of its key brands in the process.

“Lightyear” succeeding on Disney+ would give weight to this theory, if not essentially prove it. Pixar’s movies have performed strongly on streaming, with “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red” — all of which were released directly to Disney+ — posting big viewership numbers on the service (per Nielsen data; Disney+ does not disclose viewership).

“Luca” was the most-streamed movie of 2021 by Nielsen’s metrics, with nearly 10.6 billion minutes viewed, while “Turning Red” ranked among Nielsen’s top 20 streaming titles for two months, racking up 7.1 billion minutes of viewing time; it also became “the fastest title to reach 200 million hours viewed on the platform,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said on the company’s last earnings call. By performing equally well or outdoing those films, “Lightyear” would show that, while there’s still plenty of appetite for the Pixar brand, that appetite has almost fully shifted to streaming.

It would also likely doom Pixar’s chances of getting its movies into theaters going forward. While Disney still gives theatrical windows to its in-house animated films, like “Encanto” (which has also been a major hit on Disney+), analysts have theorized that the broad appeal of Pixar movies, which play well with both kids and adults, makes them uniquely effective at attracting and retaining subscribers for Disney+. Indeed, the releases of “Soul” and “Luca” coincided with two of the platform’s biggest quarters of subscriber growth.

Should “Lightyear” prove successful on streaming, then, the value of Pixar movies as big-screen releases would come under severe scrutiny. Why spend millions mounting a theatrical rollout, Disney would surely reason, when Pixar’s movies are such effective subscription generators for Disney+ — and on top of that, when the vast majority of Pixar’s audience prefers to watch their movies at home?

“Lightyear” underwhelming on Disney+ would tell a different story. It would be easier, in that case, to frame the film as a one-off flop, a failed franchise extension whose potential appeal was overestimated. In and of itself, that’s not great for Pixar, but it could be enough to convince Disney to keep giving the company’s films a chance in theaters.

The next Pixar title, “Elemental,” is currently slated for a theatrical release next summer, but we all know how quickly that can change. If the studio’s leadership wants to continue its life as more than a tile on Disney’s streaming platform, they should hope “Lightyear” doesn’t go to infinity and beyond on Disney+.