Forget Baby Yoda. 'Hamilton' is Disney+'s best new weapon in the streaming wars

Forget Baby Yoda. 'Hamilton' is Disney+'s best new weapon in the streaming wars

Walt Disney Co. did not throw away its shot with the streaming debut of “Hamilton.”

The filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash drove a surge in downloads of the streaming service Disney+ during the July 4 weekend, according to data firm SensorTower.

Preliminary estimates show that the Disney+ app was installed for the first time by 1 million Apple App Store and Google Play users July 3-5, the San Francisco-based firm said Monday. That number represented an increase of about 79% from the prior weekend, SensorTower said.

A Disney+ spokeswoman said the company does not comment on third-party data and has no plans to immediately release its own figures. (App downloads are not the same as subscriptions, which is what really matters to the company.)

Nonetheless, the introduction of “Hamilton” was clearly a major boost for the streamer, said Randy Nelson, head of mobile insights for SensorTower.

“Our data indicates that Hamilton has resulted in a greater increase in users for the service than any other original content added to it so far this year,” Nelson said in an email.

The service was already in a strong position. Disney last released subscriber numbers in May, saying the streaming service had hit 54.5 million paying subscribers, worldwide, since its November launch. The company is expected to give another subscriber update August 4 when it reports third-quarter earnings.

Disney paid a $75 million for the rights to distribute the filmed version of the Tony-winning production, which was shot in New York with its original cast in 2016. The movie was directed by Thomas Kail and stars Miranda as the founding father Alexander Hamilton. The cast also includes Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs and Phillipa Soo.

The Burbank-based entertainment giant had previously planned to release the movie in theaters in fall 2021, giving fans of the stage version, as well as those who hadn’t seen it yet, a chance to experience it on the big screen. Analysts expected the show to be a box office hit because of the continued interest in the cultural phenomenon.

However, with theaters shut down and Broadway closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney decided to put the film directly on its streaming service, which charges a monthly fee of $7 by itself and $13 when bundled with ESPN+ and Hulu.

The company timed the release for the July 4th weekend, and dropped its promotional free trial just weeks before. The release also happened to coincide with continued protests against systemic racism stemming from the killing of George Floyd. “Hamilton’s” cast is largely non-white, and cast members including Diggs have been vocal in their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Disney+ has been remarkably successful already, bolstered by the hit show “The Mandalorian,” a massive catalog of family favorites and the coronavirus outbreaks that have kept audiences home with few other entertainment options. Streaming has been the lone bright spot for the company during the public health crisis that has forced the delay of blockbuster movies and caused parks to close.

The pandemic also has hobbled film and TV productions, and Disney+ needs a steady stream of fresh content to keep subscribers coming in. Disney+ faces formidable competition from streaming incumbent Netflix and newcomers such as WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock.

During the lockdowns, Disney has accelerated the streaming debuts of films such as Pixar’s “Onward” and eschewed the theatrical release of the big-budget live action feature “Artemis Fowl.”

None of those moves appear to have had the impact of the “Hamilton” release, which spawned virtual watch parties across the country as Disney framed it as a unique at-home cultural event.

New installs of the app peaked on July 4 at about 400,000, marking its best day for first-time installs since April 20, Sensor Tower said. The app ranked as high as No. 2 for iPhone on the U.S. App Store on Independence Day, making it the first time it has ranked that high since early January.

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