How Hamilton handed Hollywood its new playbook for blockbuster releases

Lin-Manuel Miranda appears as Hamilton alongside Phillipa Soo as Eliza.Disney Plus

Hamilton was always going to be a smash-hit when it was released, especially with the original Broadway cast involved, but the cult musical’s Disney+ debut has done far more than just boost subscriptions ⁠— it’s proven on-demand streaming premieres can be the way forward for Hollywood.

In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical ‘Hamilton’ debuted Off-Broadway. There’d been a smattering of interest ⁠— his last show ‘In the Heights’ had enjoyed nearly a decade of success on Broadway ⁠— but no one could have predicted the Hamilton explosion.

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The shows, first on Off-Broadway before shifting to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, were sold out every night. Hamilton swept the Tonys in 2016, netting 11 wins.

Then, in July 2020, a “live” recording of Hamilton was released on Disney Plus. It broke Disney Plus records and fired the mouse’s streaming service straight into the battle against Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney’s other on-demand rivals.

Hamilton’s success did more than just sell Disney+ subscriptions though. 

It was originally plotted for a 2021 cinema release. Instead, Disney took its shot on a mid-year VOD release, and Hamilton shattered expectations, again, with one of the biggest streaming debuts ever.

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Hamilton has shown Hollywood the way forward in an age of cinema closures and ever-increasing online demand; it’s turning the film world upside down.

There’s raw numbers to back this up too. On-demand movies releasing in 2020 had a bit of a rough ride ⁠— the Mulan remake was a notable Disney flop ⁠— but Hamilton, as well as a raft of rival releases, have shown SVOD debuts can work very well.

According to Variety, who released the top 30 on-demand releases in 2020 so far, Hamilton leads by a big margin. Newly-released Borat 2: Subsequent Moviefilm also clocked into the top five, alongside My Spy, Extraction, and Phineas & Ferb.

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Here’s the top 10 releases:

  1. Hamilton: The Movie (Disney Plus)
  2. Borat 2: Subsequent Moviefilm (Prime Video)
  3. My Spy (Prime Video)
  4. Extraction (Netflix)
  5. Phineas & Ferb the Movie (Disney Plus)
  6. Mulan (Disney Plus)
  7. The Old Guard (Netflix)
  8. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
  9. Roald Dahl’s The Witches (HBO Max)
  10. The Lovebirds (Netflix)
Leslie Odom, Jr. performs in Hamilton.Disney Plus
Hamilton dominated streaming records across 2020, despite being released in June.

Hamilton, which topped the list, led to 752,451 Disney Plus app downloads in its opening three days on the platform. That translates to around $5.25 million made in new subscriptions alone.

It’s far cry from box office openings of the past ⁠— it wouldn’t have come close to the top 200, which is bottomed by early MCU entry The Incredible Hulk ($55.4m), but put simply; cinemas are closed, and they’re not opening any time soon.

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Tenet, a huge Christopher Nolan blockbuster released as US theatres were trying to reopen, banked just $20m. Other tentpole releases, like No Time to Die, Wonder Woman 2, and Marvel’s Black Widow, haven’t even made it to cinemas yet.

Profits will be down if studios lean into SVOD premieres, yes. But Hamilton has proven it can work in the new age of movies & films. Disney Plus boasted 54.5m subscribers before Hamilton dropped. That’s $380m every single month.

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Jonathan Groff sings as King George in Hamilton.Disney Plus
Streaming services like Disney and Netflix may become the Hollywood kings soon enough.

The game has changed; tentpole releases like Hamilton, and future blockbusters, can be used to keep subscribers on streaming deals. $4.6 billion in Disney Plus fees in 12 months doesn’t sound too bad, all things considered.

This may well be a long lesson though. Studios are sticking to their cinema guns, for now, but if there’s more big flops, we may see Hollywood finally turn to streaming. When they do, Hamilton’s blueprint for success will be ready.

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