Why Didn’t Hocus Pocus 2 Go To Theaters? Let’s Talk This Out

The Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus 2
(Image credit: Disney)

Hocus Pocus 2 just had the largest domestic premiere in Disney+’s history. If you read the fine print, that means over its first three days, it was consumed for more total hours than any other debuting film in the streaming service’s history. That’s an accomplishment, though to be honest, I’m not really sure what level of adjective I should put before accomplishment. 

What does it mean to be the largest domestic premiere in Disney+’s history? Is that closer to Avengers: Endgame breaking the record for biggest opening weekend in box office history? Or is it closer to Spinal Tap being called one of England’s loudest bands? I truly have no idea, and that’s a great example of what’s so confusing right now about the entire movie landscape. 

We’re in the middle. The before was back when every new film went to theaters, save some random TV movies, which were typically of dubious quality. The after will be when some kind of hybrid distribution solution is solidified and embraced by most of the major studios. We’re not there yet. We’re still in the middle, and the middle is so confusing.

Someone asked me the other day why Hocus Pocus 2 didn’t go to theaters. I thought about it, and I didn’t know. I’ve thought about it more, and I still don’t know. I spent like 10 minutes Googling various phrases to see if a Disney exec ever gave an official reason. I couldn’t find it, but even if there’s an official corporate explanation floating next to the Sanderson Sisters in Salem, I doubt it would explain anything because it’s all too complicated for a nice pull quote. So, let’s talk this out.

The Case For Hocus Pocus 2 Going To Theaters

The argument for Hocus Pocus 2 getting a theatrical release is pretty simple. People love things they already love. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many reboots, remakes and reimaginings there have been over the last decade. Sequels and/ or long awaited new versions of movies like Top Gun, Jumanji, Bad Boys, Rocky, Halloween and Jackass have all done big business at the box office. Now, I'm obviously not saying Hocus Pocus is the same as all those other franchises, but the cult of Hocus Pocus is incredibly loud each October. The fact that it got more viewers its opening weekend than heavily-promoted, well-reviewed Pixar movies that went straight to Disney+ like Soul and Turning Red is a testament to how large the cult is.

I’m not saying Hocus Pocus 2 would have thrown up a hundred million dollar weekend at the box office, but at the risk of roasting myself, I know a lot of people my age and older who saw the original in theaters and would have loved to take their families to the sequel. You’d think if you combined casual fans like myself, the obsessives in that aforementioned cult, kids and people who see everything Halloween-related, you probably could have gotten to a fifteen or twenty million dollar opening weekend. With a limited marketing campaign, it feels like some profit was left on the table. Plus, a lot of us just like watching movies in theaters.

The Case For Hocus Pocus 2 Going Directly To Disney+

Counterpoint. Even if my above example played out exactly as predicted, is there enough money on the table there for Disney to really care? Way back in the day, long before anyone ever lit the Black Flame Candle, movie theaters used to make their yearly profit in much smaller chunks. If a movie made fifteen or twenty million dollars after all the expenses, that was a tremendous win. I’m not saying that’s not a win now, but ultimately, the success or failure of Disney’s year, from a theatrical standpoint, is much more tied up in how major franchise movies perform. Those have a potential to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

A theatrically released movie going to a streamer after a short window is certainly a perk for the users of that service, but it’s not nearly the same level of perk as getting a fresh movie for free as soon as it’s released. The success or failure of a streaming service is directly related to having enough new offerings each month to convince the current users to stay and new users to join. Based on this being the biggest premiere in Disney+ history, I feel comfortable saying Hocus Pocus 2 more than did its job elevating the value of Disney+ subscriptions this month. That's huge and probably more important than anything it could have done at the box office.

Some Final Thoughts

Right now, Disney is trying to grow a streaming service and make money at the box office at the same time. Unfortunately, these two goals are always going to be somewhat in conflict with each other because there is a limited number of new movies and TV shows released each year. For each one of these pieces of content, a choice needs to be made about how it can best help Disney accomplish its goals. 

Unfortunately I’m not in these high level strategy sessions, but I’d have to imagine the thought process was simply that Hocus Pocus 2 could help Disney+ more than it could help theatrical grosses. Whether the gigantic first weekend streaming numbers are verification they made the right decision or evidence of a missed opportunity probably depends on which Disney exec you ask.

The Mouse House is not the only streamer dealing with this exact problem. Much has been written about HBO Max over the past several months and its decision to essentially abandon a lot of the content intended to head directly to streaming, as well as get rid of stuff already on there. Many viewed that decision as a sign it was done trying to compete with Netflix. Later this month, Universal will release the latest Halloween in both theaters and on Peacock on the same day. All around the industry, companies are wrestling with these same questions without any concrete answers.

I don’t know what Disney’s long-term plans are or how big it’s trying to grow Disney+, but I do feel certain that this is far from the last film that doesn't make the movie release schedule and leaves questions in its wake about how much money was left on the table. It’s going to be messy for awhile. That’s what happens when you’re in the middle.

Mack Rawden
Editor In Chief

Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.