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Peter Bart: As Disney Breaks All The Rules With ‘Hamilton’, Are Summer Movie Launches Still Viable?

It’s real but surreal: Hamilton, the hottest show of its generation, opens Friday as a streamer! There’s no giant launch party, no massive media campaign. This will not be My Fair Lady time revisited.

But the “non-event” is an appropriate metaphor for the challenges facing Hollywood in launching “new” product to a comatose pop culture. Disney paid $75 million for the rights to Hamilton, with Bob Iger leading the negotiation –and then the renegotiation, when Disney decided to back off a theatrical release.

This is exactly that moment of summer, of course, when Hollywood annually props up its tentpoles and mobilizes its Big Spend. The stars dutifully line up for their media encounters, and social media is ablaze with hype.

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This summer, on the other hand, we instead are prepping for Zoom interviews and virtual premieres – with the brave new world of on-demand providing a few exceptions. Judd Apatow has taken to the media to chat amiably about the goofy “relatability” of his star, Pete Davidson. His The King of Staten Island scored friendly reviews and solid audiences on-demand.

Last week, Focus Pictures brought forth Jon Stewart’s satire, Irresistible. Stewart lectured interviewers that the political arena had become “redundant and corrosive,” words some critics also found descriptive of his movie.

Throughout the pitches for their new productions, the subtext was clear: This isn’t Netflix or YouTube, folks, so buy some tickets. Then hit the couch.

All this pent-up virtual energy still has left the studios scratching their heads: How do they go about teeing-up their blockbusters at a moment when playdates keep shuffling and festivals disappearing? Can there be some new magic formula?

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Paradoxically, the most effective media launches in recent seasons have been engineered not by the studio gurus but by the “newcomers” at Netflix. Eager to prove its cred to filmmakers, the streaming giant out-maneuvered the majors in launching successful theatrical runs for Roma and The Irishman. The big “sell” on Roma was art; on The Irishman, it was nostalgia. Sony mobilized a more traditional movie star campaign around Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While tactics are crucial, Warners has yet to show its hand on Tenet, the now-mid-August release directed by Christopher Nolan. The trailer harkens back to his earlier success, 2010’s Inception, but Tenet doesn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio in his cast, infiltrating the minds of other bewildered characters (Tenet stars Robert Pattinson, John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki). Nor does it have the mythic aura of The Dark Knight nor the historic weight of Dunkirk. The media interviews will rely heavily on Nolan himself, whose severe, cerebral presence might not ideally fit pandemic sensibilities.

The Disney marketing machine would seem to have an easier task with its delayed release of Mulan. All the Disney catchwords will be on full display – a fearless young woman, an epic fable, a legendary warrior. But will China be ready for this aggressively international saga, and will Disney’s faithfully “Frozen” audience?

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Disney’s immediate task would seem more easily achievable, yet also challenging – that is, unveiling Hamilton to a “family” audience that might be anticipating more familiar fare. Brilliantly shot and recorded, Hamilton is not a cinematic adaptation but rather the actual stage show. Its historic depth and outbursts of arcane dialogue was described by one theater critic as “a lightning hip hop course at Harvard.”

By launching Hamilton on Disney+, Iger has embarked on a courageous mission: Hamilton is at once a Disneyland thrill ride, an opera of diversity and a blazingly patriotic Fourth of July celebration. While Broadway consistently found the show to be a miracle if invention (as did I), a portion of the Disney audience may inevitably be stricken with culture shock.

What more could be asked of a movie launch?

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