Dutch Get Sneak Preview of Disney's New Streaming Service

Joeri Donsu, of Amsterdam, plans to subscribe to Disney+ when it becomes available but will keep other services like Netflix. Photo: Joeri Donsu

When it comes to the plot details of its next Marvel Studios or Star Wars installment, Walt Disney Co. keeps things completely confidential. But the company’s forthcoming streaming service already has premiered weeks before its official launch.

Disney is testing its flagship streaming service, called Disney+, with a free trial in the Netherlands to gauge consumer response and iron out any technical kinks before it launches in the U.S. and other countries on Nov. 12.

Interviews with a small number of Disney+’s first users found general enthusiasm for the service and the library of programming it provides, despite some minor technical issues. Roberto Brandwijk, a 26-year-old insurance adviser from Rotterdam who signed up for the free trial, said he spends between four and five hours a day on the service.

Disney’s two-month test of the service underscores the importance of its U.S. launch going well in a digital marketplace where any initial problem can ruin a first impression. Since announcing plans to launch Disney+ in August 2017, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger has reoriented his company around the strategy and called it his No. 1 priority. The service is expected by many in Hollywood and on Wall Street to pose a direct threat to Netflix Inc., which dominates the streaming marketplace with more than 150 million global subscribers.

But testing a streaming service is more complicated than test-screening a movie, which involves renting out a theater and inviting a focus group to a sneak preview. In the Netherlands, Disney can quietly test the service in a small, densely populated country where many residents speak English and are connected to high-speed internet.

Joris van Dinter, of Appeltern, is looking forward to new shows on Disney+ based on the Star Wars franchise. He painted the Darth Vader portrait on the wall behind him. Photo: Joris van Dinter

Disney doesn’t appear to have targeted specific users to sign up for the service, instead opening the soft launch up to anyone who wanted the free trial (and is then kept on as a paying subscriber after the service launches Nov. 12). Word of the early push into the Netherlands quickly spread in local media and in online fan communities.

Joeri Donsu, a 53-year-old children’s magazine editor in Amsterdam, already owns several Marvel and Pixar titles on Blu-ray. When he signed up for Disney+, he sought out older titles he was nostalgic for, like “The Rocketeer” and “Race to Witch Mountain.” He found the latter after searching for its Dutch title: “Vlucht naar de Heksenberg.”

He was sorry to find the movies didn’t hold up as well as he thought they did.

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“For adults like me, I think Disney+ will shatter a lot of good memories,” he said.

Disney+ will cost $6.99 a month at launch, or about half the price of Netflix Inc.’s most popular option. But Netflix also has a significant advantage over Disney because it has dealt for years with handling millions of subscribers at once.

A Netflix spokesman didn’t respond to request for comment.

Few Disney+ users interviewed by the Journal in the Netherlands reported major technical snafus, but one common annoyance did emerge: The service failed to remember when an episode was paused or stopped, forcing users to fast-forward to where they left off each time they resumed watching. Others complained about the sound on programs staying low, despite turning it up to full volume.

A Disney spokeswoman said the company was aware of the issues and addressing them.

One Disney+ user, Stefan Csiba, said he wrote to Disney to suggest it change the controls so a movie can be paused by hitting the spacebar on a laptop, which is allowed on Netflix.

“Because the service is similar to Netflix in terms of the setup, you would automatically expect them to work the same,” Mr. Csiba said.

A Dutch priest reviews Disney+

He didn’t stay deterred for long. “I did binge-watch all nine Star Wars movies in 2 1/2 days,” he said.

Disney+ will have, at the very least, thousands of subscribers to manage when it launches next month. The company offered three-year deals to subscribe at its D23 superfan gathering in August, a promotion that prompted long lines behind each kiosk.

For users like Enya Vermeulen, getting Disney+ gave her the chance to watch the Marvel superhero offerings that had disappeared from Netflix in recent months as Disney prepared to launch its service.

“I was really annoyed when that was pulled off of Netflix,” she said.

Ms. Vermeulen, a 28-year-old biology student at Utrecht University in Zeist, was pleasantly surprised to find programming from National Geographic, which became part of Disney after its $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox entertainment assets.

She and her boyfriend are binge-watching “Dr. K.’s Exotic Animal ER,” a reality show about the daily drama at a South Florida veterinary hospital.

“We watch it every day,” she said.

The Disney+ currently available in the Netherlands doesn’t carry the original programming that Disney is producing for the service, like the Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian” or new shows based on Marvel Studios characters.

Joris van Dinter, a 34-year-old artist from Appeltern who signed up for Disney+, said he would keep subscribing after the trial ends to check out those new shows. He will keep his Netflix plan, too.

Getting Disney+ “will not cancel any current subscriptions,” he said, “although I will probably be watching Netflix less.”

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]

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