How ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Became a Streaming Hit

Nearly four decades ago, in 1984, David Kirschner arrived early for a meeting with then-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg carrying a broomstick, a mop and a hollowed-out Electrolux vacuum.

He called ahead to request access to the conference room a half hour before the pitch meeting began to hang the trio of centuries-spanning cleaning instruments from the ceiling with fishing line. He also brought his eighth-grade biology textbook wrapped in a leathery material, hoping it looked enough like human skin, and a grocery store candle, on which he hand-drew Latin witchcraft imagery he couldn’t translate and toasted in an oven to look aged.

“This wasn’t exactly Disney stuff,” Kirschner laughs now.

The night before, the kids in his neighborhood also drew the hallmarks of Halloween — a black cat, a patch of pumpkins — on bags filled with candy corn, which he placed around the conference room.

“When they walked in, I wanted them to smell Halloween,” Kirschner says. “I wanted them to smell their childhood.”

That day, he pitched what would become “Hocus Pocus,” Disney’s enduring 1993 Halloween classic starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the fearsome-yet-kooky Sanderson sisters resurrected in the present day. The film was inspired by a bedtime story he told his daughters about a once-human black cat cursed by witches to live in all eternity as a feline. 

Disney bought the pitch, and Kirschner looks back on that moment with pride — especially since everything that came next wouldn’t be as easy. It took almost 10 years to get the film into theaters, only for it to premiere to dismal reviews in the dead of summer on July 16, 1993.

“It bombed,” he says. “It came out in the summer against the original ‘Jurassic Park.’ It was a tearful weekend and I thought that was the end of it.”

“Hocus Pocus,” 1993
©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy

Don’t tell the Sanderson sisters, but what happens next is nothing short of a Hollywood Cinderella story. Just four days shy of the film’s 30th anniversary in July, Disney+’s long-awaited sequel, “Hocus Pocus 2,” earned three Emmy nominations for television movie, music composition (limited series/TV movie) for composer John Debney and fantasy/sci-fi costumes.

The nominations — coupled with 2.7 billion minutes streamed in its opening weekend last September — are a delayed yet welcome validation of the film’s unorthodox three-decade journey from box office disaster to a beloved (and highly licensable) Halloween hit. All it took was rewriting the film’s fate through the magic of television.

“As a feature film, it failed,” Kirschner says. “But on television, it got a second life that was important enough for Disney to consider investing a good deal of money into a second film and everything else that has happened.”

The spell Disney cast over the film didn’t take immediate effect. For much of the 1990s, it could only be watched on VHS and LaserDisc. But some dedicated fans were already seeking it out. About eight years after the film’s release, Kirschner recalls a friend of his daughter’s quoting pages of dialogue from memory that she learned from repeated rewatches.

Back then, he attributed the film’s subtle endurance to the “Barbie effect,” which carries new connotations these days. “Moms grew up playing with Barbie and they wanted the same for their daughters,” he says. “Parents wanted to pass this movie on to their kids, the way we do with the experiences we had as kids.”

While that may be true for families, it was actually TV that handed it down from generation to generation. In the mid-1990s, ABC and the Disney Channel aired the film annually around Halloween. “The numbers weren’t great, but they weren’t bad,” Kirschner says of its Disney Channel run.

But in 2001, Disney acquired the cable network that is now Freeform and began infusing the cable network’s 13 Nights of Halloween with seasonally specific programming from its library, such as “Hocus Pocus.” Finally getting consistent exposure at an appropriate time of the year grew the film’s viewership. By the 2010s, the film conjured over two million viewers for primetime airings.

At that time, daily showings and eventually all-day marathons of the film became the anchor of Freeform’s October lineup. It peaked in 2019 with a record 30 showings during the network’s now-expanded 31 Nights of Halloween.

Amid this incredible run, fans grew more ravenous for a sequel, and Kirschner found himself back in a Disney conference room pitching new ideas. This time, however, he left the vacuum at home. Instead, he brought his creative partner, Blake Harris, 10 potential storylines for a follow-up movie and a life-size model of Billy Butcherson, the zombified corpse of Winifred Sanderson’s scorned lover (played by Doug Jones in the original movie). The model was a gift from the film’s special effects makeup artist, Tony Gardner.

Unlike the first meeting back in 1984, which he says “wasn’t a slam dunk,” Kirschner left this one on a high. “It was a great meeting and then we didn’t hear anything,” he says. “It took them six months to get back to us and they passed.”

But Disney permitted him to take the project from the features division to television, where box office concerns weren’t a factor. The hope was that Freeform, where the original had found new life, could shepherd its next chapter. But development stalled and Freeform punted the film to the Disney Channel, where it languished until the Mouse House began building a new streaming platform for its deep vault
of content.

After years of rumors and false starts, “Hocus Pocus 2” was officially ordered as a marquee movie event for Disney+ in 2021. The film reunites Midler, Najimy, Parker and Jones, along with new stars Sam Richardson and Hannah Waddingham, for the story of three girls who accidentally summon the witches from hell. Kirschner serves as executive producer and received story credit alongside Harris and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo.

With opening weekend numbers in the billions (of minutes, that is), Kirschner and fans won’t have to wait another 30 years for more. A third film with sequel director Anne Fletcher back behind the camera is already in the works. “It has been a long road yet again to get ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ made, so it was nice to see the third one came so naturally because the numbers were so astounding,” Kirschner says.

Today, Kirschner’s home office is a museum to his illustrious career, including remnants of the “Addams Family” animated series and “Flintstones” live-action movie he produced, and the original animatronic “Chucky” doll he created (he executive produces Syfy’s current “Chucky” series). 

“Hocus Pocus” has its own corner though, which features his desecrated biology textbook that became Winifred’s grimoire and the store-bought candle from his original pitch. They sit among a treasure trove of “Hocus Pocus” merchandise Disney has licensed over the years, including the new 2,316-piece Lego Ideas set of the Sanderson sisters’ cottage that he just completed with his grandson.

“I didn’t have the patience to assemble it on my own,” Kirschner admits with a laugh. Though that seems unlikely, considering his patience has been a virtue in witnessing the cultural resurrection of “Hocus Pocus.” 

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