It is ironic that on the same day Warner Bros throws in the towel on its day-and-date HBO Max theatrical release plan (for 2022) that Disney would take one of its most highly anticipated Marvel movies, Black Widow, and move it to a day-and-date theatrical Disney+ PVOD plan after the muted performances of Mulan, Soul, and Raya and the Last Dragon on the service.
“It’s kind of mindboggling what Disney executives are up to, and it makes you wonder whether anyone who knows anything about the movie business is calling the shots over there,” one big exhibitor tells Deadline. “It’s all reminiscent of the Rich Ross era.”
Disney’s decision to take two of summer’s biggest event films —Cruella and Black Widow– to a theatrical-Disney+ Premier Access (at an extra $30 a pop for subscribers) plan creates several headaches for exhibition just as it was looking to bounce back after New York City’s and Los Angeles’ reopening.
If that wasn’t bad, then the next piece of news today was even more devastating: Disney decided to take Pixar’s Luca completely off the theatrical schedule and send it to Disney+ for free over Father’s Day weekend, June 18-20, substracting an immense amount of cash for movie theaters during that time.
In putting oneself in Disney executives’ shoes, they’re clearly in an experimental mode as the pandemic calms down. Rather than taking an entire year’s slate and putting it on a streaming service like WarnerMedia with HBO Max, Disney is doing so incrementally. It’s an understatement to say it’s completely seduced by streaming and the impact it’s having on the stock price: Disney’s hit a day’s high of $192.34 today before closing at $188.73.
The only way the studio will ever know if this ambitious theatrical-Disney+ Premier experiment is going to work is whether it implements it with a movie they have the goods on, and that’s with branded fare such as Black Widow and Cruella. The studio said Monday that the first episode of Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Solider was Disney+’s most-watched ever in a weekend, beating all other series weekend premieres. Samba TV’s polling of terrestrial smart TVs supports that claim reporting that 1.7 million watched the Anthony Mackie-Sebastian Stan series in its first five minutes (besting WandaVision‘s 1.6M). Again, the horrible news for exhibition is that Disney gets to keep every Disney Premier dollar of Black Widow and Cruella.
The other obvious sign out there that Black Widow was bound to move: a majority of foreign markets remain closed including Europe and Latin America, even though Asia has reopened. Studios executives look at these movies’ releases from a global point of view, and on the tentpoles where piracy might be an issue, they can’t spread these movies out by months.
Still, all of this said, it’s hard to find anyone today, either in exhibition or at a rival studio, who’s saying anything nice about Disney.
But, c’mon, Disney…
Seriously, you decided to move Black Widow (and Cruella) onto Disney+ Premier now?
This Marvel movie has been dangled in front of exhibition, who’ve heralded it to their shareholders as one of the great potential saviors of the box office, and now circuits are going to compete with Disney’s streaming service for eyeballs? Disney, you mean to say that such release-date decisions couldn’t be made when we were in the thick of the pandemic as opposed to when we’re coming out of it?
Think about what a huge blow this is to Cineworld and its U.S. counterpart Regal: Here they are announcing their reopening on April 1, likely banking on Black Widow on May 7. Now, summer’s opening title is delayed, and with a distribution pattern that’s not necessarily friendly to exhibitors.
Disney was in truly bad form today with its distribution maneuvers, and it just creates more mistrust within the exhibition industry when it comes to any promises or overtures the Mouse House is making. Not to mention, what a slap in the face to exhibition partners who’ve had to borrow billions to stay afloat during the pandemic.
While Cinemark, Harkins and Canada’s Cineplex among other exhibitors refused to play Raya and the Last Dragon over Disney’s refusal to budge on rental terms, many sources tell us that will be a harder line to hold this time around on Black Widow and Cruella. Theatre owners are between a rock and a hard place; the risk of not playing ball with Disney could impact their terms for the worse in the long run.
The only way that Disney’s plans would be greatly curtailed is if AMC, Regal and Cinemark together decided not to play Black Widow and Cruella. However, it’s expected that AMC would go along with Disney’s plan. Unlike AMC and Cinemark’s deal with Universal, they’re getting some cut of those titles’ PVOD revenue as they segue from the theatrical marketplace. Disney, as far as we know, isn’t sharing its Disney+ revenue pie. Disney’s reported terms with exhibition for Raya were a two-week minimum play with a scale that starts at a 50% rental if the film grosses ultimately between $0 and $37.5M, and 51% if the domestic gross finals between $37.5M-$50M.
From a Disney P.O.V., audiences don’t have to stay at home; they can see these movies in a theater. Not to mention, it’s a better deal for exhibition than having a Warner Bros title that is available to HBO Max subscribers for free. That said, Warners, unlike Disney, has been kind with exhibition on rental terms and is promising a light at the end of the tunnel with a 45-day theatrical window before HBO Max on its big titles next year, as we first told you.
Black Widow‘s move from May 7 to July 9 also leaves the summer box office season without a kickoff and reverts the start of the period back to its former stomping ground of Memorial Day weekend, which is where Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella are facing off. I’m told by many distributors this morning that it’s unlikely any event films will move up to the first weekend of May given marketing departments’ short turnaround to get materials out, not to mention foreign markets’ closures. Some exhibitors believe that a studio like Paramount, which has A Quiet Place Part II already lined up, could likely move up and take the first weekend of May given all the promotion that’s been out there for the film since last year.
Now, there could be a bright spot for some studios in Disney taking Black Widow and Cruella to Disney+ Premier and in theaters.
“They’re not as threatening as they used to be,” said one distribution honcho today. Given the result of Disney’s grosses on Raya ($23.4M domestic to date), it was clear the studio didn’t spend a fortune in marketing. If that’s the case for Cruella and Black Widow, especially as Disney looks to push more people toward its streaming service, the prospects of following either film’s opening weekend isn’t as daunting as it used to be on the calendar.
Other impacts Disney’s release-date changes are poised to have on the theatrical release schedule: With the long-delayed Ryan Reynolds action comedy Free Guy going to August 13 from May 21, it’s clear that the actor’s Lionsgate sequel The Hitman’s Bodyguard 2 on August 20 will move.
Furthermore, since when is Labor Day weekend a huge moviegoing time? Tenet didn’t prove that last year, so it’s questionable whether Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings sticks to that date. Unless, Disney has another theatrical Disney+ Premier move in its back pocket.
Reynolds’ hysterical reaction about Free Guy‘s release date change today on Twitter:
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) March 23, 2021
Despite any good news exhibition received overnight from Warner Bros. and Cineworld/Regal’s decision to respect the theatrical window for 2022, it’s clear, the motion picture business is not fully out of this pandemic yet nor have they finished dickering with windows.
Here’s how Disney’s release schedule looks for the rest of the year with today’s date changes noted:
May 28 – Cruella (theatres & Disney+ Premier)
July 9 – Black Widow (theatres & Disney+ Premier, moved from May 7)
July 16 – The Night House (Searchlight)
July 30 – Jungle Cruise
Aug. 13 – Free Guy (20th, moved from May 21)
Aug. 27 – The Beatles: Get Back
Sept 3 – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (moved from July 9)
Sept 24 – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight)
Oct. 15 – The Last Duel (20th)
Oct. 22 – Ron’s Gone Wrong (20th)
Oct. 29 – Antlers (Searchlight)
Nov. 5 – Marvel’s The Eternals
Nov. 24 – Encanto
Dec. 3 – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight)
Dec. 10 – West Side Story (20th/Amblin)
Dec. 22 – The King’s Man (20th, moved from Aug. 20)