“One of the things we learned is that flexibility is good,” he said of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re really celebrating that flexibility .. we’re trying to offer consumers more choice.”
Marvel’s Black Widow is slated to debut July 9 in theaters and for a $30 premium for Disney+ subscribers. The Premier Access option has been used for Mulan last year and Raya and the Last Dragon in March.
Chapek made the comments during a virtual appearance at J.P. Morgan’s 49th annual Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference.
Asked about the company’s gauge on box office, he said it remains “fairly weak” in the U.S. but has shown strength in a few international markets. “We’re seeing some hesitancy to return” by some moviegoers, he said. About two-thirds of North American theaters are back open, though that number is climbing as major releases line up for their summer turns.
Chapek referred to the current moment as an “interim period” in terms of how theatrical fits into the larger revenue strategy, though he reiterated past comments about the importance of theatrical to Disney. Since absorbing most of 21st Century Fox in 2019, the company’s movie studios control about half the U.S. box office but have not been at full stride yet for an extended period. Initial adjustments to the Fox pipeline were accompanied by the once-a-century impact of the pandemic.
J.P. Morgan media analyst Alexia Quadrani moderated the 40-minute session, which oddly did not touch on AT&T’s merger deal for WarnerMedia and Discovery. She did ask Chapek about how the company determines the release strategy to deploy on a given film. There are multiple kinds of rollouts now — the day-and-date tack with Black Widow, the streaming-only option used for Hamilton and Soul last year and this summer with Pixar’s Luca; and the 45-day exclusive theatrical window
“There’s a whole bunch of data points we have to assimilate to make those decisions,” Chapek said. “The first consideration is, is it a big-tent theatrical franchise? If it is, something like a Marvel movie or a Lucas movie, something that’s going to have legs, plays into a larger mythology.”
He added, “We’ve already delayed Black Widow a couple of times, we didn’t want to delay it again. Yet, at the same time, we always knew there was a risk that exhibition wasn’t going to be fully developed or consumers wouldn’t want to go back and sit in theaters. So, we realized we had to sort of prime the pump and give theatrical exhibition a chance. We couldn’t put all of our eggs in the theatrical exhibition basket because we knew that in the weeks leading up to the decision that the domestic market was not coming back. And it’s still fairly weak. So, we’re very confident that we made the right call there.”
Chapek defied the tsk-tsking about taking films straight to streaming in general. The entire point of the company’s restructuring last fall, he noted, is to make sure that every platform has its own content — and enough of it — separate from Covid or the state of theaters. Luca going to Disney+ next month is an example of that broader strategic mission. The idea is to “ensure all channels have a full complement of offerings to keep everybody happy. But nowhere is that more the case than for Disney+,” he said.
Soul delivered a “huge boost” to Disney+, Chapek said, though he did not quantify it. Disney+ had 103.6 million global subscribers as of April 3, the company has reported.
As the company continues to constantly evaluate the pandemic/box office conundrum, agreeing with exhibitors to reduced 45-days windows this fall for Shang-Chi and Free Guy. “We know the marketplace will recover more fully and that type of exclusive distribution will make more sense,” he said. “Flexibility is a good thing. At some point, though, you kinda got to step, like I like to say, off the dock and into the boat. Those, we will take a shot at.”
As to the outlook on windows and revised splits with theater owners, Chapek said Disney is planning to take its time developing longer-term plans. “The consumer is driving the shorter windows,” he said. “If you have a movie that plays for four weeks or six weeks” in theaters, “there’s not a lot of reason to sit on it for the next six to seven months. The consumer has realized that they’ve got the power and can essentially make those calls. We’re a consumer-friendly company and we’ll follow their lead.”
Asked about whether a significant number of moviegoers might be inclined to wait until the “46th day” — meaning the day a new film migrates from theaters to streaming — Chapek didn’t seem concerned. “Forty-six days, six weeks, that’s a long time to wait,” he said. “If you’re a Black Widow fan, you’re not going to wait that amount of time.”
The performance of Disney+ has been a helpful guide in terms of setting theatrical strategy, Chapek said. “When we release a new piece of content, people are lined up at midnight” to watch it as soon as it goes live on the streaming service, he said. “I don’t think people have that much patience.”
Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report.