As streaming encroaches on the theatrical window, the overwritten notion by the media during the pandemic has been that cinema is dead.
When it comes to streamers, however, the truth is they still can’t live without the movie theater.
As fresh streaming services make waves in the fiercely competitive space, it’s big-screen IP that’s driving eyeballs. Disney announced during its Investor Day back in December that the studio plans to invest up to $16 billion worldwide on consumer content for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN through 2024. And it’s the feature franchises and recently acquired 20th Century Studios library that the studio plans to exploit in amassing premium content and meeting the demands of binge-hungry consumers. And it’s not just Disney that sees future revenues in franchises that the big screen has birthed, but WarnerMedia’s HBO Max as well.
“We had a $13 billion box office [in 2019], and that’s not something to sneeze at. We built those franchises through the theatrical window,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek at the studio’s December 2020 Investor Day about the grease that’s running its Disney+ conveyor belt.
“It was much more of an opportunity and something that excited [me] when [Disney executive chairman and former CEO] Bob Iger asked us to start working on shows for Disney+,” said Marvel boss Kevin Feige at the TCA Winter Tour in February.
Aside from its new The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers series based on the popular 1990s movie, and such series as Turner & Hooch, based on the 1989 Tom Hanks canine Touchstone comedy film, the aorta of Disney+ capitalizations on legacy cinema material is this: roughly 10 Marvel series, 10 Star Wars series and 15 live-action animation and Pixar series are being launched over the next few years. That was another piece of news to come out of Disney’s Investor Day, per a statement by Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney’s Media and Entertainment Distribution.
If anything, Disney+ hasn’t buried the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rather has enhanced it. The streaming service has become an outlet where Feige and his team can expand the storylines of secondary characters they normally couldn’t chiefly focus on in the comic book movies, like Wanda Maximoff and Vision in the first MCU Disney+ series WandaVision; Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; and Thor’s Loki, whose self-titled series dropped June 9. Feige is using these Disney+ MCU shows to weave in and out of the label’s big-screen movies. The cliffhanger of WandaVision will dovetail into the feature sequel of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which opens in cinemas on March 25, 2022, while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will form a bridge to Anthony Mackie’s turn as the Black Captain America in a new film continuation of that superhero from creator Malcolm Spellman. The upcoming Black Widow feature, debuting theatrically on July 9, tips off the upcoming Hawkeye series with Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova.
In regards to concerns over whether Disney+ MCU shows will cannibalize the future box office of the brand’s superhero movies, which have grossed well over $22.5 billion, Feige isn’t worried. He told Deadline back in January, “As long as [the series] are different, as long as they’re unique and some of the characters might cross over and the Marvel logo is at the front, if they’re unique and interesting stories, that doesn’t go out of style.”
Beyond Loki in the interconnected Disney+ and cinema MCU, and the upcoming Black Widow, there’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will play exclusively in cinemas starting Labor Day weekend; and Eternals, which makes its big screen-only debut November 5.
Sprinkled through the remainder of the year but not dated yet on Disney+ are such MCU series as Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight and possibly She-Hulk. Wrapping up 2021 will be the theatrical release of Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home on December 17, another movie into which WandaVision is rumored to feed.
And how is the MCU doing on Disney+? While the studio doesn’t report viewership figures, Disney said the weekend premiere of Falcon and the Winter Soldier was its most-watched series ever. Third-party streaming stat service Samba TV, which only monitors smart terrestrial TVs, backed up that claim at the time, reporting that 1.7 million U.S. households tuned into the Spellman-created series for at least five minutes, besting the 1.6 million who tuned into WandaVision‘s opening. While Disney has remained quiet about the success of Loki, SambaTV has exclaimed that the series first day of 890K U.S. households is the best viewership for Disney+ ever in addition to the show’s first 5-day draw of 2.5M.
While Disney+ subscribers hit 103.6 million worldwide as of April 6 fell under the 109 million-plus hoped for by Wall Street analysts, Disney opted to put its upcoming summer tentpoles — Marvel’s Black Widow and Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt’s Jungle Cruise — on its PVOD part of the service (Premier) for an extra charge of $29.99 to subscribers, a maneuver that could help the studio to bump its sub base even further over the summer. Again, Disney has said nothing about Cruella, their other theatrical-Disney+ Premier title which dropped over Memorial Day weekend. Samba TV reported that 686K U.S. households watched the Emma Stone movie. That translates into close of $21M extra revenue, which Disney gets to keep and not share with theaters. By Sunday, through four weekends, Cruella will have made $64.4M at the domestic B.O.
The other opportunity for studios when it comes to building out cinema IP on streaming is that they can tell deeper stories without damaging a franchise at the box office. In the wake of Disney acquiring Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, there was a plan to build out the Star Wars films in similar fashion to the MCU, with stand-alone character films such as Obi-Wan and Boba Fett. The first of these character movies, Solo: A Star Wars Story, bombed at the global box office with $392.9 million from a $275 million production cost and marketing fees. This created a lot of concern among Disney and Lucasfilm brass as to whether they hurt the golden goose. It was then that Disney decided to pivot: Obi-Wan became a Disney+ series with Ewan McGregor reprising his classic role from Episodes I-III, and Boba Fett morphed into two seasons of The Mandalorian, plus his own upcoming TV show, The Book of Boba Fett, which hits the service this fall. The famed bounty character made his Disney+ debut in Season 2 of The Mandalorian, played by Temuera Morrison—the same actor who portrayed his father, Jango, in Attack of the Clones.
WarnerMedia also has movies on the mind, and is emulating a similar plan to Disney’s in adapting feature films into spinoff series, although less aggressively. A Harry Potter series is rumored to be in early development for its streaming service HBO Max, this despite the fact that there aren’t any writers attached yet.
Casey Bloys, chief content officer at HBO and HBO Max, told Deadline earlier this year, “There’s nothing in development, but I think it’s fair to say across Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and DC, these are franchises WarnerMedia enjoys and it’s a big advantage for us, so there’s always going to be interest in doing something of quality from those properties.”
Two big upcoming DC series on HBO Max include The Peacemaker, based on John Cena’s mercenary character from the upcoming James Gunn-directed movie The Suicide Squad, out August 6. There’s also a new series in the works, a prequel to Matt Reeves’ upcoming 2022 The Batman movie, which the filmmaker’s 6th & Idaho is producing with Joe Barton showrunning. The series will focus on the corruption in Gotham that goes back several years and is told from the point of view of a crooked cop.
Recently, HBO Max saw a pop in viewers, per Samba TV, from the release of the four-hour-plus version of Justice League: The Snyder Cut, with 1.8 million U.S. households watching in its first five days; that number ranked behind the studio’s drop of Wonder Woman 1984 over Christmas 2020 weekend, which drew 2.2 million U.S. households. The Snyder-directed DC ensemble, unlike Wonder Woman 1984, did not receive a theatrical release.
Even Netflix wants its own franchises, but alas, largely for its streaming service. Well before Snyder’s zombie heist movie Army of the Dead dropped on the service May 21, Netflix had already greenlit an anime series spinoff of the film, and a future prequel movie directed by and starring Matthias Schweighöfer which follows his character Ludwig Dieter. Army of the Dead, which had a week’s exclusive theatrical run in limited theaters, and made around $800,000, tied with George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky as the ninth most-watched movie on Netflix with 72 million global households.
The experimentation with theatrical windows has accelerated during the pandemic, chiefly due in part to the closure of theaters worldwide for a majority of 2020. WarnerMedia relegated its feature theatrical slate to day-and-date in cinemas and on HBO Max for this year only. Meanwhile, Disney cherry-picked which titles went straight to the service (like Pixar’s Luca and Soul) or became available on its Premier PVOD tier day-and-date.
Chapek has mentioned that Disney’s response to this has been strictly a matter of being flexible in meeting consumers’ ongoing and continually changing demands.
“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; I don’t think people have that much patience,” he said recently at J.P. Morgan’s Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference.
Warner Bros has reported that it will respect a 45-day theatrical window on 2022 releases and beyond, however, it remains to be seen if Disney will continue to practice a Disney+ Premier theatrical day-and-date strategy into next year. While this continues to raise ire among exhibitors, it’s evident that cinema, and its propping of franchises, is the engine that indeed leads streaming by the nose. The two, no doubt, cannot live without the other.
Said Chapek during a February earnings call about Disney+: “The best insulation we’ve got is to keep the price/value relationship very high, and there’s no better way to do it than powerhouse franchises cranking out regular new releases on a monthly basis.”