For many months now, the much-anticipated Marvel movie Black Widow has sat boldly on the movie release calendar. Slated to come out in theaters on May 7, the film was a sign that Disney, the studio releasing the film, felt confident that the ebbing state of the pandemic meant that fans would swarm to see the film in-person, driving up box-office receipts. More than any other film set for release this year, Black Widow was a harbinger of better times ahead for the movie business, which has been severely crippled by COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Disney dashed those hopes.
The studio abruptly announced on March 23 that it was not only moving Black Widow back to July 9, but that it will be simultaneously releasing the film on its streaming service, Disney Plus, for an additional $30 for subscribers, as it’s done with films such as Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon. Disney also said that Cruella, which stars Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil, will also get the day-and-date theatrical-streaming treatment, though the film will remain on its original release date of May 28.
Other changes included pushing the next Pixar film, Luca, straight to streaming on June 18, and delaying films including the Ryan Reynolds comedy Free Guy and another Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
The news was a major blow to the exhibition business (to put it mildly), as well as a sign that the world’s emergence from COVID-19 is slow, laborious, and prone to unforeseen shifts—such as the new strains of COVID-19 that are ravishing Europe at the moment, sending countries back into lockdown. This gradual, up-and-down emergence from the pandemic, as opposed to the quick, clean pivot everyone would love, is evident in current movie theater attendance. While recent releases like Tom and Jerry and Croods 2 have proven that there’s pent-up demand to get back into theaters, in the United States the reality is that only 52% of theaters are currently open. Those that are operating are doing so at between 25% and 50% capacity.
Anecdotally, that means that parents who couldn’t wait to break out of the house and go see Raya and the Last Dragon with their kids last weekend in cities like Los Angeles, where vaccinations are moving along at a steady clip, found themselves in empty-feeling theaters that were nonetheless sold out. That’s great for audiences, safety-wise. But not so great for Disney looking at all that lost revenue.
The fact that Raya was also on Disney Plus was a consolation for the studio, as it now will be with Black Widow. Far more than any other film that Disney has thrown over to streaming, Black Widow has the potential to goose Disney Plus subscriptions, particularly with the non-parents set, and help it catch up to Netflix. WarnerMedia has already been seeing this effect with event films such as Wonder Woman 1984, which it decided to release simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters last Christmas. Then there’s the international factor. Although territories like China have been opening up and doing strong theatrical business, in Europe and Latin America the situation is, as mentioned, bleak. More box-office dollars down the drain.
Hollywood has never been one to embrace risk, particularly with its billion-dollar franchises. Until COVID-19 is more surely behind us and movie theaters are genuinely safe spaces to pack with people, studios like Disney are not going to be testing the waters with their most valuable assets. There’s simply too much to lose.