In 2020, superhero movies were far from a box office hero.
Granted, in a pandemic, not much could be counted on to save the day. Still, all three comic book adaptations that debuted that year — Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Birds of Prey” before the pandemic, and 20th Century’s “The New Mutants” and Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” in the middle of the pandemic — brought in grosses that paled in comparison to even middling superhero films of the previous decade. Without any historical precedent during an industry-crushing shutdown, it’s impossible to know if superhero fatigue played a role in the performance of these movies. But that uncertainty, coupled with the deep investment by Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony in theatrical superhero features for at least the next five years, made the debut of Marvel’s “Black Widow” that much more of a crucial bellwether for the overall financial health of the genre.
The Disney film, starring Scarlett Johansson in her (likely) final performance as Natasha Romanoff, was the first movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to open in theaters in two years. At the same time, Disney Plus subscribers could rent the movie for $30, a first for the MCU. It seemed like a no brainer that “Black Widow” would be a hit. After all, Marvel has yet to misstep at the box office. And yet, in a theatrical landscape still grappling with the pandemic, anything is possible.
By Saturday, the film’s financial outlook appeared to be bright. “Black Widow” had pulled in a mighty $39.5 million on Friday, putting the film on track to end the weekend with $100 million. That would have been on par with the best debuts for a standalone Marvel adventure. And that’s on top of whatever revenue the film was making on Disney Plus Premier Access, not that Disney would ever share that figure. Or so everyone thought.
But then on Sunday morning, Disney did what other studios had only teased: putting an actual figure on the movie’s digital revenues. It reported that “Black Widow” had earned $60 million on Disney Plus worldwide, in addition to the $158 million it earned at the global box office. The disclosure was a surprising, refreshing expression of transparency in a sector that has fiercely guarded audience data. But it also left the industry pondering why Disney would suddenly reverse course — and what, if any, precedent this sets for the future.
Here are the biggest questions in the wake of “Black Widow” and its pandemic record ticket sales.
Why did Disney decide to release its VOD numbers?
The only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but if Mark Twain were alive in the year of our lord 2021, he could have added a third: opaque streaming service metrics. Hollywood studios, namely Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney, have been releasing movies day-and-date on streaming platforms and in theaters for roughly a year now, and while they have dutifully reported box office revenue each week, they’ve never divulged actual VOD numbers. At least, not in a way that carry any context. (For example, Warner Bros. reported in January that upon its release “The Little Things,” the suspense thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek, “immediately shot up to No. 1” on HBO Max without any sense of how many people actually got it to that position.)
Which made it all the more shocking when Disney shattered the the industry-wide omerta over streaming data by announcing that “Black Widow” made $60 million on streaming VOD. So why now? Why this movie?
Disney declined to comment. Yet the sense, at least from rival studio executives, is that Disney wasn’t initially planning to release streaming revenues. But Marvel Studios movies come with a pristine box office track record across 23 features. “Black Widow” did start the weekend strong, but once ticket sales dropped 41% on Saturday to $22 million for the day, it became apparent the film no longer had a shot of clearing $100 million in a single weekend.
And yet, on Sunday, the studio claimed that “Black Widow” earned “the highest domestic opening weekend for a Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story after ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel.'”
On box office alone, that's simply not true: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" ($117 million), "Iron Man" ($98.6 million), "Guardians of the Galaxy" ($94.3 million), and "Doctor Strange" ($85.1 million) all made more than in their domestic debuts. "Black Widow" needed the Disney Plus revenue to push past all those titles.
Disney, however, declined to disclose how much of that $60 million came from domestic Disney Plus subscribers. So if we're taking Disney's claim about "Black Widow" at face value, then all we know for certain is that it made somewhere north of $37.1 million from domestic Premier Access grosses in order to edge past the domestic debut of "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
An $80 million domestic box office debut — setting a pandemic-era opening weekend record — is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But part of Marvel Studios' mystique has been its unquestioned box office supremacy, and Disney, apparently, needed "Black Widow" to be more than a middle-ground financial performer within the MCU.
Is $60 million a good outcome on Disney Plus?
At a quick glance, yes. Unlike box office grosses, in which studios generally agree to split the profits 50-50 with movie theater owners, Disney doesn't have to share the majority of revenues for its streaming service offerings. (Due to Disney's box office dominance, the studio usually sees a more favorable split than its rivals.) That means the Magic Kingdom gets to enjoy nearly all of the riches that come with the $60 million earned globally from streaming VOD.
Let's break down that number. At $29.95 per streaming rental, that means approximately 2 million subscribers opted to watch "Black Widow" at home this weekend. (A monthly subscription, which is needed to rent the movie, runs at $8 a month.) With the average ticket price in the country at $9.50 for a single stub, its $80 million domestic debut means about 8.42 million tickets were sold. Without context from other Disney Plus Premier Access titles, it's impossible to know if $60 million is a strong result or if "Black Widow" would have made more money with an exclusive theatrical release. We do know, however, that Disney Plus has 103 million paid subscribers, meaning only a small fraction chose to pay extra to see "Black Widow" at home.
David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, asserts that however impressive its digital performance is, the sales are ultimately cutting into "Black Widow's" downstream revenues.
When a movie generates $1 billion at the global box office, as MCU movies most recently have, Gross says they tend to gross even more money on premium video-on-demand rental platforms than a movie that didn't have as robust of a box office run. With theaters still recovering from pandemic-era limitations — 19% of theaters in the U.S. and Canada remained closed, according to Comscore — and without a current release date in China, "Black Widow" wasn't expected to cross $1 billion worldwide. But its hybrid release may have reduced its overall digital earning potential even further.
"I am still certain that the theatrical money would be bigger without the simultaneous streaming, and it would bring even bigger streaming value down the line," Gross says.
Will this encourage more theatrical features move to day-and-date releases?
One of the most common refrains in the ongoing ballad of The Plight of the Theater Owner is that at least people will flock to see giant tentpole movies on a big screen. The escalating theatrical grosses for pandemic releases this summer — from "A Quiet Place Part II" to "F9" and now "Black Widow" — certainly seems to bear that out.
There's another way to look at that $60 million "Black Widow" earned on VOD, however. Making that much money off of roughly 2 million subscribers is simply more financially efficient, at least in the short term, than grossing $80 million from 8.4 million ticket-buyers. Put another way, if 2 million more people bought tickets to see "Black Widow" in a theater in the U.S. and Canada last weekend, it would've brought in just $19 million more in grosses — money that Disney would have had to share with exhibitors. It's brutal math, but it's hard to deny.
Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige has reportedly made little secret of his desire to keep their features as pure theatrical plays while the MCU's Disney Plus TV series like "WandaVision" and "Loki" do their job to woo new subscribers. There's also little doubt that "Black Widow" performed so well on Disney Plus in part because of Disney's enormous marketing push to get people to see it in a theater.
And yet, of the top 10 domestic pandemic-era box office debuts to date, seven were day-and-date releases. It bears repeating that this is brand new territory: There's no reference, no comp, that anyone can point to for how this is all supposed to go. But so far, a day-and-date release does not appear to have much of a depressive effect on box office grosses — and, in at least the case of "Black Widow," it helped draw in far more immediate revenue than the film might have otherwise made.
Will Disney continue to report grosses for Premier Access releases?
That's the big question. So far, Disney has declined to disclose its VOD grosses on prior Premier Access titles — the live-action "Mulan" remake, the animated adventure "Raya and the Last Dragon," and "Cruella" starring Emma Stone. Companies like Netflix have opted only to release streaming metrics when it has strong results to highlight, so it wouldn't be surprising if Disney chose to parse out information when it has good news to share.
Of course, the converse is also true: Now that Disney has released Premier Access figures, any time the studio doesn't do so could be seen as an unspoken admission of weak returns.
And Disney doesn't have much time to decide how to proceed: "Jungle Cruise," a family adventure starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, opens on July 30 in cinemas and on Disney Plus under its Premier Access banner.
"I'm a pretty big believer that silence can speak volumes in situations like that," says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro. "To be fair, these studios are in new territory and don't want to be subjected to misinterpreted [data]."
But, as Robbins suggests, Disney's transparency (or lack thereof) could be an important indication of how many subscribers actually shelled out to see a live-action adaptation of the popular theme park ride. In short, any reporting of streaming viewership may still look like the wild west for some time.
Will other studios follow suit and release digital revenues?
For the last 18 months, studios have been incredibly vague about the number of people who have watched a movie on their company's subscription based streaming services. That's exactly why rival studio executives were shocked to find out Disney disclosed streaming metrics for "Black Widow."
"I certainly hope that it sets a precedent for other studios to be more forthcoming on streaming figures," Box Office Pro's Robbins says. "The fact that Disney has made the first move is certainly noteworthy."
To be fair, digital revenues are not as cut and dry as box office data. It's trickier to standardize streaming statistics because every studio has taken its own route to launching new movies since the onset of COVID-19, and each company has a different metric of what constitutes success. For some, it's the pure coinage that comes from rentals. For others, like the Warner Bros. decision to put its features on HBO Max at no additional cost, it's the potential influx of fresh subscribers.
Universal has been putting its movies on premium video-on-demand earlier than usual, a method requires an individual transaction on every title. Insiders at Universal say that nearly every film that the studio has released in the past 18 months, from the family film "The Croods: A New Age" to the slasher comedy "Freaky," has been profitable — but the studio hasn't uttered a peep as far as metrics to back that up.
The one exception was "Trolls World Tour," which skipped theaters to debut on demand last April when theaters were entirely shuttered. After its launch, NBCUniversal's CEO Jeff Shell told the Wall Street Journal the film racked up nearly $100 million in rentals in three weeks, more than the first film made after five months in theaters. That statement sparked controversy, nearly threatening a world war within the film exhibition industry, and Universal did not share numbers again.
Robbins, for one, isn't convinced that Disney has altered the face of streaming forever by reporting digital revenues for a single movie.
"I feel like not much has changed," he says. "We've seen one number come out from one studio. This is a decent first step toward an evolution in streaming metric reports, but there is still significant progress to be made."