As moviegoing slowly begins to rebound in the U.S., it appears Hollywood studios aren’t yet ready to release their biggest blockbuster hopefuls on the big screen.
All that is to say Disney has massively overhauled its upcoming slate and amended release plans for “Black Widow,” Emma Stone’s “Cruella,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Pixar’s “Luca” and several others.
Notably, “Black Widow” and “Cruella” will now premiere on Disney Plus at the same time they open in theaters. “Cruella” is arriving as scheduled on May 28, while “Black Widow” has been pushed back two months and will debut on July 9 instead of May 7. Both titles will be offered on Premier Access, which comes with a $30 rental fee.
“Black Widow’s” move means that Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which was previously set for early July, was bumped back to Sept. 3. It’s expected to have a traditional theatrical release.
Meanwhile, Pixar’s animated coming-of-age adventure “Luca” won’t play in theaters and instead is launching exclusively on Disney Plus, at no extra cost, on June 18.
Despite the massive refocus on streaming, Disney doesn’t plan to entirely ditch theaters. Numerous smaller titles, mostly those inherited from 20th Century, have been postponed but will bow solely on the big screen, including “Free Guy” (Aug. 13), “The King’s Man”(Dec. 22), “Deep Water” (Jan. 14, 2022) and “Death on the Nile” (Feb. 11, 2022).
Kareem Daniel, the chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment distribution, says the announcement “reflects our focus on providing consumer choice and serving the evolving preferences of audiences.”
“By leveraging a flexible distribution strategy in a dynamic marketplace that is beginning to recover from the global pandemic, we will continue to employ the best options to deliver The Walt Disney Company’s unparalleled storytelling to fans and families around the world,” he said.
Earlier in the pandemic, Disney’s “Mulan” remake skipped theaters and launched on Disney Plus for a premium fee. Disney hasn’t released viewership numbers on any streaming offerings, but the company’s CEO Bob Chapek has hinted that the studio will continue to experiment with release plans as the global theatrical market remains impaired. The announcement comes days after Disney touted record (though entirely vague) viewership for the Marvel Studios TV series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney Plus.
Among film exhibitors and some studio executives, optimism has been mounting in recent weeks as movie theaters in Los Angeles and New York City have started to reopen. However, capacity is being capped 25% (or 100 people per auditorium in L.A. and 50 per auditorium in NYC). That’s notably restricted ticket sales, making it virtually impossible for big-budgeted films to turn a profit in theaters alone. Marvel films, for one, regularly cost over $200 million to produce.
Disney has postponed much of its slate, including several Marvel titles, numerous times amid the pandemic. The studio has been able to witness firsthand how the U.S. market is recovering, as it recently released “Raya and the Last Dragon,” an animated adventure geared toward family audiences, in theaters and on Disney Plus for a premium fee. The film has made $23.4 million in the U.S. and $71 million globally, which is modest by pandemic standards. But it would be financially detrimental for “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi” or any other tentpoles to replicated those results.
Still, Hollywood studios aren’t betting against the summer movie season entirely. Disney and rivals are hoping the general public will feel more comfortable returning to recreational activities, like going to the movies, as more and more people get the COVID-19 vaccine. To that end, Paramount has moved up the release of “A Quiet Place Part II” from September to May 28, while Universal marginally bumped “F9” from May to June 25.
“Black Widow” stars Scarlett Johansson and takes place after the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” It was originally slated for May 2020 but was delayed three times amid the pandemic. As Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, finds herself alone, she is forced to confront a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her former life as a spy, long before she became an Avenger. Cate Shortland directed the film, the 24th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Florence Pugh and David Harbour round out the cast.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” puts the spotlight on Simu Liu as the eponymous superhero, who grapples with his past after he is drawn into the Ten Rings organization. The movie, which has also been bounced back a few times in the past year, features Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Ronny Chieng and Michelle Yeoh.
In the last 12 months, studios have made some bold moves to compensate for the near closure of indoor movie theaters. Perhaps the most notable has been the sledgehammer that was taken to the theatrical window, which is the industry term for the amount of time that new movies play exclusively in theaters. It was traditionally about 90 days, and cinema chains had long resisted studio’s attempts to shorten that timeframe.
But the pandemic has accelerated those changes, with Warner Bros. releasing its entire 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max on the same day the films launch in theaters. Starting next year, the studio will keep its movies in theaters for 45 days ahead of putting them on home entertainment. Paramount similarly plans to keep its new releases on the big screen for 45 days before moving them to the newly relaunched Paramount Plus streaming service. Meanwhile, Universal has forged its own model that enables the studio to offer its films on premium video-on-demand platforms after 17 days in theaters. In return, theater chains are getting a cut of the digital profits.