Speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference on Monday, Walt Disney Company chief exec Bob Chapek said he’s “not sure there’s going back” to pre-pandemic theatrical windows.
Reiterating the company’s commitment to theatrical releases, Chapek reminded viewers that Disney in 2019 released 11 films that earned at least $1 billion, which “will continue to be a big deal” to the company. But he acknowledged the uncertainty that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic brings, given how few screens are currently open and moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters. Those possible changes to consumer behavior are “more profound” to him.
“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” said Chapek. “Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”
The company will ultimately let consumer behavior guide its decisions on the theatrical windowing front, he said.
“I don’t think they’ll have much of a tolerance for a title, say, being out of theatrical for months, yet it hasn’t had a chance to actually be thrown into the marketplace in another distribution channel, just sort of sitting there getting dust,” he added.
“Raya and the Last Dragon,” which opens in select theaters on March 5, will also hit Disney Plus on the same date in a “premier access” window for an additional $30 fee for subscribers.
That special-window release was previously deployed for “Mulan,” but Chapek would not say how big of a role the strategy would play in a post-pandemic moviegoing environment.
“It certainly makes a lot of sense right now, in a COVID world, to have an option,” he said. “Obviously, theaters aren’t going to be 100% back. But it’s nice to know that we’ve got the ability for people who do want to enjoy it in their home — because they don’t quite feel confident in going to a movie theater — that they’ve got that choice. What this looks like in the future? Well, we’re going to gain a lot of experience and a lot of data points.”
Chapek also discussed Marvel’s slew of upcoming television series, Disney Plus’ astronomical growth and the anticipated re-opening of Disneyland and other Disney theme parks, and touted Disney’s big win at the Golden Globes the night before with Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” winning best picture.
While Marvel has a number of new projects in the pipeline, following the hit “WandaVision” with “Falcon and the Winter Solider” and then “Loki” in the summer, Chapek doesn’t expect viewers to tire of superheroes anytime soon.
“In terms of fatigue, I guess that’s borne out in the numbers,” he said, noting the popularity of “WandaVision.” “I would say the situation is the same for Marvel as it is Lucas[film]. You know, if you look at it, we’ve averaged over a billion dollars a film since the acquisition of both Lucas[film] and Marvel, which I think is an absolutely incredible statistic.”
He refrained from going into detail about either upcoming Marvel series, except that “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is “an epic, almost cinematic type experience… it’s big and bold,” while “Loki” is “equally creative and inventive.”
As for Disney Plus’ 95 million paying subscribers, which exceeded both the company’s and Wall Street’s expectations, Chapek was “surprised” at the service’s global appeal and level of global engagement.
“What we didn’t realize was the non-family appeal that a service like Disney Plus would have. In fact, over 50% of our global marketplace [subscribers] don’t have kids, and that is the big difference,” he said, adding shortly after, “When 50% of the [subscribers to] Disney Plus don’t have kids, you really have the opportunity now to think much more broadly about the nature of your content.”
As for the anticipated return of Disneyland, Chapek is “thrilled” with attendee response to the health and safety protocols that have been implemented at Disney theme parks and resorts that have already re-opened. That appears to have bolstered his bullishness on increasing park attendance once the virus’ impact subsides, though he noted that theme park recovery largely depends on the speed of the vaccine rollout and consumers’ willingness to travel and go back on vacation.
But he is very happy with the “extremely strong consumer sentiment,” he said, and believes “demand is going to rebound quite handsomely.”
The company has used the current shutdown of Disneyland to shutter its much-used annual pass program for the Anaheim, Calif.-based theme park and resort, a move that has upset some passholders. Disneyland is developing “new membership offerings” that is has not yet unveiled.
“In a non-COVID environment, it would have been a pretty tough [decision] to make, because they just keep renewing and renewing, but when you start lapping a year without anybody going for an annual pass program, that gives you the chance,” Chapek said. “We’re going to use that, though, in order to have an even better guest experience at Disneyland and manage the crowd so that no matter what day you go to Disneyland, you can have an extraordinary experience.”