Disney Film Shifts Signal Careful Approach to COVID Climate

Disney Film Shifts Signal Careful Approach
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

In this article

  • More tentpole shifts dim hopes of a resurgent early summer box office
  • 42 states are still enforcing some degree of capacity limitation
  • The pandemic continues to reshape exhibition windows

Just when the recovery of the U.S. film business seem to be picking up pace, Disney comes along and slows things down.

A new round of calendar shuffling earlier this week at Disney across its two major film slates may have dampened optimism on the return to cinemas, following the vaccination of Americans ramping up and the theatrical reopening of L.A. County and New York City, the two biggest box office markets in the U.S. 

But Disney knows what it’s doing.

Despite Improvements, Domestic Exhibition Is Still Considerably Diminished

The delay of “Black Widow” from May 7 to July 9 and its conversion into a same-day Disney+ release alongside “Cruella” may have dashed hopes that Marvel’s latest tentpole would kick off a resurgent summer at the box office. But the shifting of 20th Century’s slate exhibits even further reluctance to fully embrace the market in its current state.

With Ryan Reynolds-led actioner “Free Guy” moving from May to August, a traditional, exclusively theatrical release from either of Disney’s studios won’t come until the end of July via Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Jungle Cruise.”

This hesitance isn’t surprising, as all 50 states are still a mess of varying restrictions.

42 states are still enforcing some degree of social distancing and capacity limitation, with NYC and L.A. enduring 25% limits at theaters.

In addition, some theater groups are still reluctant to open at all, with Arclight Cinemas announcing it will remain closed until “operating conditions stabilize.”

With potential variant-driven coronavirus surges still being eyed by health experts, waiting until well into summer to resume traditional film releasing makes sense for Disney, given how much its titles earned prior to the pandemic.

European Market Is Valuable Component of Exhibition Equation

Europe’s road back to normalcy has been tumultuous, with vaccine rollouts outside of the U.K. (and Monaco) occurring at slower rates than the U.S.

France, which ranked as the top European box office market in 2020 (per the latest MPAA Theme Report), barely cracks the global top 50 nations in administered vaccine doses as much of the population endures a third lockdown. Likewise, the U.K. won’t see theaters reopen again until the latter half of May.

When we last examined Disney’s film releasing strategy, we highlighted how Disney derives most of its streaming revenue from the U.S. and India and is ramping up content spend on European originals to boost streaming income there.

This makes box office gross in Europe important, as sticking with a May 7 release for “Black Widow” amid the same-day pivot to Disney+ would have boosted incentive to pirate the film due to the lack of theaters able to show it.

The Post-Pandemic Exhibition Endgame Is Taking Further Shape

Warner Bros. just reached a deal with Cineworld, operator of Regal Cinemas in the U.S., to show its films under a reduced 45-day theatrical window from 2022 onward before the studio can send titles to PVOD. This mirrors similar forward-facing deals made by Universal and Paramount with exhibitors.

Unlike those studios, Disney now has a streaming audience second only to Netflix in the SVOD market, so shuffling studio releases again in a variety of ways with respect to its streaming service will allow the company to further figure out which titles work best as theatrical and streaming exclusives.

“Cruella” and “Black Widow” follow “Raya and the Last Dragon” in adopting the “Premier Access” surcharge of $30 required for Disney+ subscribers to stream the films the same day as their theatrical debuts. Making “Black Widow” a Premier Access title is a clear sign the surcharge is working, given its gravity as Disney’s first Marvel theatrical release since “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019.

However, with the debut of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” supposedly topping its MCU sister series “WandaVision” on the service, the hype for Marvel content is back in full force, making “Black Widow” an easy buy for subscribers who want more superhero action but are still wary of theaters.

Since family-aimed releases like the upcoming “Luca” have done well at the pandemic-era box office, diverting that film to Disney+ entirely is a surprise ― until you remember that “Soul” garnered high viewership on the service.

With COVID-19 squeezing the film industry, it’s important for any major studio to figure out the right strategy, especially with such an enhanced SVOD climate at play. But as badly as some may want things to return to normal, a company as big as Disney must proceed prudently.