As has been mentioned often enough, COVID-19 absolutely wrecked the film industry as we knew it. Besides for delaying productions and releases, Hollywood studios have finally had their hands forced when it came to adapting to a modern audience who wanted more flexibility in being able to watch new releases quicker in the comfort of their own homes and not just being bound to a packed movie theatre. And it only took a global pandemic killing millions to effect that change.
Whatever the tragic inciting event was, we’re now in a new era of film releases. And for Disney that has meant a whole lot of experimentation in uncertain times. Initially, Disney delayed all its big releases, just like everybody else, but as cinema doors remained closed, it took the step of shunting some smaller-scaled films to its Disney+ streaming service and keeping big productions back in the hopes of the film industry recovering. As the latter started to look unlikely, Disney took the historic step of making Mulan available on Disney+ for an additional cost of $30 alongside a theatrical release. This new Disney+ Premier Access model was also used for Raya and the Last Dragon, and the upcoming Cruella, Black Widow, and Jungle Cruise.
You would think that after those releases, things would get back to the way they were – especially, after Disney used a very cool Marvel promo to celebrate a return to watching movies in cinemas just recently. But while upcoming releases Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy (released through the Disney-owned 20th Century Studios) will both be hitting cinemas, they won’t be staying there for as long as expected as they will just have a 45-day theatrical window, as revealed by Disney CEO Bob Chapek during an investors call yesterday.
Traditionally, theatres have steadfastly held to a 90-day exclusivity period for decades, a window that studios have never been in favour of. Outside of a tiny handful of exceptions, most movies make the bulk of their money in their opening two or three weeks. Studios would then like to shop those movies to other platforms immediately to continue making money, but they’ve never been allowed to. But with the world’s biggest cinema chains hitting dire straits, Universal Pictures became the first studio to shake things up by negotiating a brand new theatrical release strategy, whereby a movie can get shopped around to PVOD streaming services after just 17 days (so in other words, at least three weekends) of theatrical release. However, movies that earn more than $50 million by that point though, stay in cinemas longer, so blockbusters will still get the big-screen treatment they deserve.
Warner Bros. took a more controversial approach by making every single one of its 2021 releases available simultaneously in theatres and on the studio’s fledgling HBO Max sister streaming service (movies only remain on HBO Max for a month though). The studio has said that it will not take this strategy forward past 2021, but it’s been so successful in boosting HBO Max subscriber numbers that I think they may just make a plan to keep it around in some form. Meanwhile, Paramount has fallen somewhere in the middle of Universal and WB’s extremes by shortening its theatrical release window to 45 days, half the traditional pre-COVID-19 standard. After that 45 day window, movies will then be made available on Paramount+, the studio’s brand new streaming service.
And now Disney is following in Paramount’s footsteps with August’s Free Guy and September’s Shang-Chi… but maybe not permanently. Chapek was unwilling to reveal what Disney’s 2022 and beyond release strategy would be. According to the CEO, the day-and-date release of Black Widow, Cruella, and Jungle Cruise to both Disney+ Premier Access anf theatres will allow the studio to “reprime the pumps” of moviegoers who are still hesitant about returning to cinemas.
Of course, 90% let’s say of the domestic marketplace is open right now. And we’re encouraged in terms of polling in terms of that growing going forward, but if you look at last weekend’s box office for an example and compare the last three years of pre-COVID box office, it was 85% low domestically and 67% below internationally. So we know the market is not quite there yet. So the Disney Premier Access strategy, one of the things it gives us right now, and we’re grateful for this, is the ability to go ahead and try to release things into the market, and try to reprime the pump, if you will, but at the same time know that for those consumers that are a little leery still about going into a packed theater, that they can go ahead and watch it in the safety and convenience of their home.
Chapek went on to say that “we’ll continue to watch the evolution of the recovery of the theatrical marketplace and we’ll use that flexibility to make the right call at the right time”. In other words, the box office performances of those three movies, combined with the numbers of Free Guy and Shang-Chi with their shortened theatrical windows, will then be used to determine Disney’s overall future approach to how the studio will release movies going forward.
It’s a strategy that is essentially hedging Disney’s bets which fits in perfectly with the studio’s history of being pretty risk-averse. One other factor that will play a huge part in Disney’s eventual decision though is that new subscriber growth for Disney+ has slowed down much more than expected between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021. Some have attributed this to a $1 price increase, but Chapek has shut down that reasoning saying that churn rate (the percentage of people who cancel their subs) did jump significantly after the price hike. More than likely it probably just came down to a lack of must-watch offerings. The second season of flagship Star Wars show The Mandalorian had already wound down, and while Marvel’s WandaVision was a critical smash, it was definitely not the most accessible program for general audiences. However, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been a viewership smash hit and with the debut of Loki around the corner, coupled with the Disney+ Premier Access release of Cruella on 28 May, Black Widow on 9 July, and Jungle Cruise on 30 July, that should help to drive up numbers again.
Last Updated: May 14, 2021