Here I was, putting the finishing touches on a post entitled ‘Could Disney do a Mulan-style release for ‘Black Widow?’. Yet the perils of writing about film in 2020 overtook me, as things in the movie world have shifted yet again, and there’s now a different release strategy that looks far more likely.
To summarise briefly, I was going to argue that between their reportedly underwhelming results from the ‘Premier Access’ release of ‘Mulan’, and the upcoming release of Pixar’s ‘Soul’ at no added cost to subscribers, I expected Disney to take the data gained from these two approaches and find a middle ground between them. Arguably it seemed likely Disney wouldn’t develop the PVOD infrastructure that we now know is built into Disney+ for a single-use, ultimately leading to them offering ‘Black Widow’ on ‘Premier Access’ for a more modest fee and with extended exclusivity.
Now, I’m not so sure.
Warner Bros just confirmed that they’ll be releasing the highly-anticipated tentpole ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ on their streaming service HBO Max on December 25th, the same day as the cinematic release in the US, though it will be available internationally a week earlier where HBO Max isn’t an option.
Simultaneous releases for big movies like this have been almost unheard of because the theatrical exhibitors don’t agree with them. Until now it’s been considered a strategy that would cannibalize their audience, but this year, it’s a pandemic that’s cannibalized the audience, so studios and theatres are willing to try anything to stay afloat. The theatres know they can’t keep their side of the deal like before, the box office numbers they’re bringing in are a fraction of what they used to be, so they are more willing to compromise to avoid films going entirely to streaming because they hope to get as many customers as legal capacities allow with a big tentpole like a DC movie to show. There’s an eager audience with a strong desire to see it on the big screen as intended, and the number of people wanting that experience doesn’t have to fill every seat, it can’t, so they just have to equal 50% or less, which dare I say it, should be easy enough for a four-quadrant sequel like this.
There’s also the international aspect to consider. ‘Wonder Woman’ took more than $412 in the US and $409 internationally at the box office, hugely outperforming expectations. Where HBO Max isn’t an option, WW84 should be able to fill many cinemas to their reduced capacity limits quite easily, especially around the end of year holidays as it’s more likely to appeal to the whole family than WB’s last attempt at reigniting cinemagoing, ‘Tenet’. Here in the UK, we don’t yet have HBO Max unless you want to get clever with a VPN, so I’m already making plans to get a nicely distanced seat booked at the boutique cinema near me, which I believe will adjust their screening schedule to make sure it’s there on opening night. So making a big movie like this available in cinemas wherever possible, while also catering to your locked-down biggest market via a home-based option, seems like a pretty good plan.
So, the question now is, will Disney follow a similar approach for their delayed MCU movies like ‘Black Widow’? There are some solid reasons to think they might.
Rather than going the route of PVOD for $30 again, it seems there are already signs Disney’s moving away from that system. Their subscriber numbers for Disney+ far exceed their original projections, so they’re taking more than they were forecasted to anyway, without having to add an additional fee. Currently, there are only 9 million subscribers to HBO Max (though that will jump up in December in time for WW84’s release) while Disney+ has over 70 million, the latter having rolled out to a number of countries earlier this year.
Disney+ ‘Premier Access’ backfired badly with ‘Mulan’. Firstly reviews weren’t overly glowing, leaving a lot of buyers feeling like it wasn’t worth the premium cost they’d just shelled out. Then stupidly just weeks later Disney released it on all other PVOD services, ones that didn’t require a Disney+ subscription on top of the cost of the movie, essentially giving a better deal to non-subscribers than their Disney+ customers, which was a really bone-headed move. Now, many who would have been tempted to pay for something via ‘Premier Access’ will be wary, holding off for a better deal, or just, like myself with ‘Mulan’, waiting a few more months for it to be included for free.
A few weeks ago Disney announced they’d be accelerating their plans to focus on direct-to-consumer services, restructuring the business considerably in aid of their streaming services. This has had an almost immediate impact on the release schedule as it looks like they’ll be moving a number of their big films to premiere on Disney+. There were already some live-action family-focused ones such as ‘Godmothered’ set to go to the service, but I expect that will soon be followed by others including ‘Cruella’ and ‘Pinocchio’, films that would otherwise have been expected to go well in cinemas like the other live-action remakes of classics such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King’.
Some of those are far off anyway, while ‘Black Widow’ has been ready to release for months, and it potentially an instant huge earner, maybe close to a billion dollars if it’s anything like the rest of the MCU. However, like ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ I don’t think it will be shifted exclusively to streaming on Disney+ as there are still some countries where the service isn’t available, and even where it is, there are still some cinemas open and eager to show the film. Some of my local independent cinemas regularly show films that are simultaneously on PVOD, if the film is good and will be worth seeing on the big screen they sell enough tickets to make it worth it. A cinematic simultaneous release could suit ‘Black Widow’ very well indeed, covering most eventualities if circumstances shift, and presenting tempting avenues for the audience to finally see this film they’ve been waiting so long for.
I’m really looking forward to finally seeing ‘Black Widow’ whenever it’s released in whatever way I can, hopefully at the cinema though I’ll be happy enough to watch it at home if needed, especially if it’s included at no extra cost in my Disney+ subscription. While nothing quite makes up for not being able to see films like these on the big screen with an audience, what’s worse is not seeing new films at all, especially when we know they’re finished and ready to be seen.