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Disney thinks you’ll be ready to see Black Widow in theaters by May

Even after the pandemic upended the movie business, Disney is sticking to the status quo.

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow. Marvel Studios
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last week, WarnerMedia announced it was trying to blow up the movie business, with a plan to stream big movies to your home on the same day they appear in theaters.

Disney has a very different message: The company will stream big movies to your home, too. But it will bring its biggest movies — like Black Widow, its latest Marvel installment — to theaters first.

In other words: status quo, for now.

Disney unveiled its non-change at a marathon, shock-and-awe presentation for investors on Thursday. The stay-the-course message wasn’t its main message. What Disney really wanted to communicate is that it has an enormous amount of movies and TV shows coming over the next year, many of which will appear on its Disney+ streaming service.

Disney’s strategy also isn’t a surprise. While other Hollywood studios have talked about changing the traditional theatrical movie release schedule, Disney has always defended it, with good reason: Disney hopes that all of its Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar movies will be huge events that will draw people off their couches and into theaters.

Still, the fact that there had been speculation — fueled in part by a dubious “leaked” video that surfaced last month — that Disney might make a change to its strategy shows you how tumultuous 2020 has been for the movie business. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down theaters in March, prompting studios to make all sorts of streaming experiments they had never tried before.

That includes Disney, which offered one big-budget movie, Mulan, as a $30 rental, and moved another one, Soul, directly onto Disney+. It will repeat that strategy for some other films in the future — Raya and the Last Dragon will be another “premium rental”; a live-action Pinocchio with Tom Hanks will go straight to Disney+.

But Disney expects theaters to open next year, and audiences to show up — even before the pandemic goes away. The company announced that Black Widow is set to come to theaters on May 7; a complicated Covid-19 vaccine rollout might still be underway by then. Will you be ready to hang out indoors with a lot of strangers for a couple hours at that point?

If Disney wanted to hedge its bets, it could have pushed the release date further back or simply not assigned one at all. Instead, it wants to reaffirm its commitment to movies in theaters.

But Disney wants it both ways: It also wants to convince investors that it’s committed to its pivot to a Netflix-style streaming business, which has been off to a roaring start. Disney+ now has nearly 87 million subscribers worldwide, a little more than a year after its launch, and now the company thinks all of its various streaming services can get to 230 million subscribers by 2024. Netflix, by contrast, is at 200 million subscribers — but has been in the streaming business since 2007.

So Disney’s job during its presentation was to show off all the stuff you could see without leaving your home — primarily a ton of spinoffs from existing movies and shows, like two new Star Wars shows and multiple Marvel shows. It’s an enormous list, and Disney took its time showing all of it off with a presentation that ran four hours on Thursday night.

Investors loved the pitch. Disney’s stock shot up 4 percent on Thursday evening. And meanwhile, back in Hollywood, actors, directors, producers, and their agents took their turns screaming at WarnerMedia about its plans, vowing to do ... something about it.

It’s possible that, over time, WarnerMedia’s plan will seem less radical, and more like an inevitability — and even Disney will move more of its most valuable assets to your screen instead of making you watch them on a theater’s screen first. But that won’t happen anytime soon.