Not long ago, Disney thought you’d be ready to go to the movie theaters by early May. Now it has changed its mind: Disney is pushing back the release of Black Widow, its next big-budget Marvel movie, from May 7 to July 9.
And even then, Disney is hedging its bets: Instead of insisting that you watch Scarlett Johansson in theaters on opening day, the studio will also let customers stream the movie at home, via its Disney+ service, for an additional $30.
Both of those developments are significant moves. In a single press release, the entertainment giant is telling the world two things:
- Disney doesn’t think there will be enough demand for its most popular and valuable movie franchise in a couple of months — either because consumers don’t want to go or because, in some cases, they will be prevented from going by remaining pandemic restrictions.
- And even when Disney does bring Black Widow to theaters in July, it is worried enough about demand to get rid of the theatrical “window” — the gap between when movies debut in theaters and when they are available for home viewing.
The collapsed window may be even more significant for Disney, since it was the studio that had previously insisted that it was committed to bringing its biggest movies to theaters first and keeping the existing system intact. For years, other studios have talked about, and in some cases experimented with, changing that system, but they weren’t able to do so because of pushback from the movie theaters — even as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon helped customers expect to stream big movies at home right away, without waiting at all.
The pandemic changed all of that: A year ago, as the stay-at-home rules closed theaters around the world, some major studios started to take high-profile movies, like Trolls 2, and let consumers stream them at home. And late last year, AT&T’s WarnerMedia said it would stream all of the movies it had planned to release in 2021 and show them through its HBO Max service, at no additional charge.
But Disney, whose movie strategy is based exclusively on big-budget films from franchises it thinks will draw huge audiences — Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar — has made a point of committing to traditional theatrical releases.
In December, shortly after WarnerMedia announced its shift to streaming movies, Disney told investors it was still planning on bringing Black Widow to theaters in May, even though it was willing to experiment with other release strategies for less-valuable movies. Earlier this month, for instance, Disney put out Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time; it will try that strategy again on May 28 for Cruella, a riff on its 101 Dalmations franchise. And it has put other movies that had been scheduled for theaters exclusively on Disney+, like last year’s Soul.
Black Widow is in a different category than those movies — or, at least, it was meant to be. The announcement comes as increasing numbers of theaters are opening across the country — even Los Angeles and New York City, two major movie markets that have been shut down for a year, are starting to allow people into indoor theaters again, at limited capacity.