When and Where Should Disney and Universal Release Black Widow and Fast 9?

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Week to week, other stories may be the “most important”, but that doesn’t mean that Covid-19 isn’t still the biggest story. As I wrote in a very long article on February 19th, we’re moving away from “lockdowns” as the story to “the reopening of society”. However, that article was limited in that I mostly focused on theaters, not movie studios. The trends that may allow for theaters to reopen are different from the business rationale for studios to release their tentpoles in theaters. They’re related (correlated even), but not causal.

But that still leaves the open questions: will Disney release Black Widow in theaters? what about Universal and Fast 9?

Let’s first review the upcoming theatrical slate, then get to the specifics for those two studios.

The upcoming theatrical calendar could help theaters reopen.

Notably, I didn’t put any specific timelines for when and at what levels theaters could reopen. The variables are too many. States have different criteria and regions have different rates of outbreaks. However, the models do show that a clear majority of folks will have access to vaccinations by the launch of Black Widow on May 7th. Other models back this up. Here’s data scientist Youyang Gu’s look:

Screen Shot 2021-03-02 at 11.20.25 AM

Why wait so long? We’re vaccinating folks so quickly and cases are still generally dropping. Could the reopening take place even faster? Especially with news out last week that New York is reopening theaters at 25% capacity? Could both New York and Los Angeles be open by March? And what would that mean? 

For context, here’s The-Numbers upcoming theatrical calendar:

Screen Shot 2021-03-02 at 11.23.50 AM

Interestingly, these are films that are locked into the calendar. Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and available on Disney’s Premiere Access program. Warner Bros is releasing all their films both on HBO Max and in theaters, including Tom and Jerry last weekend, King Kong vs Godzilla on March 26th and Mortal Kombat in April. In other words, for the big films in March, they aren’t going anywhere, because of the dual release strategy.

Ironically, for as much as theaters hate losing exclusivity in the long run, in the short term this could give them some confidence they will have movies to play if theaters are open at either 25-50% capacity by the end of March. In the fall, there was a chicken and egg problem with theaters: they didn’t want to reopen without big movies to play, but studios didn’t want to give them big movies to play until they were open. The Warners and Universal films being released anyways may solve that problem. Or take this fun quirk: Tenet will premiere in New York this weekend since it never was officially released in theaters in New York. Same will happen in California eventually.

For a few months now, I’ve been focused on Black Widow as the tentpole that was needed to bring theaters back. It’s Disney and, even better, it’s Marvel, so that’s as close to a sure thing a studio could have. But my focus on Black Widow may be too late. If Los Angeles and New York are open for business by March 26th, Godzilla vs King Kong may claim the title as first “blockbuster” of the post-pandemic era.

(And if I were at a studio? I’d be looking to move films up into April. If you get rid of the (largely artificial) constraint of needing a full six to eight week marketing campaign, something like James Bond could slot into April 23rd and have two weeks by itself in theaters. But this is risky/aggressive, which isn’t usually how you’d describe movie studios.)

Despite this, Disney may not open Black Widow on May 7th

As bullish as I am on the “return to normal”, I am not confident Disney will open Black Widow on May 7th, as it is currently slated. There are as many good reasons as bad ones for Disney to keep or move the date. Some of them are qualitative and some are (or could be) quantitative.

Reasons to Move:

– The “expected value” of moving the film may still be positive. Here’s that quick math. The total domestic box office haul of Black Widow (or Fast 9) is in the hundreds of millions. Call it $500 million. (Above the other top individual hero films, but below everything with the Avengers or Black Panther.) Right now, with theaters at 50% capacity or closed altogether, the worry is that Black Widow will only get some percentage of that. Say 75%. If Disney could move the film back just a few weeks to get 100% of that domestic box office, then you’re talking about making an extra $125 million. If you want to quibble with these assumptions, go for it. This is why modeling is tough! But the basic shape of the problem–moving back guarantees higher returns–is in studio executives’ heads, and why they moved all the 2020 films to 2021 in the first place.

– Culturally, especially the progressive/liberal side of the culture, it is seen as irresponsible to be associated with anything that involves leaving the home. Every late night host I saw equated opening theaters to killing folks. The studios can/do worry that they will get lots of negative PR for helping theaters reopen.

– Disney has to make the call soon. Related to the expected value decision, Disney has said they’ll make their decision in the next couple of weeks. Even if the numbers continue in the right direction, there will be plenty of uncertainty about how the situation will look in May. There is lots of speculation about variants and a spring surge. Cases could easily spike in a “spring surge” that shuts down society again. (Though deaths won’t spike with them.) 

Reasons to Keep the Date:

– The entire Disney MCU calendar needs to starting hitting theaters to tie in with the Disney+ TV series. At some point, even Disney can only wait so long. Moreover, the “expected value” of moving the entire calendar back may not be worth it. In other words, say you think Black Widow will still get 90% of the potential domestic box office, that could be worth airing so that Disney can still release Shang-Chi in July and Eternals in November. Getting ninety percent return is much better than getting 0-25%, which was what would have happened if Black Widow premiered last November.

– Disney and Comcast could both try dual release strategies, allowing their films in both theaters and Premium VOD windows simultaneously. That would allow Disney to keep their MCU schedule intact. (This is actually the best argument for keeping the date.)

– The sooner Disney gets MCU films in theaters, the sooner they come to Disney+. Since theatrical films are great at attracting new customers, this would really help Disney+ drive subscriber growth.

– PR-wise, there is also the story to sell that Disney was the film that brought folks back to theaters. That could be a story as positive as it has risks. Especially if the mood of the country shifts and the narratives about getting vaccinated to return to normal are seen as positive.

Add it up? And I have no idea (nor inside info) on what Disney plans to do.

Neither keeping the date, nor moving it would surprise me at this point. While there seems like enough evidence that going to the theater has much less risk than indoor dining, the latter will likely restart soon, but theaters remain in reduced limbo. And so will big tent pole films.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.

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