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Marvel Studios’ Black Widow may have just changed the rules of Hollywood’s all-consuming streaming wars race.
The Walt Disney Co. stunned rival Hollywood studios and theater owners Sunday when it included premium video on-demand numbers in its box office note for the female-led superhero pic starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s the first time any movie studio has revealed such data for an opening weekend, and only the second time for any PVOD title after Trolls: World Tour (several weeks after Trolls 2 opened in spring 2020, NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell said the animated film had earned more than $100 million.) Otherwise, viewership numbers have been kept in the vault, whether for PVOD titles or studio films opening simultaneously on their sister companies’ streaming services at no extra fee (think HBO Max, or Disney in some instances).
Now along comes Black Widow to make the web more tangled, and putting pressure on studios to reveal such information going forward on behalf of filmmakers, talent and agents.
According to Disney’s Sunday note, the big-budget Marvel tentpole grossed more than $60 million on Disney+ Premier Access — subscribers had to pay an extra $30 to watch Black Widow — while debuting to a pandemic-era best $80 million at the domestic box office and $78.8 million overseas for a global theatrical bow of $158.8 million. The Disney+ portion made up a hefty 27 percent of the total $218.8 million opening.
That $60 million from Disney+ would mean that about 2 million of its 103 million global subscribers paid $30 to see Black Widow. Disney executives wouldn’t say whether they will continue to reveal numbers for upcoming day-and-date Premier Access releases, such as July’s Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt and based on the iconic Disneyland ride. Nor did they revisit the recent past and dole out Disney+ Premier Access numbers for Mulan or Raya and the Last Dragon.
Studios including Disney and Warner Bros. have indicated that this day-and-date practice is a consequence of the pandemic, which wiped out moviegoing. (Warners is making its entire 2021 slate available at no extra cost to HBO Max subscribers, so it would be almost impossible to give a revenue figure in the same way.)
There was immediate speculation as to why Disney decided to announce the Disney+ numbers for Black Widow. While $80 million domestically is nothing to smirk at amid the ongoing recovery, some analysts had hoped Black Widow would clear $90 million. But the movie’s progress was stalled when traffic fell a steep 41 percent from Friday to Saturday, an almost unprecedented drop for a Marvel title.
“For marketing purposes it’s great to show people the movie made over $200mn for the weekend. It’s a psychological number,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.
Veteran distribution executives say it’s clear that the availability of the movie on Disney+ cannibalized box office, noting that an entire household might have gone to see the movie in the theater but could instead pay just $30 to watch it together at home. Also, Disney gets to keep nearly all of the Premier Access revenue, versus splitting box office ticket sales with theater owners.
Other sources believe Disney may have been trying to send a message to some exhibitors overseas who were reluctant to play Black Widow because of the day-and-date release. That applies to some theater owners in Japan, who wanted better terms than Disney was willing to offer.
Also, the box office is still in recovery mode and far from operating at normal levels in some parts of North America and overseas. U.S. moviegoers who are 35 and older are far less likely to return to the multiplex, while some parents are reluctant to take unvaccinated kids. Thus, it’s impossible to know how many of those watching Black Widow on Premier would have gone to the cinema.
As it turned out, Black Widow was frontloaded at the domestic box office and fueled by fanboys (males made up 58 percent of ticket buyers).
It’s not clear when Disney activated its plan to include the Premier Access numbers. For its part, Disney has used the past 15 or 16 months to experiment with its streaming service, which now boasts more than 100 million customers worldwide. It has sent some movies straight to Disney+ at no extra charge. Black Widow, costing at least $200 million to produce, wasn’t one of them.
Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore says the result for Black Widow are a boon for the box office either way, noting that overall domestic revenue crossed $100 million for the first time since before the pandemic struck. He also noted that the marketplace is still grappling with “latent consumer reticence” and theaters that have yet to open their doors.
“If the pie is big enough to power $158.8 million worth of global theatrical revenue plus $60 million worth of streaming, it shows that consumers love to have a choice,” Dergarabedian says. “But this model does not apply to all movies, and that’s why each film’s big-screen/small-screen success must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
The other two recent box office hits, Universal’s F9 and Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II were given exclusive theatrical releases.
Universal made history last year when it convinced the country’s largest chains to create a new PVOD window for smaller titles at 17 days, and then 31 days to 45 days for larger event pics. Analysts believe PVOD has been a boon for the company, although it hasn’t been able to publicly celebrate that success outside of Trolls 2.
Disney has indicated that it will return to a traditional theatrical release strategy this fall, while Warners has said the same regarding its 2022 slate. But there are no binding guarantees. Conventional wisdom would say that theatrical still drives a film’s trajectory, but Black Widow‘s Disney+ reveal adds a new layer.
“This is going to shake up the industry and cause problems. Talent and exhibitors will be very upset,” says one source.
Adds Dergarabedian, “The marketplace is still a work in progress.”
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