On March 23, Hollywood studio executives woke up to headlines that mega-U.K. exhibitor Cineworld, owner of Regal Cinemas in the U.S., will start to open select Regal locations beginning in early April.
Regal, the country’s second-largest chain behind AMC Theatres with 536 theaters in the U.S., had been closed for six months. More good news arrived with word that Los Angeles may be among a handful of counties where newly opened cinemas can increase capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent in the coming days. (L.A. is the country’s largest moviegoing market and key to studios getting back on track.)
By noon, however, clouds of doubt rolled in when Disney announced it is delaying Marvel Studios’ Black Widow once again, along with five other films. Black Widow moves from May 7 to July 8; to boot, the superhero spinoff will be made available to Disney+ subscribers for a Premier Access charge of $30. And while Memorial Day tentpole Cruella is keeping its May 28 theatrical release date, it will also debut simultaneously on Premier Access.
Publicly, there was no uproar among theater owners, nor a dour reaction from Wall Street. All sides are resigned to the fact that every Hollywood studio is going to experiment with different release models as long as the pandemic continues. And although the landscape may be improving in the U.S., where movie theaters have at last reopened in Los Angeles and New York City, Europe remains in a crisis. It’s also possible that major entertainment conglomerates are being advised on the long-range implications of the pandemic and need to “hedge their bets,” as one film financier tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“Black Widow is an expensive movie. It’s not surprising they are pushing back the date,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. “Disney isn’t comfortable releasing a $200 million-plus movie when there is so much uncertainty.”
Handler and others believe foremost that Disney is using the pandemic era to test the appetite for premium video-on-demand. Black Widow and Cruella provide unique opportunities. “This year is all about experimentation,” he says. “Disney isn’t abandoning exhibitors.”
Disney likewise offered Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon to Disney+ subscribers for $30, but Black Widow is the first superhero pic to try its luck on premium video-on-demand in those countries where the streaming service is available.
Analysts believe theater chains can’t afford to pass up playing Cruella or Black Widow. Nevertheless, exhibitors like Cinemark and Harkins, both based in the U.S., are currently refusing to play Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon because the chains wanted better terms than usual since Raya is also playing on Disney+.
According to several sources, Warner Bros. is offering more generous terms to theater circuits — or notably more than 55 percent of each ticket sold — that are playing its 2021 slate in exchange for a day-and-date release on HBO Max. Disney, however, hasn’t done the same to date.
Disney delayed a total of six films this week; four are staying on this year’s calendar, while two are moving to 2022, including Death on the Nile, which stars embattled actor Armie Hammer.
Disney’s Black Widow change prompted speculation as to the fate of other high-profile early summer tentpoles. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II is set to open Memorial Day weekend on May 28, and Universal will unveil F9, the next installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, on June 25. Sources tell THR that there are no plans as of now to move either film or to engineer a dual home-big screen release.
In pre-pandemic times, theater owners had the clout to stop even the biggest Hollywood studio from sending a movie early to the home before three or so months. That all changed when the novel coronavirus virus struck in early 2020, forcing theater closures across the globe.
A year ago, when the marquee was going dark, exhibitors were outraged when Universal announced in spring 2020 that it was sending Trolls World Tour to premium video-on-demand for $20. By mid-summer, outrage turned into acquiescence when Universal struck a landmark deal with AMC to create a new premium VOD window beginning as early as 17 days after a title first hits the big screen. That model was followed by a deal with Cinemark to create a 31-day window for titles meeting a certain threshold on opening weekend.
Tensions flared up again when WarnerMedia, home of HBO Max, announced with no warning that Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 film slate would debut day-and-date in cinemas and on the streaming service. Directors and stars were furious, prompting Warners brass to say the edict would end after 2021. This week, the company confirmed this promise when saying it has agreed to provide Regal with a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for its marquee titles in the U.S. and 31 days in the U.K. Paramount has indicated it believes in a 45-day window for its movies.
While there hasn’t been the same blistering anger expressed over Disney’s Black Widow or Cruella decision, insiders say many theater owners weren’t exactly happy. Nevertheless, they comprehend that every studio is pursuing a different model, particularly during the great streaming arms race. “There’s not much theaters can do,” says Handler.
“Everyone has made their big moves. Businesses will look at what works, and then there will be more right-sizing,” says one studio veteran. Adds another studio distributor, “There will no longer be a cookie-cutter approach and every film will be treated differently.”
In his note to investors, Wall Street analyst Eric Wold of B. Riley Securities said Disney’s day-and-date test of Black Widow, a well-known IP, will provide the entertainment Goliath with “valuable movie-demand data for both sides of the table that would influence future decisions.”
Another source speculates that Disney wants to hedge its bets in case Europe remains locked down, while the U.S. imposes new restrictions; Disney is experimenting with day-and-date economics; Disney expects reoccurring shut downs for years, until most of the globe has been vaccinated.
“The pandemic is still causing massive exhibition issues,” the source adds. “We will not see a picture be released on 35,000-plus screens anytime soon.”