Disney’s Black Widow Gamble Didn’t Pay Off

Putting brand-new movies on streaming services might seem great for viewers. But in the long run, it’s bad for everyone.

Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in a midair action sequence

The release of Black Widow earlier this month was one of the biggest tests of a new Hollywood paradigm that emerged after the coronavirus pandemic began: the simultaneous rollout of a blockbuster in theaters and on streaming services. The latest Marvel movie opened in thousands of cinemas in the U.S. and Canada on the same day it was made available to Disney+ subscribers for a $30 surcharge. At first, the gambit seemed to work. In its opening weekend, the film made $80 million at the domestic box office and another $60 million in streaming—a seemingly perfect argument for a hybridized approach.

Then came last weekend, when Black Widow posted $26.3 million, a 67 percent drop at the box office and the steepest such decline in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand. Unlike the week before, Disney didn’t tout its online sales numbers, suggesting a similarly sharp fall. The pent-up hype for the first Marvel movie in two years meant a strong start, but Black Widow now looks as though it will struggle to beat the domestic total of the first Captain America film, from 10 years ago.

What initially seemed like the vindication of a dual-release strategy, then, turned out to be a neat example of the strategy’s financial foolishness. After all, if everyone can access a new blockbuster at once, it’s unlikely to hold people’s attention for longer than a week. But as cinema owners have pointed out, moviegoers are still willing to see new titles in theaters and pay to watch them at home later; the only reason they aren’t doing that is because studios are choosing instant gratification over sustainability.

The National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade group that represents most of the world’s major movie chains, issued a statement essentially arguing that Disney had left money on the table by rushing its movies onto its streaming platform. “Despite assertions that this pandemic-era improvised release strategy was a success for Disney ... it demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life,” NATO said. The group estimated that Black Widow would have opened to revenues anywhere from $92 million to $100 million without Disney+ access and argued that making a movie available digitally allows a lot of people to see it for free, whether due to password sharing or piracy. “Simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself,” the release added.

The next few months are a crucial time for Hollywood, as audiences return after a year of closures and capacity limits. The summer’s biggest releases have already come and gone. Of August’s offerings, only Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad seems like a guaranteed box-office hit, and that will simultaneously debut on HBO Max. The heaviest studio hitters—No Time to Die, Dune, Eternals, and Top Gun: Maverick—aren’t arriving until October or November. The reason NATO’s statement has such a ring of aggression to it is that theater chains see the rest of 2021 as a test of their industry’s long-term viability.

The argument against simultaneous releases for studios is twofold. First is the piracy issue, but second is the simple fact that studios are losing the chance to financially double-dip on a big release—it’s immensely more profitable for fans to see a movie once (or more) in a theater, and then buy it to view at home later. Warner Bros.’ and Disney’s push toward streaming was motivated partly by the pandemic and partly by a desire to attract subscribers to their new services. But in the long run, the strategy won’t generate the kinds of profits that justify the hundreds of millions it costs to make and market blockbusters in the first place.

This is what I argued last December, when WarnerMedia first announced that it would be debuting all its 2021 films on HBO Max—that it would pose an urgent threat to theaters and backfire on studios. To be fair, some of Warner’s releases under this model so far have performed decently; Godzilla vs. Kong made more than $100 million in the spring, and Space Jam: A New Legacy outdid expectations last weekend with a $31.7 million opening, strong for a family film in this market. But the summer films that have enjoyed the greatest longevity at the box office are Paramount’s A Quiet Place: Part II and Universal’s F9, both of which opened only on the big screen. A Quiet Place: Part II showed surprising resilience at the box office following its release, a promising sign of audiences’ willingness to buy tickets rather than wait several weeks to stream at home.

Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise will follow the same model as Black Widow. But its next Marvel entry, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, will open exclusively in theaters. If those plans change, that will indicate that Disney sees at-home viewing as a crucial pillar of its business, no matter the negative impact on theaters or on its bottom line at the box office. Audiences are far more patient than studios give them credit for, and they deserve more chances to prove it.