During today’s Walt Disney Company Q3 earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek specifically addressed theatrical releases versus Disney+ Premier Access tier releases now that the COVID-19 Delta variant is rising in states around America and throughout the world.
For movie fans who have been following the Black Widow debacle — Marvel Cinematic Universe leading lady Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) is suing Disney for $50 million citing breach of contract for simultaneously releasing her MCU origin story film simultaneously in theaters and on Premier Access — Chapek’s comments may provide some clarity.
The executive indicated that Disney and its subsidiaries — which include 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox), Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios and Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucasfilm, Ltd. (Star Wars) — must “put a stake in the ground” in regard to how they release movies in this “very uncertain world”.
Essentially, he indicated that “at some point” Disney must stick to its decision in regard to each film’s release strategy, regardless of what it is.
Mulan (2020) was the first film that was released on Disney+ Premier Access. Since then, the company has adopted a three-pronged approach, with some films releasing only on Disney+ for no additional fee — this is what happened with Soul (2020) and Luca (2021) — some releasing simultaneously in theaters and on the $29.99 Disney+ Premier Access tier — this is what happened with Raya and the Last Dragon (2020), Black Widow (2021), and Jungle Cruise (2021) — and others releasing only in theaters — this is what happened with Ryan Reynolds’s Free Guy (2021) and the upcoming film The Eternals (2021).
“We said from the very beginning that we value flexibility in being able to make as many last-minute calls that we can given what you see in the marketplace [due to the pandemic era]. Certainly, when we planned our schedule that we’re executing right now we did not anticipate — nor did anybody — the resurgence of COVID as well as the marketplace impact. We work in the ecosystem having a lot of partners. They need to be able to plan their business too. At some point, we have to put a stake in the ground.”
He went on to specifically direct the company’s next two releases, which will both be solely in theaters — 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy tomorrow, August 12, and Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on September 3, 2021.
Chapek noted that Free Guy, since it is a 20th Century Studios release, did not allow Disney the “freedom” to alter the release strategy to include a streaming platform.
He then went on to say:
“Shang-Chi, that’s going to be a title that we put in the marketplace [i.e. do not release on streaming immediately]. Free Guy, that’s going to be a title that we’re going to put into the marketplace — not knowing three months earlier when you make that commitment what exactly the marketplace is going to look like…it says that we value flexibility and we value following where the consumers is going to go. Some of that is uncertain, in terms of being relative to where the rest of the market is…Nothing is in stone because the marketplace is rapidly changing. At some point, you’ve got to put a stake in the ground and say this is what we’re going to do. That’s where we ended up on the next two titles coming out.”
Chapek’s continued focus on flexibility indicated that Disney is not ready to commit to a singular release strategy for upcoming films. This means that movie releases as we once knew them in a pre-COVID world are likely altered forever.
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