'Black Widow' Box Office Drop Is Disney+'s Fault, Theater Owners Claim

The National Association of Theater Owners is fighting back against Disney’s plans to release films in theaters and paid streaming simultaneously

Marvel Studios

After “Black Widow” took a 67% drop this weekend at the box office from its $80 million opening, the National Association of Theater Owners is swiping back against Disney’s release strategy of placing the Marvel blockbuster in both theaters and on paid streaming simultaneously.

“Despite assertions that this pandemic-era improvised release strategy was a success for Disney and the simultaneous release model, it demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life,” NATO said in a statement.

The trade organization for movie theaters predicts that a theatrically exclusive release for “Black Widow” could have netted a $90 million-plus opening at the box office. It also argues that the reported $60 million in global paid streaming sales that Disney reported on opening weekend is “pulled forward” from a more traditional premium on-demand window that would come after a theatrical run.

”Combined with the lost theatrical revenue and forgone traditional PVOD revenue, the answer to these questions will show that simultaneous release costs Disney money in revenue per viewer over the life of the film,” the statement reads.

Even before the pandemic, NATO has long argued that a theatrical-exclusive window expands the revenue that a movie can generate for a studio after it leaves theaters and heads for home release platforms, both in drawing streaming service subscriptions and on-demand rentals and purchases.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has led studios to experiment with hybrid release models in order to reach out to moviegoers who might not be comfortable going back to theaters. Warner Bros. is releasing all of this year’s films in theaters and on HBO Max at no extra charge, and Disney will be trying the theatrical/premium model again later this month with the Dwayne Johnson film “Jungle Cruise.”

While Warner Bros. and other studios like Universal have reached agreements with major cinema chains to establish new theatrical windows — Universal’s agreement is in effect and Warner Bros.’ deals with chains will start next year — the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant is creating concern over how quickly the global box office can recover as 2021 goes on, and that uncertainty could make the hybrid model more appealing to studios trying to hedge their bets on releasing films in an unpredictable movie landscape.

Currently, Disney is planning to release the next Marvel movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” with a 45-day exclusive theatrical window. But the studio has backed off of previous promises of exclusivity.The Pixar film “Luca,” was originally announced last December as a theatrical release, but the studio later moved it out of theaters entirely for a Disney+ exclusive release.

Regardless of the unpredictable circumstances, NATO is calling on Disney and other studios to commit films to theaters and to help cinemas trying to recover from the pandemic.

“The many questions raised by Disney’s limited release of streaming data opening weekend are being rapidly answered by Black Widow’s disappointing and anomalous performance,” NATO wrote. “The most important answer is that simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.”

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