Disney said today that the remaining films on its 2021 slate will get an exclusive theatrical window before arriving in homes — major news for a studio that’s gotten endless flak and been hit with a very high-profile lawsuit for its day-and-date releases on Disney+. Blockbuster numbers last weekend for Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which wasn’t available to stream, likely sealed the deal, showing moviegoers are increasingly willing to return to cinemas.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto will bow November 24 with a 30-day exclusive theatrical window before appearing on Disney+. Five other pics will have a 45-day exclusive run in cinemas: The Last Duel (October 15), Ron’s Gone Wrong (October 22), Eternals (November 5), West Side Story (December 10) and The King’s Man (December 22).
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“Following the tremendous box office success of our summer films which included five of the top eight domestic releases of the year, we are excited to update our theatrical plans for the remainder of 2021,” said Kareem Daniel, Chairman, Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution. “As confidence in moviegoing continues to improve, we look forward to entertaining audiences in theaters, while maintaining the flexibility to give our Disney+ subscribers the gift of Encanto this holiday season.”
Exhibitors cheered. “This is big!” tweeted Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, the nation’s biggest theater chain.
Huge Step Forward! Kudos to @Disney for news that is extremely good for AMC. All Disney movies through year-end to have an “exclusive window” in movie theatres, before they go to the home. This is big!A smart, wise decision by Disney. AMC will sell boatloads of tickets for you! pic.twitter.com/zzb5rFDQCt
— Adam Aron (@CEOAdam) September 10, 2021
The announcement comes amid heated debate over day-and-date theatrical/streaming windows, which has been exacerbated by Covid restrictions. It started as soon as theaters began reopening but with little product and few patrons.
Warner Bros announced in early December that its entire 2021 theatrical slate would launch on its HBO Max streamer on the same day the pics hits theaters. The decision took studios by surprise and it launched a subsequent cleanup mission, revising deals to make up for shortfalls in box office revenue or a revenue shift to streaming that could impact compensation. Studio execs always said that decision was only for a year. Warner inked a deal with AMC earlier this month for a 45-day theatrical window in 2022. It had previously signed a similar agreement with Cineworld, parent of the number two U.S. chain Regal.
Universal, and its Focus Features, was the first to deal, agreeing to a 17-day exclusive theatrical window with AMC back in July of 2020. An agreement between Universal and number three exhibitor Cinemark last fall calls for a 31-day theatrical window on titles opening to north of $50 million at the domestic box office and 17 days on all titles opening to under $50M.
The entire industry has struggled with the question since Warner planted its day-and-date flag but Disney, the biggest studio after absorbing Fox, is also the one that had still been viewed as the biggest wildcard on windows, reserving its right to tweak them at will release by release.
The polemic came to a boil after the opening of Marvel tentpole Black Widow with a day-and-date. The film saw the steepest second-weekend drop for any MCU title. Theater owners blasted the studio’s decision, blaming Disney+ for siphoning off customers. Especially since many diehard Marvel fans are repeat viewers, heading to theaters multiple times for the same film. Piracy is also an issue as digital distribution gets ripped-off copies onto pirate sites faster.
Then came Shang-Chi’s stellar numbers — a four-day cume of $94.67M with no streaming with strong holds day to day. “The studios said, ‘This is an experiment.’ I think there is an answer to the experiment. We release it in the theatrical window and if it’s a good movie people are going to come in pretty good numbers — for Shang-Chi, record numbers,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond told CNBC earlier this week.
Black Widow opened with $80.3 million domestically and crossed the $100 million mark in pandemic-record time. Star Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit on July 29 claiming that the studio breached her contract with the hybrid release. Disney called the star insensitive to Covid and noted — in a highly unusual move — that she had been paid $20 million upfront. The company said her contract only requires a wide theatrical release, which there was. That fight is still ongoing.
Disney’s committing to a theatrical window for the rest of the year comes even as the Delta Variant continues to spread, wreaking havoc on pockets of the industry like arthouses, which generally rely on older demos who have been less willing to repopulate theaters. Visibility is far from perfect and release schedules are still being tweaked and movies pushed out. Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed until next year.