Domestic movie theaters are under siege from COVID-19 and from their studio suppliers, not necessarily in that order. On a marathon December 10 Investor Day produced by Disney, the company that provided nearly 40 percent of the 2019 domestic box office, it delivered what passes for upbeat news in the year 2020: Disney’s biggest titles will go to theaters.
Here’s what Disney didn’t say: It didn’t say theaters were the premiere outlet for Disney content. In fact, the presentations made almost no effort to differentiate theatrical releases from those movies and series that will premiere on Disney+. That’s where it’s all going to wind up, the better to achieve streaming-brand “penetration” — a word Disney executives used with the same enthusiasm once reserved for “content.”
What Disney did, say, repeatedly, was “DTC” or, “Direct To Consumer.” Spelled out or acronym, it means Disney’s preferred method of delivery is one that goes straight to subscribers. The theaters’ primary supplier now considers them middle men — indirect to consumers, if you will.
At its core, the presentation was a four-hour coming-out party (with two 10-minute intermissions) for Disney as the doyenne of DTC. Whether it’s Marvel or Pixar, Nat Geo or Star Wars, their first priority is to serve Disney+, Hulu, ESPN, and its international brand Star. Theaters are valued — but at Disney’s discretion. “We’re all about flexibility,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek.
This comes on the heels of Warner Bros.’ paradigm-shattering announcement that all 17 releases scheduled for 2021 will go day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. (while going exclusively to theaters in the rest of the world). Disney didn’t do the same — it said key upcoming titles like “Black Widow,” “Luca,” and “The Eternals” would be “in theaters.” Missing from that declaration were the words “only” and “exclusively,” as well as any assurance that the films would hew to traditional theatrical windows.
Their first major release will be “Raya and the Last Dragon” from their in-house animation division, and it was reconfirmed for March 5. In a period when there is still no guarantee theaters will be fully open, the studio is hedging its bets by also making the title available as a premium offering on Disney+. “Mulan” (at a high price of $29.99) was similarly offered in September, but with no ability for theaters. “Soul” is coming to Disney+ at no extra cost to subscribers, but unavailable to theaters.
Last month’s earnings call hinted that more would be revealed about the financials surrounding “Mulan.” This information is vital for determining which models work — as Chapek said, “Every film is a data point” — but Disney was mum. As a publicly traded company, Disney might have been expected to release data, particularly if it was positive. The decision to go the same route with “Raya” suggests it had some success.
About 100 feature-length films were name-checked during the event; of these, about 20 are currently planned as theatrical releases. Chapek acknowledged Disney’s $13 billion in 2019 box-office revenue as, “That’s nothing to sneeze at,” he said. “For us it’s about balance.” That balance is whatever Disney thinks best suits its purposes; ongoing theatrical participation will be in direct proportion to their performance.
Along with other 20th Century Fox titles, including those from Searchlight, there was no mention of the “Avatar” franchise. (Searchlight got a shout-out as a feeder for Hulu, and James Cameron was mentioned as the executive producer of an upcoming Nat Geo series.) “Avatar 2” is currently set for December 16, 2022. Since the investment in “Avatar” 2-5 is already in the many hundreds of millions, and the films’ appeal centers on theaters with state-of-the-art 3D and sound, that absence seems curious.
Perhaps some editing was needed in an already-lengthy presentation. And, as Disney repeatedly reminded us: Indirect to consumers is not the priority.