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Disney Suggests Theatrical Future to Be Determined by ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Shang-Chi’ Box Office Results

Disney won't commit to a distribution strategy beyond the current fiscal year; its three-pronged release strategy experiment continues.

"Black Widow"

“Black Widow”


The first big headline from Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s Q1 wrap-up earnings call is that Disney+ added 8.7 million global subscribers during that quarter, bringing the total number to 103.6 million. But that growth failed to meet Wall Street’s expectations; analysts were expecting the streamer to grow to around 110 million subscribers.

But Chapek also reiterated the three distribution options for films that will be released during the rest of the year. Among them is day-and-date theatrical and Disney+ PVOD. The biggest news may be that he declined to reveal how the company planned to release movies in 2022 and beyond, suggesting that the company’s future theatrical strategy hinges on the performance of upcoming titles like “Cruella,” “Black Widow,” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Though two upcoming titles — “Free Guy” and “Shang-Chi” — are being slated for theatrical-only releases (with 45-day windows, putting the final nail in the coffin of the old 90-day window), those alone are not to be intended as indicative of Disney strategy for 2022.

Indeed, Disney+’s subscriber growth was far slower than the previous quarter. Between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021, the service added 21.2 million subscribers, but that huge growth was partially thanks to Disney+ Hotstar growth in South Asia, which now accounts for one third of all Disney+ subscribers.

The slower subscriber growth report for Disney+ coincides with the service’s first price increase since it launched in November 2019. In the U.S., the base price went up $1 to $7.99 a month at the end of March.

But Chapek suggested that the price increase wasn’t to blame for missed Wall Street expectations. He said churn rate — the percentage of people canceling their subscription — hasn’t been “significantly higher” in the U.S.since the price hike. And in other parts of the world, where the company made Hulu content available on Disney+ under the Star brand, churn rate has actually improved, he said.

“We’re extremely pleased to how the market reacted,” he said. “we seem to be fairly resilient to those price increases and as such, I think it makes us feel relatively bullish going forward that we still offer a tremendous price-value relationship across the world for Disney+.”

Compare Disney+’s slower growth to that of Netflix, which only added some 4 million subscribers last quarter, missing Wall Street expectations by 2 million.

Chapek reiterated that throughout 2021, “flexibility” will remain a key component of Disney’s distribution strategy. He reiterated the company’s commitment to three release options.

The first is simultaneously releasing a film in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access for around $30. That’s how “Cruella” will be released on May 28, “Black Widow” on July 9, and “Jungle Cruise” on July 30.

The other option is straight to Disney+ for no extra cost, which is how Pixar’s “Luca” will be released on June 18.

The third is an exclusive theatrical release. The company plans to release the 20th Century title “Free Guy” on August 30 and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” on September 3. Both will get a 45-day theatrical window; they’ll eventually end up on Disney+ or another one of the company’s services following the other release windows.

Chapek said the day-and-date releases give the company a chance to “prime the pumps” of moviegoing consumers who have still not demonstrated a full embrace of theatrical during this stage of the pandemic. Chapek said domestic box office was down 85 percent last weekend compared to an average of the last three years.

And if that fails to prime moviegoers pumps, Premier Access could be here to stay long after the pandemic ends.

“Going beyond this fiscal year, we’ve not announced exactly what our strategy is going to be in terms of which titles will be theatrical plus Disney+ Premier Access, which ones will be direct to Disney+, or which ones will go to theaters, but know that we’ll continue to watch the evolution of the recovering of the theatrical marketplace and we’ll use that flexibility to make the right call at the right time,” he said. “We’ve only called those films that are in this fiscal year because of the relatively fluid nature of the recovery of exhibition.”

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