Disney announced September 10 that its remaining 2021 releases will be theater exclusive for at least 45 days, including Marvel’s “Eternals,” before playing Disney+ or other home platforms. (The exception is 30 days for the animated “Encanto.”) Last week, Paramount delayed its two remaining 2021 titles, “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jackass Forever,” to 2022, while Universal made a surprise announcement September 9 that David Gordon Green’s critically dismissed “Halloween Kills” would debut day-and-date on Peacock.
Exhibitors hoped that the terrific initial results for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” would persuade all studios to keep their release schedules intact and defer any aggressive moves toward home availability. Theaters still have momentum with upcoming debuts for “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (October 1), “No Time To Die” (October 8), and “Dune” (October 22).
“Halloween Kills” opens October 15 as the weekend’s sole wide release; theaters would have very much appreciated its exclusivity as well. The 2018 installment “Halloween” grossed $159 million in North America, but in 2017 “The Boss Baby” grossed $175 million and that didn’t stop Universal from going day-and-date with “The Boss Baby: Family Business” over the July 4th weekend. The sequel grossed $57 million in theaters, less than a third of the original.
Universal’s decision reflects the studios’ continued emphasis in elevating their streaming services. Peacock is not close to Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, or HBO Max in performance or awareness. Like Apple and Paramount Plus, it’s in the unenviable position of catch-up, a critical battle — far more so than protecting theaters.
There’s clear signs that many Universal films thrived with three weeks of theatrical exclusivity before Premium VOD play, but it’s not the default mode. (“F9” had 31 days before PVOD, while availability for “Old” is still TBD.) Like “Boss Baby” over July 4, there’s no suggestion that theaters will refuse to play “Halloween Kills” — even though most exhibitors learned of the studio’s plan just before or when the press release dropped.
Universal’s partners on “Halloween Kills” are Miramax and the prolific Blumhouse Prods., a studio mainstay. It’s impossible to imagine that Jason Blum didn’t give the Peacock decision his wholesale blessing. That suggests studios are not alone in their belief that streaming is integral to release strategies and that late pivots aren’t an admission of panic or failure; it’s just business.
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Perhaps Universal sees home availability for “Halloween Kills” as a way to lure the younger horror-genre audience — one that is less motivated to subscribe to streamers (much less Peacock). That audience’s streamer disinterest could also suggest Universal was willing to gamble on day-and-date placement; by comparison, a same-day title for older audiences might mean a greater threat to the theatrical gross.
On September 24, Universal will release Broadway musical adaptation “Dear Evan Hunter” in theaters. That might been a more logical choice for a same-day play; it might have hoped to duplicate the viewing success of Disney+ last year with its exclusive debut of “Hamilton.” Instead, the studio opted for an aggressive splash with a premiere as the opening-night title of the Toronto International Film Festival. That resulted in a slew of mostly negative reviews that will hurt its theatrical run. Lower-key exposure with an emphasis on its appeal to adults and Broadway fans might have been more effective as a Peacock exclusive.
Perhaps we finally have our new normal: Case by case, week by week. Exhibitors may take reassurance from Disney’s moves, but whether they should is another question altogether.