As Disney Pushes ‘Black Widow’ and More, Theaters Mull Weeks of Empty Screens

"Soul" is still scheduled to stay with Thanksgiving, but exhibitors are forced to confront what the business looks like without Disney.
Black Widow
Marvel's "Black Widow" was originally scheduled for release May 1.

The delay of Marvel’s “Black Widow” from its November 6 release to May 7, 2021 worldwide was unsurprising, but Disney’s most recent reset is stunning in its implications. The good news is Disney didn’t move new titles to Disney+ or Hulu, and it still will release five more titles this year (four of those from Fox or from Searchlight; none expected to be blockbusters). And then there’s the bad news.

Worldwide Impact on Theaters: Devastating

While the industry expected a delay for “Black Widow,” it didn’t expect one that would last six months. With a similar push for “Eternals,” that means more than a year without a Marvel title; with the loss of “West Side Story,” “The King’s Man,” and “Deep Water,” theaters face starvation rations for the rest of 2020.

Box-office revenue, and the customers who buy concessions, are effectively delayed until November 20 (“No Time to Die” and “Soul”), followed by fewer-than-usual studio Thanksgiving and Christmas releases. Currently, theaters gross around $15 million per week in North America. Even if New York, Los Angeles, and other markets reopen (increasingly questionable, without top titles) and more people return, it’s hard to see how the seven-day total could rise above $30 million between now and November 20. That’s eight weeks; if, somehow, they did, the total would be $240 million. The same eight weeks last year reflected $1.5 billion. Yes, that’s better than zero — what theaters made when they were closed this summer — but they now have expenses, including giving much of that box office to distributors.

These delays also confirm that, for the foreseeable future, studios are uncomfortable with the risk of releasing films. Moving films to new dates emphasizes that uncertainty, along with their fond hope that by May, things will be normal. No one knows that it will be, of course.

Disney had a 33 percent share of domestic box office in 2019. This year will see the release of only two mainstream Disney titles, both from Pixar: “Onward” and “Soul.” Next year, apart from “Raya and the Lost Dragon” in March, nothing more until “Black Widow.” That’s a huge loss for theaters.

"Bill & Ted: Face the Music"
“Bill & Ted Face the Music”Orion Pictures

More Streaming to Come

No one who has experienced the revolution wrought by COVID-19 would assume that the latest Disney release schedule is the final word. Based on circumstances beyond the studio’s control, multiple prior schedules are now are obsolete. Like “Mulan,” “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” “Scoob!,” and other premium VOD releases received new theatrical dates before switching to home availability. That could happen again.

Why “Soul” Remains a Theatrical Release

Pixar’s top 2020 release is still set for November 20, preceded by launches at the Rome and London Film Festivals ahead of worldwide play that will elevate it as an awards contender. With the thinning calendar, it could even mean a shot at an Oscar Best Picture nomination.

For “Soul,” the theatrical argument is strong. It will play from Thanksgiving through at least New Year’s; that’s enough for a good gross, even in this challenging period. (Pixar doesn’t release budgets, but the normal calculation is it cost at least $150 million). Universal currently has “The Croods: A New Age” November 25, but there is room for both. It also suggests that Disney+ results for “Mulan” haven’t been impressive enough to upend all norms.

Regal CinemasRegal Cinemas

Dominos Keep Falling, Slowly

Questions that have dogged exhibitors since March remain unanswered.

When will theaters be fully open? Will audiences want to return in sufficient numbers? How does each studio’s decisions impact the others’? How will studios negotiate windows rules with desperate exhibitors? How long can theaters hold on without sales, mergers, or bankruptcies? (We might ask the same of studios.)

Disney is not the last word. Just like COVID-19, we don’t even know where we are in the story. All involved remain at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

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