The Disney empire stunned rival Hollywood studios and theater owners on Sunday when including premium video on-demand numbers in its box office note for the Marvel female-led superhero pic starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s the first time any movie studio has revealed such data for an opening weekend, and only the second time for any PVOD title after Trolls: World Tour (several weeks after Trolls 2 movie opened in spring of 2020, NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell said the animated film had amassed more than $100 million.) Otherwise, viewership numbers have been kept in the vault, whether for PVOD titles or studio films opening simultaneously on their sister companies at no extra fee (think HBO Max, or Disney in some instances.).
Now comes along Black Widow to make the web more tangled, and putting pressure on studios to reveal such information going forward on behalf of filmmakers, talent and agents.
According to Disney’s Sunday note, the big-budget Marvel tentpole grossed more than $60 million on Disney+ Premier Access — subscribers had to pay an extra $30 to watch Black Widow — while debuting to a pandemic-era best $80 million at the domestic box office and $78.8 million overseas for a global theatrical bow of $158.8 million. The Disney+ portion made up a hefty 27 percent of the total $218.8 million opening.
That $60 million from Disney+ would mean that about 2 million member accounts of its 103 million global subscriber base paid $30 to see Black Widow. Disney executives wouldn’t say whether they will continue to reveal numbers for its upcoming day-and-date Premier Access releases, such as July’s Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt and based on the iconic Disneyland ride. Nor did they revisit the recent past, and dole out Disney+ Premier Access numbers for Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon.
Studios including Disney and Warner Bros. have indicated that this day-and-date practice is a consequence of the pandemic, which wiped out moviegoing. (Warners is making its entire 2021 slate available at no extra cost to HBO Max subs, so it would be almost impossible to give a revenue figure in the same way.)
There was immediate speculation that Disney decided to announce the Disney+ numbers to enhance Black Widow‘s opening in honor of Marvel’s prowess.
While $80 million domestically is nothing to smirk at amid the ongoing recovery, some analysts had hoped Black Widow would clear $90 million. But the movie’s progress was stalled when traffic fell off a steep 41 percent from Friday to Saturday, an almost unprecedented drop for a Marvel title.
“For marketing purposes it’s great to show people the movie made over $200mn for the weekend. It’s a psychological number,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM partners.
Veteran distribution executives say it’s clear that the availability of the movie on Disney+ cannibalized box office, noting that an entire household might have gone to see the movie in the theater but could instead pay just $30 to watch it together at home. Also, Disney gets to keep nearly all of the Premier Access revenue, versus splitting box office ticket sales with theater owners.
Other sources believe Disney may have been trying to send a message to some exhibitors overseas who were reluctant to play Black Widow because of the day and date release. That applies to some theater owners in Japan, who wanted better terms than Disney was willing to offer.
The box office is still in recovery mode, and far from operating at normal levels in some parts of North America, not to mention the movie’s hybrid release strategy. Moviegoers who are 35 and older are far less likely to return to the multiplex, while some parents are reluctant to take unvaccinated kids to the multiplex.
As it turned out, Black Widow was frontloaded at the domestic box office by fanboys (males made up 58 percent of ticket buyers.)
It’s not clear when Disney activated its plan to include the Premier Access numbers. For its part, Disney has used the past 15 or 16 months to experiment with its streaming service, which now boasts more than 100 million customers worldwide. It has sent some movies straight to Disney+ at no extra charge. Black Widow, costing at least $200 million to produce, wasn’t one of them.
Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore thinks the result for Black Widow is a boon for the box office either way, noting that overall domestic revenue crossed $100 million for the first time since before the pandemic struck. He also noted that the marketplace is still grappling with “latent consumer reticence” and theaters which have yet to open their doors.
“If the pie is big enough to power $158.8 million worth of global theatrical revenue plus $60 million worth of streaming it shows that consumers love to have a choice, Dergarabedian says. “But this model does not apply to all movies and that’s why each film’s big screen/small screen success must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
The other two recent box office hits, Universal’s F9 and Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II were given exclusive theatrical releases.
Universal made history last when convincing the country’s largest chains to create a new PVOD window at 31 days to 45 days a price of $20. Analysts believe PVOD has been a boon for the company, although it hasn’t been able to publicly celebrate that success outside of Trolls.
Disney has indicated that it will return to a traditional theatrical release strategy this fall, while Warners has said the same regarding its 2022 slate. But there are no binding guarantees. Conventional wisdom would say that theatrical still drives a film’s trajectory, but Black Widow‘s Disney+ reveal adds a new layer.
“This is going to shake up the industry, and cause problems. Talent and exhibitors will be very upset,” says one source.