Where is Peter Pan when he’s needed to battle the pirate Captain Hook?
Throughout the pandemic, new studio event pics — from Wonder Woman 1984 to Godzilla vs. Kong to Black Widow — are fueling piracy because of their dual releases on streaming and in cinemas. The minute a movie hits a streaming service, pristine copies are available on myriad sites. In normal times, there aren’t such good-quality options until a title has come to the end of its traditional theatrical run, but the COVID-19 crisis has shortened windows dramatically in a bid to grow streaming services.
Following a long period of relative peace between exhibitors and studios, the National Association of Theatre Owners on July 18 blasted The Walt Disney Co. for compromising the fate of theatrical by disclosing that Black Widow collected $60 million in revenue from Disney+ Premier Access in addition to its global box office debut of nearly $159 million during the July 9-11 weekend, hence putting the worldwide start at a publicity-friendly $218 million-plus.
Insiders say theater owners were infuriated that Disney+ disclosed the revenue in what they viewed as a bid to boost headlines. The Hollywood giant hasn’t disclosed any other viewership or revenue numbers for films sent simultaneously to Disney+ Premier Access — which carries an extra price tag of $30 — and the big screen.
The NATO statement didn’t mince words, saying that the day-and-date release strategy for Black Widow undercut the tentpole’s box office potential and promoted piracy — in addition to being responsible for the movie’s “stunning collapse in its second weekend in theatrical revenues,” in addition to dropping an unprecedented 41 percent from Friday to Saturday during its opening weekend. Black Widow was the No. 1 pirated title of the July 19 week, per the news site TorrentFreak; ditto for many other previous day-and-date tentpole releases from Disney+ or HBO Max.
“Piracy clearly impacts male-driven, fanboy films. They will go out and find it for free,” says one studio executive. Yet NATO didn’t attack HBO Max even though such day-and-date titles during the pandemic era likewise have been heavily pirated. Sources noted that the WarnerMedia streamer has far less reach than Disney+ and that HBO Max has never revealed viewership numbers like Disney did.
Most event films during the pandemic era have suffered huge drop-offs in their second week, including Universal’s F9, which received an exclusive theatrical release and fell 67 percent its second weekend. The Fast & Furious installment, however, has gone on to earn nearly $600 million at the worldwide box office. The movie grossed north of $200 million in China alone, while Black Widow isn’t likely to secure a release in that country.
Disney declined to comment on the NATO statement. Insiders, however, say the company is proactive about protecting its films from pirates while also trying to come up with new ways to reach all consumers in challenging times. They also note that Black Widow grossed a pandemic-era best $80 million domestically in box office revenue in its first frame. Sources say that the studio intends to abide by an exclusive theatrical release — barring a major setback in terms of the box office recovery — for its slate of upcoming movies including 20th Century comedy Free Guy in August and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in early September.
Box office and Wall Street analysts agree that day-and-date release will be abandoned once the theatrical sector fully rights itself from the scourge of the pandemic. They also caution to look beyond the initial drop, noting the success of A Quiet Place Part II, which received an exclusive run in cinemas.
“The second weekend drop is only one piece of the puzzle,” says Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s how long a film is in theaters exclusively — and of course positive word-of-mouth and other factors — that are the key to long-term box office success.”
This story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.