Blaming Disney+ for the ‘Black Widow’ Drop Was Not a Smart Argument

·5 min read

After “Black Widow” dropped a whopping 67 percent in its second weekend, the National Association of Theater Owners dropped a bomb of its own with a press release that declared the Marvel movie proved “theatrical exclusivity is the way forward” and asked, “Why did such a well-made, well-received, highly anticipated movie underperform?” In its next breath, NATO answered its own question: “It demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life.”

Disney, other movie studios, and their Wall Street backers might beg to differ — but as IndieWire’s box office editor Tom Brueggemann and editor at large Anne Thompson point out in this conversation, NATO might not have done the best job in proving its point.

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TOM: The National Association of Theater Owners released a statement on Sunday that blamed the unusually high drop in grosses for “Black Widow” on Disney, which placed the film from the start on Disney+ (with an additional $29.99 cost). The statement included some valid points, but highlighting the PVOD as the sole reason for the fall (41 percent the first Saturday from its opening, then 67 percent down the second weekend), NATO hurt its own case.

ANNE: NATO president and CEO John Fithan and his lieutenant Patrick Corcoran (VP and chief communications officer) have to make cogent arguments for why theaters are the best possible way for the studios to return the most money on their multi-million-dollar movies. Over the decades, the many threats to movies all became ancillary markets — TV, cable, homevideo — and box office drove that value. It’s how Hollywood figured out what a movie was worth, and crunched the numbers on how it would perform in all the markets that followed an exclusive theatrical release.

Now there’s a new dominant distribution model challenging the old one and Corcoran’s press release tries to argue that releasing movies in theaters is still the best way for a big Marvel tentpole to make its billion dollars worldwide. He wants every studio head to read his numbers and weep.

TOM: One person in particular, I’d guess — Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. But that’s why I question why NATO chose to argue that point. Studio heads know that “Black Widow” was available on PVOD from day one — not the first Saturday, not the second weekend. My guess is they all had the same thought as I did: Hey, isn’t the reaction of those who saw the film in theaters (and perhaps at home as well) a major reason why it dropped?

“F9” - Credit: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
“F9” - Credit: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

My sense is it lacked the sizzle of many Marvel films. It felt more like fellow big-deal franchises like the Bond films, the “Fast and Furious” series, the “Mission: Impossible” films — the big set pieces, the contemporary European setting — and lacked fun, particularly the kind that comes from interaction with other Marvel characters. Entertaining, and more than competent, but not standout. Plus, it initially got a 58 percent male audience rather than a possible female boost. Perhaps that group was not enthralled.

Industry people I hear from have a much more nuanced reaction to its performance. They’re aware that we have multiple examples of successful day-and-date releases, as well as similar drops. “F9” also fell 67 percent its second weekend — and it is not on PVOD yet! “Godzilla vs. Kong” fell 56 percent in its second weekend and it was available for free on HBO Max for subscribers, not an additional $29.99.

To me, it weakens an argument when you underestimate the knowledge of those whom you want to influence. It’s a complicated issue. Overstating that case lessened the impact of more valid points —the impact on the total revenue stream, and piracy.

ANNE: I liked “Black Widow” a lot. My guess is the opening-weekend audience was the most eager and excited fan base and the second-weekend drop is a combo of weak word of mouth and the option to buy it online. Also, doesn’t the recent COVID surge also play into the numbers, as many moviegoers may not want to assemble indoors in an often mask-free environment?

Corcoran isn’t addressing that issue because his real fear is that, post-pandemic, these new distribution models will solidify into the norm. Exhibitors are hoping and praying that somehow, some way, they will return to the old ways.

To quote the cliche, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Day-and-date releases are here to stay. It’s better for a movie to play in theaters opposite premium access than on streaming for the price of a monthly subscription — like Pixar’s “Luca,” which meant families weren’t in movie theaters and buying popcorn and candy. That’s how theaters make their money. At least this way moviegoers have a choice of how to see their movie.

TOM: There are benefits in options. And although it makes their argument less dramatic, it includes some benefits for theaters.

First, we can’t assume grosses are going to recover; certainly, not soon. Studios like Disney that spend $200 million+ to make movies are more likely to continue doing so if they can be guaranteed more revenue, which this model does. Second, by all reports theaters are paying less in film rentals — perhaps significantly so — when the films are also playing at home. Yes, they want butts in seats that buy concessions, but it’s possible that with lower rentals their overall return might not be dramatically lower. Third, I’d assume that PVOD meant Disney spent more in marketing. That helps theaters as well.

Your point about COVID still a factor is also quite apt as far as an overall deterrent. Perhaps that’s a big reason for the drops — as you said, the most likely to see it went as soon as possible. As for the pool of remaining ticket buyers, they included a bunch of people who still are not returning in numbers.

Of course, theaters and and NATO would prefer not to have the alternative. And you’re right, this is much better than “Luca,” which did not prompt a NATO statement; that “foul” was far more egregious. Disney is clearly testing different models — theaters with PVOD, theaters with Disney+ and no PVOD, theaters only, Disney+ only. I suspect that will continue indefinitely and they will make their decisions accordingly. But whatever Disney and Marvel decide to do, it will be determined more by what they think is best for Disney + than for theaters.

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