Piracy is hurting Black Widow – and Hollywood only has itself to blame

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Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow - Marvel
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow - Marvel

If you thought what happened to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame was unduly harsh, I suggest averting your eyes from the latest box office figures. On its opening weekend, the newest instalment in the Marvel franchise took almost £6.9 million at UK cinemas – which, with the country still legally and psychologically inching its way out of Covid restrictions, and the film having also been made available to watch at home on Disney+, felt like a cheering result. (The last of the pre-pandemic Marvel movies, 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, opened with £8.4 million.)

Then at the end of last week, something startling happened: Black Widow’s three-day takings plummeted to £1.8 million; a drop of 74 per cent. This is the steepest decline of any Marvel Studios release to date, and in pre-Covid times would have meant one thing alone: word of mouth on the film had been toxic. (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is often used as a test case in such matters, saw its second weekend takings drop by 68 per cent in 2016.)

In the US, things were not much more encouraging. There, Black Widow’s takings fell by 67 per cent in its second weekend; again, an all-time low for the franchise. Unsurprisingly, cinema owners blamed Disney’s decision to release Black Widow as a ‘premier access" item on their streaming service, unlockable for £19.99.

“It demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life,” the US’s National Association of Theatre Owners said in a statement, adding: “Simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artefact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.”

On the face of things, their argument makes sense. As soon as a perfect HD version of a film is made available online for a charge, it’s a matter of minutes before the same version can be obtained for free on various disreputable platforms. Earlier this week, the website Torrent Freak claimed that Black Widow had been the last weekend’s most pirated film, though was circumspect about exactly how it had come up with that statistic (as you’d imagine it might be).

What was clear, however, was that nine of the films on the site’s top 10 chart of illegal downloads were also legally available to stream. Conspicuously, Fast & Furious 9 and Peter Rabbit 2 – both exclusive to cinemas, and the two most commercially successful post-lockdown releases in the UK to date by some distance – did not appear on the list. (Those films’ second-weekend drops were 52 per cent and 56 per cent respectively: more or less pre-Covid business as usual for a big-dumb-fun releases.)

When around half of Hollywood decided late last year that such so-called day-and-date releases would be their route out of the pandemic, they must have priced in the inevitable uptick in piracy the strategy would entail. Of course any retreat from cinemas to the lawless wastes of the internet would only further enable the torrenters. But could rental and subscription fees – brand new revenue streams that didn’t have to be split with venues – help offset the cost?

Well, Disney did note that Black Widow made a further $60 million worldwide on its opening weekend from streaming charges, largely within the US. But that sum doesn’t come close to accounting for, let alone ameliorating, the film’s precipitous theatrical decline.

 Marvel's Loki - Marvel Studios
Marvel's Loki - Marvel Studios

So what went wrong? Back in April 2020, I wrote that Hollywood’s current franchise-driven business model was uniquely unsuited to weathering a long-term operational pause. For almost a decade, new Marvel films had been arriving at a rate of two or three a year, creating a momentum that kept audiences coming back to find out what happened next. With Covid, that stopped dead – and unluckily for Marvel, the film they came back with wasn’t a continuation of the story but a sideshow, centred on a character who had already been bumped off, and set between two previous instalments that had been in cinemas five years ago.

In the interim, three new Marvel series of variable quality appeared on Disney+, love-bombing the faithful with almost 16 hours of new serialised content since January. In that context, who but completists would care about another two that don’t come bundled with the basic subscription charge? Three further Marvel films have also been readied for release by Christmas – and the studio has made clear that unlike Black Widow, these will be exclusive to cinemas.

The only viable means of fighting piracy the film industry has ever had is to make it easier and more fulfilling for consumers to watch films legally – and perhaps the problem with Black Widow is that for the many Marvel fans still bloated on WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, the additional premium fee was just a hurdle too far.

Alternatively, perhaps the pandemic has altered our viewing habits more than we’ve yet grasped, and yesterday’s must-participate-in pop culture moments are today’s ways to kill time, to be experienced as and when we can be bothered. Disney will not be the only studio praying it’s the former.