Doing the only reasonable thing at this point, Disney has basically given up on 2020, moving 90% of their movies to 2021, including the entire Marvel theatrical slate which will now kick off with Black Widow in May 2021. This brings Black Widow’s total delay to twelve entire months, or another way to look at is that 2020 didn’t happen at all in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which is worse, Thanos’s snap or 2020? Legit asking, at this point I think I’d take my chances with the snap.
Disney has four movies remaining in 2020: The Empty Man, a horror movie slated for October; Pixar’s Soul in November; Ryan Reynolds’ action-comedy Free Guy on December 11; and Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile on December 18. I remain skeptical that all four of these movies actually come out this year, especially as December is already “crowded” with Wonder Woman 1984 and Dune also slated that month (Dune will for sure move). Besides Black Widow, Disney’s other big moves are Raya and the Last Dragon going to March 2021; Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’s thriller Deep Water is now August 2021; Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which trapped Matt Damon in Ireland earlier this year, is now October 2021; and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story has also moved back a whole year, to December 2021. Of course, moving Black Widow means the Marvel slate is upended again, with Shang-Chi taking over July 2021, and Eternals pushed to November 2021—another solid year delay.
This means WandaVision will be the only Marvel project in 2020, and it’s the first time since 2009 there has not been a Marvel movie out in the summer. There is a little interesting continuity shuffle here, with Shang-Chi now coming before Eternals, which suggests they’re not too connected in the larger MCU continuity, and now a chance that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be ready to air before Black Widow opens next summer. Will they let Falcon skip the line? Or will they hold it till after May 7, 2021? Those two projects are connected, but maybe they can just run Falcon when it’s ready and let the nerds sort out the continuity later.
The real question to all of this, though, is what it means in the ongoing saga of theatrical exhibition vs. streaming on demand. Tenet has topped $250 million worldwide, but it is doing tepid business, at best, in the United States, with New York and Los Angeles, the two biggest markets in the country, still closed. (Also worth noting Warner Brothers only brings home half of the international take and they have to pay Christopher Nolan significant backend points, so they’re still a long way from making money.) Mulan, however, is a mystery. Disney has not released any numbers about its performance as a premium on demand rental, though outside guesses suggest it could have made as much as $260 million in its first week. Meanwhile, the IMAX CEO is declaring premium on demand a “failed experiment”. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but keep in mind early outside estimates said Hamilton caused a huge spike in Disney+ downloads, something Disney didn’t confirm for weeks. We may yet hear official numbers on Mulan’s performance, but Disney hasn’t announced any new premium rental titles, which suggests Mulan’s performance did not bowl them over.
Does this mean theaters have won? Yes and no. Assuming Mulan ISN’T a cash bonanza—which, again, we don’t know—then theaters are still key to the success of blockbusters, which need huge audiences to make money. But the 90 theatrical window is dead, and what we’ll likely see going forward is more fluidity between theatrical release and home rental. For instance, Pixar’s Soul could be released into theaters in November, and then available to rent at home by Christmas, far earlier than the typical 90 window. We’re entering a landscape where studios will be able to respond much more nimbly to day-to-day performance in theaters, moving films to on demand as soon as theatrical audiences dry up, whether it’s three weeks or three months from release.
And, more importantly, we’re still in a world where US theaters are simply not making enough money to survive. AMC, the biggest exhibitor in North America, took out huge loans to stay afloat during the lockdown, and now that they’re open, the clock is ticking on repayment. Even when New York and LA reopen—probably in October—things aren’t likely to improve, as Tenet isn’t displaying great legs despite more theaters opening. Even if no other nine-figure blockbusters go directly to on demand, we’re still on track for North American theaters to face closure down the line, and inevitable buyouts by studios when the Paramount Decrees end in 2022. In the end, it’s all the same—movie theaters won’t disappear, but they will change from how we’ve known them for the last few generations.
That’s why the Disney shuffle is interesting. They’ve tried an on-demand release with a major blockbuster, it may or may not have worked out, we don’t know, but we do know they’re not choosing to repeat the experiment right now. What they are doing is moving their slate back far enough to hopefully outrun the worst of the pandemic and get asses in seats come next summer. Then they just have to hang on for a year for the Paramount Decrees to wind down, and they will be able to buy, say, AMC. Which means by 2023, you could be watching Marvel movies, and Star Wars movies, and Avatar movies, and Pixar movies, and the latest live-action Disney remake, all in Disney Theaters, which are now most theaters in America. You might be able to find non-Disney films at the Warner Brothers theater, or the Netflix theater, and what passes for the indie sector is now streaming on Youtube. Have theaters really won, when they’re on the brink of becoming just another “channel” in studio programming? Does anyone win in that scenario, except the movie studios rich enough to buy theater chains?