'Black Widow' Move Serves Sober Reminder for Theaters: Recovery Will Be Slow

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‘Black Widow’ Move Serves Sober Reminder for Theaters: Recovery Will Be Slow

Without a Marvel movie in May, the box office is facing a far more gradual recovery over the next three months

Box office optimism is faltering after significant changes made to Disney’s movie slate, headlined by the two-month delay of “Black Widow,” have significantly soured the short-term outlook for the industry.

Much of the reopening plans for theaters were built on the expectation — or at least the hope — that a long-anticipated Marvel blockbuster would be around in May to help bring audiences back to theaters. Now, that early May boost is gone, and it’s too late for any blockbuster from another studio to take its place. With just over a month to go before May 7, studios need more time to prepare their marketing campaigns and ensure their advertising for a film is in place.

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Meanwhile, the threat of COVID-19 variants still hangs over cinemas. While COVID-19 infection rates in Los Angeles and San Francisco remain low — Los Angeles could even raise movie theater capacity limits to 50% next week — infections are starting to rise again in 27 states, including New York, as the more infectious variants begin to spread.

Though vaccination rates are significantly increasing, many states may force theaters to close again in April or May if vaccine efforts cannot contain the spread and the public abandons social distancing. Disney declined to comment on whether concerns of a spring COVID resurgence in the U.S. played a factor in its release date changes.

But Daniel Loria of Boxoffice points out that Disney isn’t just looking at the U.S. when it comes to “Black Widow.” He notes that several major portions of the international market are still struggling with the virus, particularly Europe, where countries like Italy and France have recently issued new lockdown orders to combat spreads of COVID-19 variants.

“This couldn’t have been too much of a surprise for a multinational chain like AMC or Cineworld, which has theaters in Europe,” Loria said. “When you’re looking at a four-quadrant blockbuster like a Marvel movie where the international gross is just as important as the U.S., the outbreaks in Europe and Latin America had to have been a major factor in Disney’s decision.”

While Disney isn’t leaving May behind entirely, its Memorial Day weekend release, “Cruella” will also now be a hybrid theatrical/PVOD release. Even worse for theaters is that Disney has pulled the Pixar film “Luca” from theaters entirely, instead making it available at no extra charge on Disney+ this June in the same way Pixar’s last film, “Soul,” was released last June.

Instead of “Black Widow” in early May, theaters will have holdover screenings of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which will be released this Friday, and “Mortal Kombat,” which will be released April 16. Both films will only be available in theaters by mid-May as Warner Bros. is only making them available on HBO Max for the first 30 days of release. But while that may be a boost for Warner Bros., it is still not what theaters were hoping for in the early summer.

And once “Cruella” and “Black Widow” arrive, there will be questions over whether theaters will play hardball on box office terms because of Disney’s decision to make them available via its Premium Access program. Cinemark refused to play “Raya and the Last Dragon” without receiving a larger slice of ticket sales, but unless multiple major theater chains block out “Black Widow,” it’s hard to envision exhibitors having any leverage on terms for the most anticipated blockbuster of the summer, particularly since Disney has more incentive to continue its PVOD experiments with a Marvel Cinematic Universe installment that has far more buzz than “Mulan” or “Raya.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see how the relationship between Disney and theaters changes and if it can stay positive going forward,” Loria said. “The importance of ‘Black Widow’ to the box office is going to be a major factor in any talks between the two sides, and it’s an example of what happens when one franchise and one studio take up such a large share of the box office.”

And while AMC, Cinemark and Regal have already committed to reopening, the question remains whether these release date changes alter how smaller chains approach their reopening strategies. As TheWrap noted last week, a major factor in the decision of many smaller theaters to reopen weeks after being allowed to do so by health officials is because there weren’t enough strong titles to bring in audiences. For these theaters, the “Black Widow” move may make “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” even more important to their business.

“The value of the agreements that Warner Bros. and Universal has made with theaters has become even more valuable,” Loria said. “It speaks to the work that those studios have done to keep their connections to theaters positive after making initial dramatic moves that prompted a lot of outcry.”

Loria also believes that those deals are a reminder that cooler heads must prevail as theaters try to navigate Disney’s latest moves.

“We have to remember that even now as we’re looking towards theaters reopening, there’s still a lot of instability and studios are still trying to navigate it to meet the needs of different films,” he said. “There’s a lot of factors at play for a box office landscape that continues to become globally connected.”

Jeremy Fuster