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Black Widow is a smash hit on Disney Plus — is that bad news for movie theaters?

black widow on disney plus
(Image credit: Disney Plus)
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Black Widow wasn't just a milestone as Disney's first big theatrical release since the pandemic began. It was also a massive moment for Disney's direct-to-consumer movie release strategy: selling copies for $30 on Disney Plus Premier Access. For a while, Disney and other streaming companies didn't really feel the need to share their online box office numbers. 

This was arguably following suit from the likes of Netflix, which only puts out opaque data, counting anyone who "chose to watch" a show or movie "and did watch for at least 2 minutes." And then Disney decided that Black Widow sold well enough on Disney Plus Premier Access to break that rule. 

On the Monday after opening weekend, Disney announced that Black Widow made $60 million via Disney Plus, in addition to the $80 million in theaters. And that's the kind of moment that makes you wonder where the movie industry is going.

Day 1 streaming will end soon, for some 

Nobody expected to see [Black Widow] streaming numbers included with the box office numbers. That was like a unicorn."

Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore

During the first year of the pandemic, Disney went its own way, selling Mulan, Raya and The Last Dragon and Cruella for $30 to those with Disney Plus memberships. 

Warner Bros. Pictures, famously, annoyed both film-makers and theater chains with its decision to release major films directly on HBO Max during 2021. But if the rise of the Covid-19 Delta variant, or any other variant, doesn't lead to theaters shuttering again (which could very well happen), it appears like the cinemas are back. 

This pattern continued with films released on the streaming service the same day as they hit theaters, with Black Widow and Space Jam: A New Legacy. This will likely continue as Warner's 2021 slate continues to roll out, even though there were reports about Dune going in-theaters-only.

A Quiet Place 2 was best in theaters

(Image credit: Paramount)

Many folks would love for this to continue, but Warner's already reached a new deal with Cineworld, the owners of Regal Cinemas, for theaters to have movies first in 2022, with a 45-day window of exclusivity. Such windowed exclusivity is already happening with Paramount films, as A Quiet Place Part 2 just reached Paramount Plus after its initial (shortened) theatrical window. (I'd argue that while home streaming is convenient, A Quiet Place Part 2 loses a whole lot when you take it out of the theater, as it's best with a hushed group experience.)

Paramount, just like Warner, is using a 45-day window for theatrical exclusivity for its biggest movies. Smaller films may arrive after 30 days.

But this deal isn't permanent. So I called up Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, to get his take on what's to come next for how we go to (or stay home for) the movies. He agreed that Black Widow was a pivotal moment, noting "all eyes were on Black Widow this weekend. And everyone I know, nobody expected to see streaming numbers included with the box office numbers. That was like a unicorn."

Why movies will stay in theaters going forward

Going to the movie theater isn't just about the movies, if you ask me. As a rabid fan of the menu at the Alamo Drafthouse, I was excited to go back to see there A Quiet Place Part 2 not just for their strong rules about audience behavior, but also for their excellent queso. Dergarabedian agreed, stating "that audiences who are going out to the theater, they want the movie theater experience as much as they want the movie. And so even movies that ordinarily wouldn't put up big box office like, for instance, Demon Slayer, or even Godzilla vs Kong [will outperform.]"

He even argued that theatrical releases help streaming sales, stating that a movie being released at the cinemas "powers a level of prestige and interest, all that good stuff that we said the theater can do or the movie theater release of a movie can do, it's doing." Which is an interesting concept. 

F9

(Image credit: Universal)

During the start of the pandemic, studios could have released even more movies online, instead of waiting a year to drop Black Widow and F9. By waiting for theaters, movie studios made sure the public saw theatrical releases as a point of quality. We've long seen straight-to-video releases as lesser than their in-theaters counterparts, and the studios decided to not lean fully into their first chance to break this pattern.

It's also a little too early to say that things are going one way or another, he notes, "Well, streaming is not going away. Reading too much into any of the numbers at this point, because we're still figuring this out. It's still a marketplace that's limited."

Disney will write its own rules, but who will follow?

If Disney suddenly believes it would make more money with a strictly-box office release, the tide could turn.

The next piece of the Disney theatrical-release puzzle, is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Will the next upcoming Marvel movie get a Disney Plus Premier Access release on September 3, the same day it arrives in theaters? If I had to bet, I'd say "yes," but only because it gives them more ways to make money. If Disney suddenly believes it would make more money with a strictly-box office release, the tide could turn.

Black Widow, though, succeeded with an incredibly well-known character on the poster. Shang-Chi doesn't have that luxury.

will shang chi and the legend of the ten rings come to Disney Plus Premier Access?

(Image credit: Marvel)

Dergarabedian is inclined to agree, saying "I think the behemoth companies that have their own streaming service are really going to lean into a hybrid model," before noting that "Disney of course is so huge and has so much ubiquitous and available and cheap content and massive branding, they can kind of do what they want, but they're always going to include, I believe, the movie theater."

A big question for this is how much HBO Max benefitted from the likes of Zack Snyder's Justice League, Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs Kong. Unfortunately, we don't have much data to go on. Warner only referred to some of the films as successes, and Nielsen did its best to estimate the number of views. Neither match up to Disney's action of offering concrete sales numbers. HBO's decision to go back to the theaters for next year certainly is a vote of confidence away from streaming-first releases.

So, expect 2022 to be a year where theaters become a requirement once more. 

Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices for more recommendations. Email me at henry.casey@futurenet.com or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the streaming world — I might just address it in a future installment.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is an editor writer at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and Apple. Prior to joining Tom's Guide — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and looking for the headphone adapter that he unplugged from his iPhone.