The box office success of Shang-Chi and Free Guy underscores Disney’s mistake with releasing Black Widow in theaters and on Disney+ the same day.
The box office success of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy underscores Disney’s mistake with Black Widow‘s release. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic shut down movie theaters in March 2020, all parties in Hollywood have been trying to navigate the post-pandemic theatrical vs streaming business. This brought plenty of delays, shortened theatrical windows, and an increase in the number of movies that debut on a streaming service the same day they release in theaters. Not even Disney could avoid making some difficult decisions.
The launch of Disney+ in late 2019 completely changed what Disney could do once theaters shut down. Premier Access became an avenue to release major movies with a $29.99 upcharge to subscribers, while other family films like Soul and Luca debuted on the service for free. Marvel Studios’ ambitious slate for Phase 4 was repeatedly challenged by COVID-19, with Black Widow delayed multiple times before getting a simultaneous release on Disney+ via Premier Access and in theaters. The highly-anticipated Scarlett Johansson solo film performed well with this release strategy. Black Widow has earned nearly $375 million worldwide at the time of this writing. Disney has also reported that Black Widow has earned an additional $125M through Disney+.
Although the performance of Black Widow was good, however, exclusive theatrical releases Shang-Chi and Free Guy have shown that Disney arguably made a mistake in going the day-and-date route with Black Widow, even beyond Scarlett Johansson’s current lawsuit over the movie’s release. Free Guy has been a box office surprise with the Ryan Reynolds-led video game movie earning nearly $250M worldwide so far. Shang-Chi is the latest exclusive theatrical win for Disney. The Phase 4 movie broke the Labor Day opening weekend record and crossed the $100M domestic mark faster than Black Widow and it hasn’t even opened in China yet. Both theatrical exclusives undermine Disney’s argument that the smarter strategy was to split Black Widow’s opening between theater and Disney+. The $100M domestic earner club has been quite limited since COVID began, for example, but even Free Guy will cross that mark soon.
Black Widow is the highest-grossing movie domestically since the pandemic started after earning more than $180M, but it could’ve been even bigger if not for the Disney+ release. The success of Shang-Chi and Free Guy comes at a time when the Delta variant of COVID is surging, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Black Widow hit theaters right before the surge started, so more people likely would’ve been more comfortable seeing a movie in theaters then than now. Instead, Disney gave them an option to watch the movie at home as a group. This also led to Black Widow‘s piracy skyrocketing because of 4K versions of the movie being instantly available through Disney+. After all, if two new franchises like Shang-Chi and Free Guy can have their level of success in theaters, it’s hard not to imagine what Johansson’s solo Marvel Cinematic Universe film could’ve done with the same release plan.
An exclusive theatrical release for Black Widow would have assuredly boosted the film’s box office performance, but it also could’ve saved Disney from the legal and PR nightmare the simultaneous Disney+ opening caused. Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for lost salary over the same-day release, and the Black Widow lawsuit has led to multiple statements from both sides that have even turned ugly. There is no chance Johansson would have even thought about suing had her movie been released in theaters exclusively. It’s obviously too late to avoid that now, but the success of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy has already given Disney and other studios more confidence in their fall releases. Perhaps an exclusive theatrical launch for Black Widow in July would’ve done the same but much earlier.
MORE: Shang-Chi Proves Post Pandemic Box Office Potential – and Limits
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Shang-Chi & Free Guy Underscore Disney’s Black Widow Mistake