With ‘Free Guy’ and ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Disney Is Winning Both Sides of the Debate Over Hybrid Film Releases

While Ryan Reynolds’ film was the toast of CinemaCon, Dwayne Johnson’s adventure tale has reached $100 million despite its premium release on Disney+

20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy” was the toast of CinemaCon last week, praised by theater owners as an argument against the day-and-date release strategies tested by Disney, the film’s distributor, which released the Ryan Reynolds action comedy exclusively in theaters. But the surprise box office legs of “Jungle Cruise,” one of those films available as a premium Disney+ title, shows that Disney is winning on both sides of the theatrical exclusivity debate.

Though the numbers have been watered down by the still-rebuilding nature of the domestic box office, “Free Guy” has performed like a hit from a bygone era: an original comedy that has used star power and strong word of mouth to endure on the charts. From its $28.3 million domestic opening, director Shawn Levy’s film saw a modest second-weekend drop of 34.8% and a third-weekend drop of just 26.7%, giving it a running domestic total of $79.3 million so far.

The success of “Free Guy” as the first film released exclusively in theaters by Disney in over a year was hailed by the leaders of the National Association of Theater Owners, as well as by rival Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman, who cited two reasons for its success: “No. 1, it’s terrific, and No. 2, you can’t watch it at home. Go f—ing figure!”

Free Guy box office
Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy.” (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

NATO has been pushing studios to phase out the day-and-date release strategies that have popped up in response to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic-era box office, pointing to the sharp weekend drops of films like Dinsey/Marvel’s “Black Widow” and Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad” as evidence that making films available at home, either at premium cost or no extra charge, are not financially beneficial for studios or theaters in the long run.

While Universal and Warner Bros. have made deals with theaters signaling a return to a theatrical window model — albeit a one shortened from 90 days that was typical pre-2020 to closer to 45 days — Disney has indicated that it will still consider using its Disney+ Premier Access release model when it feels it would be advantageous. And while “Free Guy” and possibly “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will have success as theatrically exclusive films, “Jungle Cruise” has managed to buck the recent trend of hybrid-release films that have dropped off in ticket sales after opening weekend.

It certainly didn’t look like that was going to be the case when the Dwayne Johnson/Emily Blunt adventure film opened to $35 million last month. Some analysts, including this one, expected that “Jungle Cruise” would sink quickly down the charts as its home-release option peeled away potential moviegoers. Instead, it has legged out to become the fifth post-shutdown film to top $100 million in North America, reaching the milestone after five weekends in theaters.

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With ‘Free Guy’ and ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Disney Is Winning Both Sides of the Debate Over Hybrid Film Releases