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Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Black Widow’ Was Sacrificed To Boost Disney+’s Marvel Shows

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at January 1, 1970

Further delaying Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow would have meant further delaying the next batch of Disney+ MCU television shows.

Scarlett Johansson made headlines yesterday via a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles arguing that Disney’s choice to release Black Widow in theaters and via Disney+’s Premier Access ($30 to lease) broke a long-standing contract and commitment to an exclusive theatrical release. She is claiming, I would argue correctly, that the Premier Access route detracted from the film’s global box office ($161 million domestic and around $327 million worldwide as of yesterday) and thus detracted from promised box office-specific bonuses. The suit does not explicitly blame Marvel, implying that Kevin Feige and friends were not entirely thrilled with the day-and-date release (and are allegedly not thrilled that this ended up in a lawsuit). I’m frankly a little shocked that Disney and Johansson (apparently) didn’t hash this out before the film’s theatrical release. The Disney+ element has been public since March 23, 2021.

At the very least, Johansson waited until Black Widow had been in theaters for three weeks to show arguable financial harm. The National Association of Theater Owners came out swinging on day ten of the film’s domestic release after it dipped a record (for Marvel) 69% from weekend one. That wasn’t too far off from the 62% drops for Ant-Man and the Wasp (from a $76 million debut on that same early-July frame in 2018) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (from a $117 million debut on the same weekend in 2017). All three films had frontloaded (for Marvel) opening weekends, Ant-Man 2 and Spider-Man had earned 2.3x multipliers. In contrast, Black Widow had a 2x multiplier, but both had recovered and legged out over the summer to solid 2.85x “weekend-to-final” multipliers. That’s not happening here.

Black Widow dropped 55% in weekend three, far worse than the over/under 45% holds for the other two MCU movies. With little hope of a revival (Disney now has to worry about Jungle Cruise), Johansson’s Black Widow will likely finish closer to Ant-Man ($180 million in 2015) than Ant-Man and the Wasp ($216 million in 2018). However, just as importantly, the film’s overseas release has been kneecapped both by the Covid pandemic (still a factor worldwide) and the current annual blackout in China. As is usually the case in mid-summer, China is only playing local titles till next month. Black Widow will likely get a Chinese release, but by that time, it’ll have been available for a month or so in HD pirated copies thanks to the Disney+ release.

With $314 million and counting, Black Widow may not top $400 million worldwide without China. Even with China, it’s probably not getting anywhere near Ant-Man ($519 million in 2015), meaning it’ll be the lowest-grossing MCU release since Captain America: The First Avenger ($376 million in 2011). I would argue (not a legal opinion) that the issue is whether Johansson deserved a way to be paid for the promised box office-specific bonuses she now won’t get. Even in a non-Covid world, Black Widow was never going to be the next MCU mega-blockbuster. It starred a dead Avenger in a years past due movie, it’s a prequel with no other marquee characters and is mostly a real-world espionage narrative. It joins the list of Covid-affected movies (Mulan, Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die, etc.) that were always very unlikely to top $1 billion worldwide.

Black Widow might have always played closer to Ant-Man and the Wasp ($216 million domestic/$620 million worldwide) than Spider-Man: Homecoming ($334 million/$880 million). However, the Disney+ option almost certainly took money from the box office and sent them to streaming. Disney infamously released the streaming gross in the same press release as the opening weekend box office on July 11. They indeed hoped journalists would conflate the two ($60 million on Disney+ and $158 million in worldwide box office) for a sexier $215 million global debut. This distracted from the frontloaded opening weekend and the global debut total being lower than F9’s $161 million overseas launch. After that, which saw Disney boasting about over $100 million in domestic revenue and over $200 million in global earnings, one might argue that you can’t then say that streaming revenue doesn’t count.

This might shock you, but Disney’s motivations weren’t entirely altruistic. One big reason why Black Widow came out this summer come hell or high water is because Disney wanted to keep the MCU cinematic machine going at least somewhat on schedule. While Black Widow is 95% stand-alone (more on that in a moment), Disney wanted to release Black Widow before Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (now slated for Labor Day weekend) and Eternals (November 6). To the extent that those films are less surefire cash-cows (and, look, a Phase Four origin story based in B or C-level Marvel properties would typically be thrilled with Doctor Strange-level business), the next batch of sequels (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, etc.) are pretty safe bets for conventionally tentpole-level box office.

Moreover (post-credit spoilers), Black Widow’s epilogue led directly into events that will presumably unfold on Disney+’s Hawkeye show. That show will reportedly feature Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) being pitted against Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). That’s because the latter was falsely informed by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfuss) that Hawkeye killed her sister. It’s one thing for Contessa to make her debut on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier before her “surprise” cameo in Black Widow. It’s another to have a Disney+ television show for which a major plot turn hasn’t yet been “revealed.” In this case, delaying Black Widow would have meant delaying Hawkeye. With the Disney+ shows pulling in decent viewership (especially compared to almost any other Disney+ originals outside of The Mandalorian) and strong week-to-week media buzz, nothing stops this train.

Black Widow was thrown into theaters partially to keep the Disney+ shows on schedule. If using the Disney+ hybrid release plan allowed Disney to open the kid-friendly, family-friendly MCU superhero movie in theaters (to their mutual benefit) during a summer where A) Covid conditions aren’t necessarily improving and B) far fewer kids compared to adults have been vaccinated, then so be it. However, as A Quiet Place part II ($158 million domestic since Memorial Day weekend) and F9 ($165 million since June 25 as it arrives on PVOD today) have shown, some theatrical exclusivity can indeed allow would-be tentpoles to perform almost as well as they would have in non-Covid circumstances. Whether you think Premier Access was a buffer against the pandemic or whether Disney used the pandemic as an excuse to boost their streaming platform, not going exclusively theatrical was a choice rather than a necessity.

I’m frankly shocked that Disney (apparently/seemingly) didn’t at least offer their A-listers (Emma Stone, Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, etc.) a cut of the streaming revenue. This lawsuit (and any others that follow) now color the gains made by Disney+ in a new light. When I now tell you that Pixar’s Luca notched a third straight frame (so says Nielsen) of over 1 billion minutes viewed (an incredible hold), you might now wonder whether the Pixar creators who might have been hoping for box office-specific bonuses are now left hanging. Will Disney still report opening weekend “Premier Access” revenue for Jungle Cruise alongside global box office? I would argue, along with various other factors, that the MCU movie was released in a commercially compromised manner partially to avoid a lull in the Disney+ MCU schedule. So, for the second time, Black Widow was thrown off a cliff so that Hawkeye could thrive.


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