As covid-19 continues to push theaters to the brink of bankruptcy, Disney has been cagey about the future of its planned theatrical releases. But a new report suggests more big-budget films could be heading to its service Disney+, as have recent releases like Mulan and Artemis Fowl. And even if theaters are able to make it out of the other side of the pandemic, a new standard for movie releases could forever change how we see movies in a post-covid-19 future.
Deadline reported last week that Disney may be eyeing VOD releases for a number of its upcoming titles, including Cruella, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan and Wendy—all of which were slated to release in theaters. The outlet said that it wasn’t clear whether the films would release directly on Disney+ or be offered at a premium through its Premier Access platform, as the company did with the live-action remake of Mulan. Deadline also added that no final decision had been made, meaning theatrical releases for one or any could proceed as originally planned.
But such a move would make sense for Disney at a time when a return to theaters is still a distant prospect for moviegoers in many parts of the U.S., either as a result of theater closures or a hesitancy to return to cinemas more broadly. Moreover, Disney executives made clear during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report that Disney’s primary focus now and for the foreseeable future is its direct-to-consumer business.
Key to building on the success of Disney+ and its growing subscriber base is new and exclusive content. It’s not hard to imagine Disney might tap its slate of yet-to-be-released feature films to help bring in new subscribers given how things are looking in the U.S. right now—which is to say, not great. While Disney was tight-lipped about the success of its Mulan release through Premier Access, data from Sensor Tower estimated that app installs of Disney+ between Google Play and the App Store rose by 68% during a three-day period when Mulan hit the service over the same three-day period the week prior, while in-app spending also rose 193% that week.
Disney, of course, isn’t the only studio bypassing theatrical releases and going the direct-to-consumer route for big-budget titles. Universal Pictures saw tremendous success with its release of Trolls World Tour as a PVOD title, with the movie pulling in nearly $100 million in rentals during its first three weeks—more, even, than the original Trolls pulled in during a five-month theatrical run, per the Wall Street Journal. And next month, Warner Bros.’s Wonder Woman 1984 will release both in theaters as well as on its streaming service HBO Max on Christmas Day. Even Wonder Woman 1984 director Patty Jenkins, who’s been outspoken about the effects that ongoing theater closures could have on the industry, said last week in a statement about the dual VOD and theatrical release, “At some point you have to choose to share any love and joy you have to give, over everything else.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, theaters were in a much better position to make demands about the terms of their release windows and exclusivity for titles. The success of Trolls World Tour as a PVOD title initiated a short-lived war between AMC and Universal Pictures, with the theater chain promising to ban screenings of films by “any movie maker who unilaterally abandons current windowing practices absent good faith negotiations between us, so that they as distributor and we as exhibitor both benefit and neither are hurt from such changes.”
But when the two parties came to a truce months later, it was clear that concessions had been made to keep their relationship amicable. Universal granted AMC theatrical rights for at least three weekends before it could offer the movies on its own services—a markedly shorter window than had been standard in pre-pandemic times. Even then, it was obvious that theaters needed studios more than studios needed theaters, particularly since most studios have shifted toward being as vertically integrated as they can reasonably get away with. And right now, the biggest cinema chains in the nation are narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.
Disney’s little Premier Access experiment may not be the avenue through which it releases all or even most of the titles that could wind up heading to Disney+. But it does prove that Disney is carefully considering its options, and that should scare the shit out of theaters that are already in trouble.