A movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can now be labelled as a flop.
We all knew that it would happen eventually, though there was plenty of debate as to which movie it would be. That movie is Black Widow. It’s a movie that, if not for Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter worrying about potential toy sales, and the underperformance of previous female-led superhero movies, would have (and should have) been released 4 or 5 years ago. Kevin Feige would put the film into active development when he was made president of Marvel Studios after a corporate shuffle. Black Widow was originally slated to release in May of 2020, then pushed back three times due to the pandemic, before eventually releasing on July 9th. It came out simultaneously in theatres and on Disney+ Premier Access, where for $35 CDN you can watch it stream on your device.
While the movie had a strong opening weekend at the box office with over $80 million grossed domestically, it tanked in it’s second and third weekends. Considering that Disney spent hundreds of millions on not one, but two major marketing campaigns (the other one being for the original release of May 2020), and that the movie has grossed only just over $100 million more than their admitted budget, it’s safe to assume the film lost A LOT of money for Disney. Even worse for the House of Mouse, is that the movie’s star, Scarlett Johansson, is suing Disney for breach of contract that keeps millions of dollars out of her pocket. While the news of the lawsuit is still fairly fresh, the story really begins almost a year ago.
On August 4, 2020, Disney announced that their highly-anticipated, live-action remake of Mulan would be released on streaming the same day it would release in theatres. Disney CEO Bob Chapek originally said that the move was not part of a new business model, but a one-off. There was a catch with the release though. Disney, branding the release as “Premier Access”, would slap a $35 CDN price on the movie (almost a third of the new price of $120 CDN for a yearly subscription). Sure you would have a digital copy of the movie that’s yours forever, but why would you spend $35 on a movie that you can watch as part of the regular service just 3 months later? Many either didn’t realize that Mulan would be coming to regular Disney+ service in a few months, or just really wanted to see it, as the first Premier Access release actually became a big success.
Yahoo Finance estimates that up to 9 million users purchased Mulan during its time on Premier Access, and just like that, Disney’s one-off experiment quickly became part of a new strategy. Raya and the Last Dragon, Cruella, Black Widow and Jungle Cruise would all receive the Premier Access treatment alongside a theatrical release. While data for these subsequent releases is harder to nail down, it’s suggested that Raya only had 1.18 million units sold, Cruella only had 61% of the sales Mulan made, and Black Widow was purchased by 2 million households.
Disney+ subscribers eventually caught on that paying a premium price for a new movie isn’t worth it when you can just get it on the same service for no extra charge in 3 months. Contrast this to Warner Bros.’ plan, where they released their major releases as part of their HBO Max service for no extra charge. But really, who’s surprised that Disney took an anti-consumer approach to their release strategy (*cough* Disney Vault *cough*)? Even worse for Disney is that the streaming theatrical movies plan is anti-industry as well, and they’re about to be hit where it hurts them the most: their giant, Scrooge McDuck pile of money.
On July 29, Scarlett Johansson started her pursuit of legal action against the Walt Disney Company over breach of contract. Johansson is missing out on millions in residuals from a theatrical release that has been overshadowed by it’s Premier Access release. On top of that, Johansson is arguing that her contract guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release, which Disney obviously did not respect. Disney is arguing that the lawsuit has no merit, even arguing that Johansson has the ability to earn more from the films Premier Access release.
However, releasing the movie essentially straight-to-streaming signals to the audience that the movie will be part of the regular package on Disney+ in a few months, so you might as well wait. This obviously hurts the movie’s performance at the box office in a big way. Disney even cowardly hides behind the smokescreen that such legal action is “distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Disney even revealed Johansson’s salary of $20 million as a way to try to make her look greedy to the public, but of course they don’t want you to know how much THEY make on a successful project. Johansson’s side did not take well to Disney’s defense and accused Disney’s strategy of publicly announcing Johansson’s salary as a way to weaponize her success.
If such a lawsuit eventually finds its way into the courtroom, the results could be potentially humiliating for Disney. We already know that the Premier Access experiment has had some less-than-stellar results, but we must also remember the Disney whistleblower in 2019. The unnamed former accountant for Disney suggested that the company had been inflating their revenue for years by taking advantages of weaknesses in the accounting applications the company used. The whistleblower had worked in the parks and resorts department, but one would have to imagine this kind of slimey accounting practice would leak its way into other arms of the company. A lot of embarrassing financial details could be made public as part of the Scarlett Johansson vs. Disney lawsuit, and we may be able to find out how much money was actually made or lost by films that may have been hailed as huge successes. Even more juicy is the prospect of us getting to see just how these Premier Access releases have really performed.
As high as Disney was riding just a few short years ago, things seem to have slowed down on a massive scale. Marvel, previously viewed as a smash-hit factory, has seemingly plateaued, and now have to turn to their B, C and even D-level characters for content. Star Wars has been mismanaged by Disney since the word “SOLD”, although The Mandalorian offers a glimmer of hope to the tortured fanbase. The next Indiana Jones film is already flying off the rails with an old, injured Harrison Ford. Indy 5 had originally planned to shoot with little-to-no computer effects, but now Harrison Ford’s face will have to be digitally slapped on top of a stunt double’s face due to his injury. Not to mention director James Mangold’s defensive, over-the-top and seemingly personal Twitter rant against a podcaster expressing reasons why one shouldn’t be excited for the next Indiana Jones movie. And then there’s James Cameron’s 4 Avatar sequels, which the prospect of seeing them all in the next decade looks more like a fantasy than the story of the films themselves. Disney’s Parks department is another disaster, as their troubles have been compounded because of the pandemic.
Considering how Disney likes to treat their customers, I doubt there will be anyone showing them any sympathy.