As 2021 marches on and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine continues, the big question in Hollywood is whether we’ll have a summer movie season or not. When it was clear that the distribution of the vaccine would take longer than initially anticipated due to the previous presidential administration’s incompetence, some studios started moving their Spring 2021 films back to fall or even 2022. But now everyone’s eye is on May, which is traditionally the start of the summer movie season – and specifically Marvel’s Black Widow and Universal’s F9, both of which were originally supposed to be released in the spring of 2020.
Some have suggested that Disney could roll out a hybrid release strategy for Black Widow, putting it in theaters but also putting it on the streaming service Disney+, either for free or as part of their “Premier Access” program which charges a $29.99 fee to watch. But a report from Variety notes that Marvel Studios president and chief creative officer Kevin Feige is opposed to this kind of release strategy – he firmly believes an exclusive theatrical release for Black Widow is the best course of action (and he’s right).
But Feige still answers to Disney, the company which will ultimately release Black Widow, and while the Marvel Studios head clearly has a ton of sway inside the company, they could very well decide they want some profit now versus more profit later.
Vaccines are currently being distributed all across the United States, but most states are still in Phase 1 of their plans, distributing to those in older age groups. While we got good news recently that the expected available doses for June will arrive a month early, it still looks like it’s going to be summer before the majority of the population is being vaccinated.
Of course the big question when it comes to theatrical distribution is when movie theaters will reopen in Los Angeles and New York, two areas that are key to maximizing profits, and two cities that are struggling to distribute the vaccine to their enormous populations. Variety reports that Disney has about three to four weeks to decide what to do with Black Widow – release it exclusively in theaters in May, release it in theaters and on Disney+ in May, or delay its release to the summer or fall.
The latter option would have yet another domino effect on Marvel’s slate of movies, as they’re also scheduled to release Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings in July and Eternals in November, with Sony on track to release the third Spider-Man movie in December. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a carefully constructed timeline of events, and while the only change in order of release in 2020 was debuting the TV series WandaVision before The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, shifting yet again in 2021 could cause a logjam with Sony’s Spider-Man movie since Sony does not necessarily have to acquiesce to Disney’s request should Disney want or need to move their films again.
So what will happen? As has been the case for a solid year now, we don’t exactly know. Variety says the reason a hybrid release for Black Widow hasn’t been announced yet is partially due to Feige’s belief that an exclusive theatrical release is better, so that seems to suggest the Mouse House itself is leaning towards a hybrid rollout.
As for F9, Universal is fully committed to a theatrical release according to Variety, which means the film could be delayed to this summer, later this year, or 2022 entirely. Universal makes a ton of money worldwide from the Fast & Furious franchise and there are no spinoffs or sequels currently in production to juggle, so they’re in no rush to get F9 on Peacock at the expense of losing box office profits.
A lot can happen in three weeks, and we’ll also have a much clearer idea of the vaccine rollout timeline. Theatrical is obviously the ideal scenario here, but money talks, and Disney has made clear that Disney+ is their #1 priority in the years ahead. So don’t be surprised if Disney suddenly announces next month that Scarlett Johnansson’s long-awaited spinoff will be available on Disney+ the same day it’s in theaters.