Disney continued to lay out its upcoming release plans today during an investors call. The studio revealed that both Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Ryan Reynolds action comedy Free Guy will debut in theaters with a 45-day window of exclusivity.
Recently, Disney announced that it would be continuing its Premier Access program of simultaneously releasing features theatrically and on the studio’s streaming service Disney+ for a premium price. The strategy worked well for last summer’s live-action Mulan reboot and this spring’s Raya and the Last Dragon, and highly-anticipated features like Black Widow and Jungle Cruise are set to go the Premier Access route later this summer.
However, Shang-Chi and Free Guy, two high-profile blockbusters set to debut this fall and winter respectively, will forego Premier Access for a traditional (albeit truncated) theatrical release window before they become available for audiences to stream at home. For those of you keeping score, that means Disney will be releasing new films in 2021 in one of three ways: straight to Disney+ (like Pixar’s Soul and the upcoming Luca); in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously (like Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and Cruella); or exclusively in theaters for a 45-day window.
Fielding a question about the future of the Premier Access initiative during the call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek gave attendees a breakdown of the studio’s current release strategy:
“Of course, 90% let’s say of the domestic marketplace is open right now. And we’re encouraged in terms of polling in terms of that growing going forward, but if you look at last weekend’s box office for an example and compare the last three years of pre-COVID box office, it was 85% low domestically and … 67% below internationally. So we know the market is not quite there yet. So the Disney Premier Access strategy, one of the things it gives us right now, and we’re grateful for this, is the ability to go ahead and try to release things into the market, and try to reprime the pump, if you will, but at the same time know that for those consumers that are a little leery still about going into a packed theater, that they can go ahead and watch it in the safety and convenience of their home. In terms of going beyond this fiscal year, we’ve not announced exactly what our strategy is going to be in terms of which titles will be theatrical plus Disney Premier Access, which ones will be direct to Disney+ or which ones will go into theaters, but know that we’ll continue to watch the evolution of the recovery of the theatrical marketplace and we’ll use that flexibility to make the right call at the right time. But right now we’ve only called those films in this fiscal year because of the relatively fluid nature of the recovery of exhibition.”
Disney is famously risk-averse, so the fact that they are hedging their bets so carefully for the immediate future even when it looks like the entertainment industry is finally returning to normal isn’t surprising. What’s more interesting is that it looks as though the previous industry standard of a 90-day window of exclusivity for theatrical releases won’t survive the pandemic. It’ll also be interesting to see how Disney‘s decision affects other studios adjusting their release strategies as more COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted.