The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Disney to postpone the release of its biggest movies, including Mulan and Black Widow, but will those movies actually end up heading straight to a streaming or digital-on-demand platform if the coronavirus pandemic drags on even longer?
Disney says it might consider sending some major movies straight to streaming on a "case-by-case" basis.
What happened — On Tuesday, Disney held its Q2 2020 earnings call for investors, with CEO Bob Chapek, CFO Christine McCarthy, and executive chairman Bob Iger in attendance (remotely) to give statements and take questions.
From the top of the call, Covid-19 loomed like Chernabog, as everyone — Disney executives included — expressed some worry over the loss of revenue due to closed and restricted business. Without movies in theaters, theme parks open, and live sports being played for Disney-owned ESPN, McCarthy told investors the financial impact of Covid-19 in Q2 of 2020 has disrupted "as much as $1.4 billion."
In the Q&A section of the call, investors asked if Disney had considered a "premium streaming" release for its postponed movies, like Mulan, Black Widow, and The Eternals. With the pandemic forcing theaters to close and people to say at home, is Disney willing to forgo theaters and instead release movies on digital platforms, as some studios have (i.e.: Trolls World Tour)?
CEO Bob Chapek said it's a maybe.
The "Power" of Theaters — Chapek told investors on the call that Disney will mostly stick to theatrical releases for all of its big movies, including the ones that were rescheduled for later dates.
"We very much believe in the value of the theatrical experience to launch blockbuster movies," Chapek said, citing Disney's releases in 2019 as the reason to stick with theaters in 2020. "As you know, we had seven billion-dollar films in calendar year 2019."
As experts previously told Inverse, Disney can afford to wait out the pandemic and release movies in theaters because that's still where studios like Disney still earn the biggest profits. Chapek added that Disney will consider a premium streaming release on a "case-by-case" basis.
"But we also realize that, either because of changing and evolving consumer dynamics or because of certain situations like Covid, we may have to make some changes to that overall strategy just because theaters aren't open, or aren't open to the extent everybody needs to be financially viable," he said.
Chapek added, with a cautious tone, "So we're going to evaluate every one of movies on a case-by-case situation as we are doing right now during this coronavirus situation."
Chapek, who assumed the role of Disney CEO on February 25, brought up the change in plans for Artemis Fowl. An adaptation of Eoin Colfer's young adult fantasy novels with director Kenneth Branagh, Artemis Fowl was scheduled to open in theaters on August 9, but the pandemic compelled Disney to bump its release by two months and bring it straight to its streaming service. The movie will premiere on Disney+ on June 12.
"Artemis Fowl is moving over to Disney+, given the demographics and appeal of that film," Chapek said. "But all of our tentpole movies have been rescheduled theatrically for later in the year, so we believe very much in the power of that launch platform for our big movies."
Looking at Tenet? — Interestingly, Bob Chapek brought up a direct competitor in Warner Bros., though the CEO never mentioned the studio by name. When asked on the call about adjusting expectations due to theaters limiting guests when they reopen, Chapek mentioned "a competitor" opening before Mulan as a way to gauge how Disney may perform.
That big movie opening the week before Mulan? Tenet, the Christopher Nolan action-thriller being released by rival studio Warner Bros. Where most studios delayed its releases, even for films set for much later in the year (including Disney), Warner Bros. has stuck by Tenet and hasn't touched its July 17 release. Mulan will be released a week later, on July 24.
"We're gonna get a pretty good idea of that because there's a competitor movie that opens one week before our film does," Chapek said. "And at that point, we're hoping there's some return to a semblance of normal in terms of the number of screens opening and number of showtimes for those movies. Our fingers are crossed. That's our first big movie out of the gate."
Chapek was optimistic when talking about Mulan.
"Between some balance of limited number of seats as social distancing is practiced by the exhibitors combined with what's got to be incredible pent-up demand, I think we'll certainly find out and maybe we'll find out the week before with the competitor movie," he said.
The Inverse Analysis — On his first call as Disney CEO (though he was still preceded on the call by his predecessor, Bob Iger), Chapek and the other executives were upfront about Disney's losses but also forecasted better days ahead. The company believes audiences and theme park goers will want to go out for recreation even more after spending 50-plus days in quarantine.
As for whether Mulan or the Marvel movies will premiere on streaming platforms, Disney's evaluation of each movie means there could be some that make it into consumer's homes before theaters. But not all. Black Widow and The Eternals are simply too big to premiere in homes. But The New Mutants? That's more likely.
The New Mutants, a Marvel Comics horror movie produced by Fox that's been delayed since 2018, is the kind of "big but small enough" movie that one could fathom receiving a premium streaming premiere pre-existing red tape notwithstanding. The movie was also briefly available for pre-order on Amazon Prime Video until it was pulled.
For those really aching to watch Black Widow, which would have hit theaters last week on May 1 without the pandemic, there's only one thing you can do: Wait.