Like a very ugly dead end between legacy theaters and legacy studios plays in real time, Disney seems to be walking lightly around the sensitive issue of how studios will handle releases now and in the future post-covid-19.
Last week’s remarks by Jeff Shell, director of NBCUniversal, about the release of new on-demand movies, even after the theaters reopened, sparked a very public feud between Universal Pictures, AMC and Cineworld (which owns Regal ) who could forever change the way we see movies. AMC and Cineworld, furious at these remarks, banned Universal films from their cinemas on the grounds that Universal would have broken the terms of its agreements with them for exclusivity if Universal released films both in theaters and in POV simultaneously – and understandably, as it does, it would seriously undermine the ability of cinemas to make money on these films.
But covid-19 has created a situation where theaters are already in a bad situation when and if they can reopen. The reopening will likely result in capacity restrictions, and even people who have been to the movies regularly before closing may be hesitant to return, even with new precautionary measures in place. The current situation has also placed the studios behind these theaters in a strange place. Some have pushed their big budget releases in 2021, an evolution that currently seems very optimistic. Others, like Universal, have released movies on demand, as was the case with Trolls World Tour, apparently watched by practically everyone and managed to raise almost $ 100 million in three weeks.
And where is the largest studio in the United States? Disney is closely monitoring the situation. In one earnings call this week new Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the company has “realized that either because of changing and evolving consumer dynamics or because of certain situations like Covid, we may need to bring modifications to this overall strategy simply because the theaters are not open, or are not open to the extent that anyone has to be financially viable. We will therefore evaluate each of our films on a case-by-case basis, as we currently do, during this coronavirus situation. ”
However, unlike Universal, Disney watched its words. Chapek noted that Disney “believes a lot[s] in the value of the whole theatrical experience in launching blockbuster films. In other words, a wink promises not to screw theaters on these pole productions. Disney is a box office titan and single-handedly represents about 40 percent from the US box office last year. And while Disney certainly pretends to be a benevolent bona fide actor, Disney has already shown that it has no problem using its power to define unreasonable conditions for theaters, especially for the little ones.
What is interesting is that Disney + has also become a real Goliath, and in a relatively short period of time. Disney claims his subscriptions have swelled to almost 55 million. To give an idea of the importance of this figure, Netflix has approximately 70 million American subscribers.
That means Disney absolutely has the eyeballs and the demand – especially now with so many families at home – to make PVOD releases on Disney + a priority if it wants to. As Chapek noted during the call for results, Disney is currently testing the waters of this output format with Artemis Fowl, a decision Chapek said was made mainly because of demographic appeal. In the meantime, Disney has moved all the release dates for its other tent productions to theaters.
It’s hard to know what the landscape will look like by the end of this month, much less in three months or even a year. At the moment, however, Disney does not seem willing to drive the last nail in the coffin for cinemas at the moment.