Disney’s Coronavirus Dilemma with Black Widow and the MCU
Deadline recently ran a story that posed a question. In the wake of a James Bond movie pushing back its release date, the box office writer wondered whether Black Widow should follow suit. And that’s the subject of today’s discussion. What should Disney do with Black Widow’s release in the wake of Coronavirus?
What’s the Story Here?
Over the last two years, Marvel has released three Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies. Those titles are Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. That last title isn’t a Disney production, but it’s an official part of the MCU anyway.
The three films have earned an almost incomprehensible $1.676 billion in North America. That’s an average of nearly $559 million per release. Folks, the box office average of that trio would qualify as the #11 movie all-time, ahead of The Lion King (2019) and The Dark Knight.
However, that’s not the stunning statistic. Internationally, the most recent three MCU titles have grossed a staggering $3.5 billion. That’s an average of $1.166 billion overseas, the equivalent of the #5 movie all-time. It’s more than Furious Seven and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens earned in the same marketplaces.
People hear the numbers, but they take for granted the staggering global appeal of the Marvel brand. For every dollar that an MCU title earns at the box office here, it gains two more internationally. That’s a general statement, but you’ll notice that the math holds for the most recent releases.
Technically, the three movies in question gained 32.3 percent of their total box office from North America. Also, the most crucial aspect from Disney’s perspective is the money matter. Without international revenue, the company would have ceded $2.58 billion (!) in earnings.
Quick caveat: Disney splits box office revenue with the exhibitor. So, these totals are somewhat misleading. Still, most MCU titles earn several hundred million in profit through international markets. And I’m only focusing on the box office here. The real money comes from merchandising the characters.
Simply stated, Disney cannot cede foreign markets for its MCU titles. The opportunity cost would savage the company’s bottom line.
Coronavirus and Its Looming Box Office Impact
I’m not being hyperbolic here when I say that history may remember 2020 as the summer without movies. Many studios are debating strategies right now, with James Bond 25 the first to make the hard call.
MGM and Universal have delayed the release of No Time to Die. It was supposed to open on April 10th. Instead, the film will come out at Thanksgiving.
On the surface, this move may seem strange. The film has completed production and is ready for theatrical distribution. Unfortunately, the theaters can’t say the same thing. The entirety of China has closed movie theaters for now. Many other markets are reconsidering options as well.
The international audiences that Disney relies on for its MCU titles can’t watch the films right now. Also, that situation may not change for a while. It’s become clear that China misrepresented the initial numbers about the COVID-19 epidemic.
Other countries like Iran, Italy, and South Korea have suffered as well. You can read the updated statistics here. As I write this, Coronavirus has recently topped 100,000 cases. Until doctors and researchers get a handle on COVID-19 and develop accurate testing methodologies, the situation will remain static.
In other words, the movie theaters that are closed will stay that way. At some point, other theaters, which are by nature communal gathering spots, also must shut down.
Hollywood executives understand this situation and are weighing options about the tentpole titles this year. Several of them may follow the path of No Time to Die and get pushed until later this year, possibly even 2021.
Black Widow will open in North America on May 1st, presuming that it keeps that date. The current expectation is that it will. After all, Mulan comes out in three weeks. Disney made that movie to appeal to Chinese audiences in particular. If the company hasn’t delayed Mulan, it’s unlikely to push Black Widow.
Is that the right call? Nobody knows for sure and probably won’t until long after the Coronavirus epidemic is under control. However, Disney has justification for this choice.
Beginning in August, the MCU will expand into television. Disney+ plans to anchor its service with Marvel titles like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (FaWS) and WandaVision, both of which will debut later in 2020.
The Disney+ schedule indicates that the first title, FaWS, will debut in August. This aspect may sound irrelevant to Black Widow, but I don’t believe that it is. I think that Marvel’s television presence puts pressure on the movie to hold its date.
Many insiders suggest that Phase Four of the MCU will include unprecedented interconnectivity. It’s a business decision for Disney. By tying the Marvel television shows and movies together, audiences must watch both. The strategy pushes sales of Disney+ while potentially inflating Marvel’s already lofty box office results.
So, Black Widow may lead directly to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. My guess – based on nothing – is that a mid- or post-credits scene from the film ties into the television series. Then, fans of the film must purchase Disney+ to watch the next chapter.
Disney’s House of Cards
You’ve already figured out the flaw in the plan. Disney couldn’t have possibly anticipated this unprecedented turn of events. Movie theaters never close; they’re like Target and Kroger. However, that’s precisely what has happened.
Exhibitors around the world have shut down due to Coronavirus. More may follow soon. And each instance reduces the potential box office for Black Widow, which looked like a surefire billion-dollar blockbuster at the start of the year.
In a perfect world, Disney would delay Black Widow until Chinese exhibitors are operational once again. However, by doing that, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could lose its lead-in. Any delay to Black Widow could render a potential credits scene pointless.
Now, Disney could always reshoot something. Marvel can do no wrong when it comes to credits scenes, after all. Still, the presumed tie-in would fall apart. And other issues exist, too.
Analysts have speculated that Disney would switch Black Widow to early November, the current date for The Eternals. However, that may not solve the problem. That superhero team has rumored ties to other upcoming MCU titles. So, the same issue would propagate here.
Disney is the only movie studio with this particular problem. Competitors can push their films to whatever release date makes sense. Due to the tether between the Phase Four titles in the MCU, Disney needs everything to remain in order. Otherwise, the house of cards will fall.
The Reality of Black Widow
At most, Black Widow could fall back from May until late-July or early-August. Even then, COVID-19 may still have a lingering impact that keeps movie theaters closed. So, Disney doesn’t have a solid option here.
The movie needs its international box office. Otherwise, two-thirds of its potential earnings get taken off the top. In layman’s terms, Disney would open up a pizza box and notice that six out of nine slices are missing.
Still, one film’s overall box office represents a small piece of the pie relative to Disney+. The entire future of the company’s media division hinges on the streaming service’s success. So, that’s the more important aspect right now. A Black Widow delay could hurt the MCU’s debut on Disney+.
As such, Disney executives are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Welcome to your new job, CEO Bob Chapek!