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The Chilling Thing Disney’s “Black Widow” Said about the Future of Movie Theater Chains

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Opening weekend ticket sales in 98th place, but streaming revenues hit it out of the ballpark.

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

Some of the headlines about “Black Widow,” the Marvel movie that opened over the weekend, were quite a show. If “record” was mentioned without “pandemic” as qualifier, they lied. What the box office data did show is how difficult it now is for brick-and-mortar theaters to bring in the money, and just how much of a killing Disney, which owns Marvel, made by streaming the movie simultaneously over the weekend on Disney+.

During its opening weekend, Black Widow brought in $80 million at box office ticket sales in North America. This was only a “record” for any movie since March 2020, a “pandemic record,” so to speak.

But these ticket sales lagged far behind the actual records set during opening weekends by other movies. According to movie data tracker, The Numbers, those ticket sales were in 98th place!

And they were 78% lower than the record debut weekend for a movie, “Avengers: Endgame,” which premiered in April 2019 and grossed $357 million at theaters in North America during the first weekend.

The brutal reality for brick-and-mortar theaters now:

  • “Avengers: Endgame” played in 4,662 theaters the weekend it premiered; on average each theater grossed $76,601.
  • “Black Widow” played in 4,160 theaters over the weekend; on average each theater grossed $19,231. That’s what this “record” means for movie theater chains.

This 98th place does not include the impact of rising ticket prices. A lot of the movies that beat “Black Widow” debuted many years ago, when ticket prices were a lot lower, and it took a lot more tickets to get there, including “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which opened in November 2001 and grossed $90 million. At the time, the average ticket price was $5.66, compared to $9.16 in 2019.

Walt Disney disclosed the other fascinating thing about the plight of brick-and-mortar movie theaters: It had raked in $60 million from streaming “Black Widow” over the weekend on Disney+, for $29.99 per home, on top of the monthly subscription fee, no theaters involved.

Disney gets a cut of maybe less than 50% of the $80 million in box office ticket sales. But it gets 100% of the $60 million it took in via Disney+.

This was the first time that Disney disclosed this type of streaming data since it launched Disney+ in November 2019 – and it shows the very chilling prospects for brick-and-mortar theaters.

What changed during the pandemic was Disney’s decision to release movies simultaneously in movie theaters and on Disney+.

So now, some people can go to a theater to watch a movie when it premiers and make an event out of it; others can watch the movie at home when it premiers, the whole family for $29.99, which cheap soda and popcorn thrown in on top.

If studios had tried before the Pandemic to release a movie simultaneously in theaters and on their streaming channel, thereby breaking the theatrical window, it would have caused theater chains to boycott the release, which would have been the end of that story.

But the power relationship between studios and theater chains has changed forever. And studios have their own streaming services. If theater chains try to boycott a movie, so be it; they will just push more people to the streaming service.

This has effectively broken the three-month monopoly that the “theatrical window” – the time between a movie’s release in theaters and its release on other channels – gave to theaters. During those three months, consumers didn’t have a choice (other than a bootleg copy): If they wanted to watch the movie, they had to go to the theater. That three-month monopoly was never designed to benefit consumers, but to benefit movie theaters.

Now movie theaters have to compete with streaming from day one, and consumers have a choice. And consumers are deciding: Some still go to the movies and make an event out of it, but lots of others watch it at home. And this changes the equation of just how many brick-and-mortar movie theaters are needed, and what they can do to survive with the theatrical window broken, the monopoly gone, and choices for consumers wide open.

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