On Tuesday morning (March 17), Disney finally announced that its next Marvel Studios tentpole, Black Widow, was being moved off its May 1 arrival to an indefinite release date later in the year. The news was hardly shocking at this point: with the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all major theater chains in North America — as well as many worldwide — have shut their doors for anywhere from six to 12 weeks, which effectively sealed the Widow’s fate regardless of the Mouse’s decision.
Since it’s difficult to predict how long this crisis will continue before the virus abates enough to allow for businesses to reopen and public events to begin again, Disney cannot reliably unveil a new release date for Black Widow. Unlike the James Bond and Fast and Furious franchises, which also moved their releases but only deal with one movie at a time, the bumping of Black Widow could create a chain reaction involving the launch of the next several films in the Marvel pipeline, including The Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and so on.
But Disney does have one other option available to it: the company could premiere Black Widow on its recently launched streaming service, Disney+.
There is already precedent for this: Disney just put Frozen 2 on the service, three months earlier than expected, and there’s a good chance it will do the same with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Warner Bros. is also moving up the VOD launch of Birds of Prey. And in one of the boldest recent moves by a major studio, Universal is putting several of its current theatrical releases on VOD now, and will premiere its April 10 release, Trolls World Tour, on digital (the same day it was supposed to arrive theatrically before the shutdown).
Considering such a move even two weeks ago might have caused a rift between Disney and theater exhibitors that even Avengers: Endgame Reunion couldn’t have healed. Exhibitors have already felt long bullied by Disney, which demands a larger cut upfront from its box office than the other studios; because the company releases almost nothing but blockbusters year after year, the theater owners pretty much have to kowtow to the Mouse.
But with the complete shutdown for now of public moviegoing, the studios are forced to look at other possibilities. Day-and-date streaming has long been discussed as the primary distribution method of the future, not as a replacement for the theater experience but as another option for viewers. There are ways that Disney could somehow get the theater owners involved: either allow them to stream the movie too (AMC and Regal have branded streaming services) or figure out a way to charge a premium to watch the film and give the owners a desperately needed piece of the action.
Paying a premium on top of their monthly subscription fee might cause some Disney+ subscribers to grumble, but since a lot of them were going to pay to see the movie in theaters anyway, who cares? And the rush of new subscribers and publicity for Disney+ — which is currently struggling to generate some excitement between seasons of The Mandalorian — might be a shot in the arm for the service.
With all these options, one thing is probably certain: Disney and the rest of the studios are going to have to dial down their expectations. The pandemic and its aftermath, both societally and economically, are going to have lingering effects for months to come, if not the rest of 2020. That means that even the biggest cinematic behemoths may not pull down the record-setting opening weekends or billion-dollar grosses that are now the standard. Whenever or however Black Widow does come out, Disney should just be glad that people still want to see it, and adjust accordingly.