The movie industry is a little bit edgy these days. That’s understandable since theaters throughout North America and Europe remain closed during the coronavirus pandemic, which shows no serious signs of abating. Yet the current tension boiling over has existed for years. As movie audiences continue to embrace streaming and direct-to-consumer content, movie studios and exhibitors have sometimes been at odds on how to respond. And if Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s earnings call this week is anything to go by, that tension is only going to heighten.
“We very much believe in the value of the theatrical experience,” Chapek told investors (via Deadline). “But we also believe 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… we’re going to evaluate each of our movies as a case-by-case situation, as we’re doing during this coronavirus situation.”
What Chapek refers to is how Disney is preparing to release Artemis Fowl on Disney+ in June. The film, from director Kenneth Branagh, is a long-gestating project that has already moved once on the release calendar even before the coronavirus pandemic, so it going to Disney+ isn’t necessarily a shock. Meanwhile the studio remains committed at releasing its tentpoles with an eye on Chinese box office in theaters, such as Mulan, which moved from March to July, and Black Widow, which moved from May to November.
Chapek referred to these intended blockbusters as being still slated to capitalize on the “power” of movie theater excitement. While this call to investors stops short of explicitly stating that Disney will further explore Disney+ or VOD options for releases down the road—the already in release Pixar movie, Onward, responded to the COVID-19 crisis by spending a week on VOD and then going to the company’s streaming service—it might imply it, particularly with Chapek’s assertion about the need to respond to “evolving consumer dynamics.”
NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell inadvertently set off a public showdown with the largest movie theater chain in North America, AMC Theatres, as well as earned the ire of the National Association of Theatre Owners, when he told the press that Universal Pictures had such success with Trolls World Tour that the studio will explore VOD options and day-and-date releases beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, Chapek’s comments are sure to increase anxiety among theater owners and exhibitors because they implicitly suggest that Disney will need to respond to what they view as a shift in consumer demand. Disney already has a complicated relationship with movie exhibitors, as the studio tends to practice hardball tactics that force theaters to give up a larger portion of box office revenue to the Mouse and reserve additional theater space for Disney’s smaller movies in order to secure their biggest blockbusters. But Disney is the studio, at least for the last decade, that’s consistently released unsinkable billion-dollar grossers moviegoers cannot resist: Marvel Studios, Star Wars, Pixar, and live-action remakes of beloved classics all contributed to Disney posting a record-breaking $13 billion in global box office receipts last year.
So it is incredibly hard to imagine a theater chain threatening Disney with a refusal to license their films in the same way that AMC has to Universal. Also, to be clear, Disney did not overtly say that they’re going to release more VOD films after COVID-19. But Chapek’s comments can easily be construed as that, particularly as the studio appears to be pivoting in 2020 toward building the Disney+ brand as readily as they were releasing new theatrical “events.” Hence why after years of releasing three movies in the span of 12 months, Marvel Studios was planning to release only two in 2020 (which has now been reduced to one by the pandemic) while it focused on producing original limited series events for the streaming service.
Whether feathers ruffled by this call will actually make any additional noise remains to be seen, but you can hear the tension building yet more.