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mulan with a bow and arrow Image: Walt Disney Pictures

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Don’t expect the year’s delayed blockbusters to pop up on streaming

Why, despite a coronavirus-provoked shake-up, early digital releases of Mulan and Black Widow are only a dream

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Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Movie theaters are in the middle of the most tumultuous time for business in a century. Thanks to social distancing intended to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters all over the United States — and all over the world — have been closing their doors for the foreseeable future. For that reason, Hollywood’s biggest studios have started pulling their movies from theaters to place them on-demand instead. But that isn’t likely to happen with any of the year’s big postponed blockbusters, no matter how badly people hope to see them on streaming platforms soon.

This trend started with The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma., all from Universal Pictures. On March 20, all three movies went straight from theaters to the internet, where viewers could rent them for $19.99.

Each of these movies had their own reasons for leaving theaters, beyond the fact that Universal saw the writing on the wall for COVID-19. The Invisible Man had been playing for a few weeks at that point, which gave it plenty of time to earn money from its first few weekends. Emma. had only barely hit wide release, but it was a small production with potential for streaming success. Finally, there’s The Hunt, a movie that faced a dozen obstacles and scandals before it even got to theaters. By the time it arrived, the movie business was already starting to slow down, thanks to COVID-19.

Now that these films are out of theaters, they’re all on YouTube’s top sellers list — even though they’re all currently rental-only — or in Amazon Prime Video’s new Cinema section, dedicated to movies that were recently in theaters. Since Universal made its decision, and it became clear that no one in America going to get out to multiplex theaters any time soon, several more movies have made their way from cinemas to on-demand. Sony released Bloodshot, Disney released Onward, and Warner Bros. released Birds of Prey, among others.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Birds of Prey
Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures

But the early releases aren’t what have people excited about movies coming to streaming: it’s the release-date delays for planned blockbusters. Over the last few months, many major studios have been delaying their biggest movies. And most of them aren’t getting new release dates, as studios wait to see when the domestic and international box offices might recover.

The first major announcement came from MGM and Universal Pictures in early March, when they announced that No Time To Die, the final installment in Daniel Craig’s James Bond run, would be delayed from April until November. Shortly after, movies began dropping from the release calendar: Disney postponed the release of Mulan, New Mutants, and Black Widow without announcing new release dates. Universal even delayed F9 for an entire calendar year.

With nothing coming to theaters for the foreseeable future, fans started to get a little antsy about when they could see the movies they were excited for. And with all the studios shifting in-theaters films to on-demand, it seemed to make sense that they might choose to debut some of their blockbusters on those platforms as well.

There have even been a few small precedents. Universal moved Trolls: World Tour to a simultaneous release on digital platforms and in theaters on April 10 (assuming theaters reopen by then). Meanwhile, just last week, Paramount moved The Lovebirds to Netflix, where it will now debut.

So why can’t that happen with blockbusters?

Well for one thing, these two specific movies make a lot of sense on-demand. The Lovebirds is a small action comedy, the kind of film that thrives on Netflix. Trolls: World Tour is the sequel to a kids’ movie that made less than $200 million in the US, so a theatrical release isn’t necessarily the priority — and with kids out of school, a new streaming movie could be a godsend for parents who are now working from home and stuck splitting their time between parenting and working.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow looks cool posing in front of some smoke in a field, in a teaser trailer for Marvel Studios’ Black Widow.
Black Widow
Image: Marvel Studios/Disney

Blockbuster movies, by contrast, make an immense amount of money in theaters. The first upcoming 2020 movie that got fans excited about the prospect of a shift to a digital debut was Disney’s Mulan. But it’s the live-action remake of one of Disney’s ’90s princess staples, and most of Disney’s live-action movies have been huge box-office winners. It’s also a historical epic about the history of China — one of the countries where audiences most often show up for blockbuster movies, Disney or otherwise. In 2019, North American box office dipped to $11.45 billion in grosses (thanks in large part to Disney). Meanwhile, Chinese box office rose to $9.2 billion, with 35.9% of the total coming from imported films. For giant blockbusters, there’ money to be made far beyond the States.

When Disney removed Mulan from its theatrical release schedule, fans took to social media, asking, “Why doesn’t Disney just put the movie on Disney Plus so everyone can see it now?” Problem is, that doesn’t make a lot of sense for Disney.

Disney Plus is a subscription-based platform. The way it makes money is from people who pay for access every month. As Netflix and HBO have proven, this is a very successful model, but only for companies that keep users subscribed. There has to be a reason for them to stick around on the platform, otherwise they’ll cancel.

So what does the early release of Mulan really add? How many people who weren’t already subscribed to the service would jump on board for the movie, and how many of them would stick around once they’ve watched it once or twice? Almost certainly not enough to match the potential box-office returns. Not all of Disney’s live-action reboots have been hits, but they’ve done well compared to their animated inspirations, and even relative disappointments like 2019’s Dumbo made more than $300 million worldwide. And on the other end of the scale, 2019’s The Lion King made more than $1.7 billion in theatrical release. Disney has no compelling reason to drop Mulan on streaming right now and skip the potential for that kind of payday.

Mulan is also a family movie, which means more tickets in theatrical release. Kids will want to see it, and kids can’t see movies alone. Which means a single multi-child family is probably paying $60 to see it together in the theater, instead of a $19.99 rental or a much smaller monthly subscription. And that’s not even counting kids who drag their parents back to the theater for a second round.

Wonder Woman throws her lasso of truth Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures

Streaming the movie would create another problem as well: piracy. Disney Plus isn’t available in every country yet. It only launched in the UK on March 24, and it may not launch in China any time soon. If Mulan were readily available, it could find its way online, effectively kneecapping one of the movie’s biggest markets. So the choice to delay the movie, rather than push it to a streaming platform makes perfect sense for Disney.

Fans made a similar call for early digital release when Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman 84 was being delayed. With HBO Max, the new WarnerMedia streaming service, launching in a few months, some people argued that it could be the perfect movie to new customers to the service. According to a report from The Wrap, Warner Bros. executives even discussed the option, but most said that if a theatrical release was possible, it was always going to be the better financial choice. So the movie was rescheduled for an August 14 theatrical run. Which should come as no surprise, considering the last Wonder Woman movie made nearly a billion dollars just a few years ago.

The same argument holds true for Disney and Marvel’s Black Widow, a movie in the top grossing franchise of all time. The latest Marvel movie was originally scheduled for release on May 1, but has since been postponed with no definitive release date, but it’s sure to be a success no matter when Disney decides to put it out. No Time to Die, another massive blockbuster will have similarly high box office expectations. The previous Bond movie, Spectre made nearly $900 million at the box office, which explains why it was important for the sequel to lock down its date.

Perhaps, there could be an outside argument for a movie like New Mutants, though. The X-Men spinoff has had a famously tortured production process. It started filming all the way back in 2017 and has since been re-edited at least once, and pushed back more than a few times. More importantly, X-Men isn’t exactly “in” at the moment. Last year’s Dark Phoenix was one of the more infamous Hollywood bombs of the last several years, failing to even crack $70 million in the United States.

Even so, the financial arguments for releasing a movie on streaming platforms doesn’t compare to the potential upside of a massive release. If New Mutants catches on with teens and they spring it north of $100 million domestically, suddenly a Hulu or Disney Plus burial doesn’t sound as appealing for Disney.

The New Mutants X-Men team stands in the middle of a hospital
New Mutants
Image: 20th Century Fox

With some of the most anticipated movies of the year getting delayed, and a summer without movie theaters looming, it’s no surprise that movie fans love the idea of a new hit movie being released right now, on a streaming app they already have. What’s more, movie theaters have been on the decline over the last several years, as streaming takes more and more of the marketplace for movie watching. But even if they generate less revenue on the whole than they used to, movie theaters are still a perfect place for blockbuster movies. And not even a global pandemic can change that fact.

With streaming growing bigger and bigger every year, it does seem possible that some titles would shift their releases to each studios’ respective platforms. Smaller movies, with lower budgets and lower chances of hitting it big in theaters, could shift without studios thinking twice, and that’s probably going to happen if movies like The Lovebirds are any indication. But for now, studios want blockbusters like Mulan, Black Widow, and Wonder Woman 84 to stay right where they are, taking up seven screens at your local multiplex — even if that can’t happen for a few more months to come.

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