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Matrix Resurrections, Black Widow piracy shows the limit of the straight-to-streaming blockbuster

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Simultaneous release may be a pirate’s dream

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Morpheus offering a red pill in Matrix Resurrections Warner Bros.

Imagine a world in which The Matrix Resurrections tops Spider-Man: No Way Home. This is far from what the current box-office numbers would suggest, where No Way Home is currently the ninth-highest domestic grossing movie of all time and Resurrections is bombing with its simultaneous theatrical/HBO Max release. But such a world does exist. Fitting for Resurrections, it exists in cyberspace. According to TorrentFreak’s weekly data, Lana Wachowski’s movie is currently the most pirated movie online. No Way Home is number two.

Earning the curiosity of torrenters while not making back their money at the box office probably isn’t making the hearts of Warner Bros. executive sing. But the “Resurrections quandary,” if you will, is emblematic of problems that apply to every studio from universal Universal to Disney: What will become of “day-and-date” releases, movies that are simultaneously released in theaters and on streaming platforms?

A new analysis from Deadline shows that generally, when studios have tried to dominate home screens and theaters during the box office, they end up with neither. Deadline looked at the 30-day home viewership of movies from third party data group Samba TV and put them next to each movie’s box office.

These numbers aren’t perfect; Samba measures smart TV viewership (no mobile devices) in three million households over a five-minute interval. But given the challenges of getting accurate, independent data on the sudden deluge of streaming apps, they’re likely the best numbers available at the moment.

Black Widow is perhaps the most infamous of the day-and-date releases from the pandemic, given the extraordinary circumstances revolving around its release. First, there was the fact that Scarlett Johansson’s character had died within the MCU two years earlier. But there was also the nature of its release on Disney Plus Premier Access, which came with a $30 price tag for viewership.

The Premier Access release netted Disney $60 million, contributing to an opening that earned the company over $200 million. But Black Widow soon provided Disney with headaches, which culminated in Johansson’s eventually settled lawsuit. During the movie’s second week, it had a 67 percent drop in box office, the largest of any MCU movie. Critics of the Premier Access release pounced, most notably the National Association of Theatre Owners said in a letter that “piracy no doubt further affected Black Widow’s performance, and will affect its future performance in international markets where it has yet to open.”

Black Widow slides her way down the side of a building amid falling debris in the Marvel Studios film Black Widow.
Black Widow was a major experiment in pandemic-era viewing
Image: Marvel Studios

Noting that “pristine digital copies” of Black Widow “became available within minutes” of the movie’s Premier Access release, the letter continued on saying that “this was also the case for all simultaneous releases (Wonder Woman 1984, Godzilla vs Kong, Cruella, Mortal Kombat) ... How much money did everyone lose to simultaneous release piracy?”

While theater owners have a vested interest in keeping theatrical openings exclusive, it’s a question looming large over studio executives. While piracy will never die, it’s rarely in a studio’s interest to encourage it. Deadline’s piece stated that by September 2021, “sources in the know informed us that Black Widow had been pirated more than 20 million times. That’s close to a $600 million estimated loss on Black Widow in Disney+ PVOD revenue alone.” That math assumes one pirated viewer equals one viewer who would have bought a ticket, which surely isn’t entirely accurate, but a jaw-dropping estimate nonetheless.

Looking at Resurrections, its second-week drop-off in box office was almost as substantial as Black Widow’s, at 64 percent. But HBO Max’s problems extended beyond Resurrections, with movies like Will Smith’s King Richard and Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho doing poorly in both streaming and box office.

Another metric worth noting is subscriptions. After all, if a movie bombs in theaters, gets pirated a million times, but gets viewers hooked into your walled garden of content, it’s not a total wash. From this perspective, Resurrections fares a little better. Surely helped by TV shows like Succession and the Sex and The City sequel ...And Just Like That, the service had growth of 4.4 million subscribers in Q4 2021.

And while No Way Home is pulling in eye-popping numbers, Disney Plus’ subscriber growth has been slow recently, with only 2.1 million new subscribers to Disney Plus in Q4 — the window that Black Widow was released in. Disney has been expecting some stagnation from its streaming service, and would surely settle for slow growth online if it meant another No Way Home, but those numbers certainly are a fly in Disney’s ever-growing ointment.

“You have to remember we’re still in the middle of the war,” one anonymous studio executive told Deadline about the pandemic. “Because of that, we will continue the same strategy that we’ve had for the last two years: total flexibility.”

Studios are still experimenting with what works in the pandemic. There are problems with older audiences feeling comfortable in theaters, incredible upsides with tentpole movies, and many questions left unresolved about streaming. But these experiments are starting to offer numbers, and they don’t look great for day-and-date releases.