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Why Disney is not following Warner Bros in releasing all its 2021 movies straight to streaming

Daniel Roberts
·Editor-at-Large
·4-min read

One week ago, Warner Bros. stunned the film industry when it announced it will release all of its 2021 movies on streaming platform HBO Max on the same day the movies hit theaters. (After one month of streaming, they’ll come off HBO Max while continuing their theatrical run.) Theater chain stocks were rocked by the news, and AMC CEO Adam Aron declared he wanted an “urgent dialogue” with WarnerMedia.

The next big question became: Will Disney follow suit?

After Disney’s 2020 Investor Day presentation on Thursday, we have the answer: Not yet.

In a four-hour-long presentation that previewed more than 60 new original shows and more than 40 movies, there was no big reveal of a sweeping plan to skip the traditional “theatrical window” as WB plans to do. Disney’s most-anticipated movies of the next few years are all still scheduled for theatrical releases.

Disney (DIS) does plan to release its next Pixar movie “Soul” straight to Disney+ on Dec. 25, which was already announced, and it announced on Thursday that its next Disney Animation movie “Raya and the Last Dragon” will hit Disney+ on March 5, 2021, the same day it hits theaters, for an additional fee (Disney calls it “premiere access”) on top of the Disney+ subscription price. (Disney did this with “Mulan” in September for a $30 digital purchase fee, with limited success; it has not shared how much the movie made in digital fees.)

“Black Widow,” the highly-anticipated Marvel prequel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, will hit theaters May 7, 2021. The movie, originally scheduled for May 1, 2020, has been delayed multiple times amid the pandemic. “Fans have been patient,” Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige said during the Investor Day presentation.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JULY 20: (L-R) David Harbour, Florence Pugh, O-T Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz and Scarlett Johansson of Marvel Studios' 'Black Widow' at the San Diego Comic-Con International 2019 Marvel Studios Panel in Hall H on July 20, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
David Harbour, Florence Pugh, O-T Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz and Scarlett Johansson of Marvel Studios' 'Black Widow' at the San Diego Comic-Con International 2019 Marvel Studios Panel in Hall H on July 20, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Three other previously announced Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are also sticking to theatrical release dates, with no whisper from Disney of any plans to put them simultaneously on streaming. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will hit theaters July 9, 2021, and “Eternals” on Nov. 5, 2021. The "Black Panther" sequel film is set for July 8, 2022 theatrical release, and Marvel will not recast the late Chadwick Boseman's iconic character.

Disney also committed to theatrical release dates for Marvel sequels “Thor: Love and Thunder” (May 6, 2022) and “Captain Marvel 2” (Nov. 11, 2022).

Disney further made clear its commitment to the theatrical window with dates for two Pixar movies: “Luca” will hit theaters on June 18, 2021, and the Buzz Lightyear prequel movie “Lightyear,” voiced by Chris Evans, is set for theaters on June 17, 2022.

There’s good reason Disney wasn’t going to join WB in declaring war on the longstanding relationship between studios and exhibitors (theaters). Disney already has 86.8 million Disney+ subscribers, it said on Thursday (and 137 million streaming subscribers total across its three streaming services, Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+). It has already reached the top of the 60 million to 90 million subscriber range it had hoped to hit by 2024, and as such, it revised its Disney+ subscriber guidance for 2024 up to 230 million to 260 million, and will raise the Disney+ monthly price to $7.99 in March.

HBO Max has 12.6 million subscribers (likely boosted by the popularity of “The Undoing” this fall). WarnerMedia’s plan for 2021 is a play to boost HBO Max subscriptions; Disney doesn’t need to boost Disney+ subs so urgently that it’s worth going to the dramatic measure WB is taking.

Elizabeth Olsen, from left, Paul Bettany and Teyonah Parris participate in the "WandaVision" portion of the Marvel Studios panel on day three of Comic-Con International on Saturday, July 20, 2019, in San Diego. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Elizabeth Olsen, from left, Paul Bettany and Teyonah Parris participate in the "WandaVision" portion of the Marvel Studios panel on day three of Comic-Con International on Saturday, July 20, 2019, in San Diego. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Moreover: Disney dominated the 2019 box office. It had seven of the top 10 global box office hits that year (plus a “Spider-Man” movie that was produced by Sony but is part of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe), and the hits came from all across Disney’s studios: Disney Animation (“Frozen 2”); Disney live-action (“The Lion King” and “Aladdin”); Pixar (“Toy Story 4”); Lucasfilm (“Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker”) and Marvel (“Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest-grossing movie ever).

With COVID-19 vaccines on the way, it behooves Disney not to give up on movie theaters yet. It stands to make a lot more from a big Marvel or Star Wars movie in theaters than it does by putting it on Disney+. And it will need the box office revenue: Disney expects to be spending $14 billion to $16 billion per year on original content by 2024.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers Disney and the streaming wars. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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