Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed during the company’s quarterly earnings call on Thursday that his studio is committed to releasing the Marvel Studios film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” with 45 days of theatrical exclusivity, despite the surge in COVID-19 infections threatening the global box office.
Chapek acknowledged that the studio made the decision to put the next MCU film in theaters only — rather than a hybrid release on Disney+ — when infection rates were much lower. However, they feel the film will provide the studio with an opportunity to test both the film’s box office and streaming performance under a theatrical window that is shorter than the 90-day period Hollywood operated under prior to the pandemic.
“On ‘Shang-Chi,’ we think it’s going to be an interesting experiment,” Chapek said. “The prospect of taking a Marvel title to [Disney+] after just 45 days would be an interesting data point.”
Chapek also said that moving the film to a hybrid release at this point would be very difficult due to “the impracticality of last-minute changes.” Studios usually have to commit money to advertisements and other marketing campaign plans at least two months prior to a film’s release.
The theatrical commitment comes as COVID-19 infection rates have surged around the world, forcing theater closures in Australia and Southeast Asia and depressing audience turnout in countries like France and Italy, where proof of vaccination is required to enter cinemas. In the U.S., it is believed that increased infections played a factor in the lower-than-expected opening weekend of “Suicide Squad,” which launched to $26.2 million while also being released concurrently on HBO Max.
So far, four Disney films have been given a release via Disney+’s Premier Access: “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Cruella,” “Jungle Cruise” and “Black Widow.” The studio has not disclosed the full paid streaming grosses for its hybrid films but has revealed that “Black Widow” grossed $60 million and “Jungle Cruise” grossed $30 million from global Disney+ sales in its opening weekend.
Disney keeps 80% of the revenue from Premier Access sales as opposed to the 50/50 split with theaters, though Disney in recent years has been able to negotiate a larger cut for its biggest films. The hybrid release has led to backlash from theaters, with NATO writing in a statement that the film’s box office and overall profit potential was damaged by its home availability.
Meanwhile, “Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson has sued Disney on claims that the move to a hybrid release deprived her of tens of millions in box office-related bonuses for starring in the film. Disney responded with a sharp statement saying the lawsuit showed “callous disregard” for the COVID-19 pandemic, words that received condemnation from SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and Johansson’s agent, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd.
During the call, Chapek defended the hybrid release of “Black Widow,” noting that the film passed “F9” as the highest-grossing post-shutdown film at the domestic box office last weekend, and saying Disney will always do “what we believe is in the best interest of the film and the best interest of our constituents.”