January 2022 marks a year since Phase 4 of the MCU kicked off with WandaVision on Disney+. Diving headfirst into streaming after a year with no content was somewhat of a risk, but it wasn't the only one. In July, Disney decided that Marvel's first Phase 4 theatrical film - Black Widow - would be released in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access at the same time.
The direct pipeline that streaming provides has long intrigued studios; and during the height of the pandemic, it became a means of survival as well as a prime opportunity for experimentation. While Marvel's gamble on Disney+ series paid off, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow's dual release did not.
In the weeks following Black Widow's debut, Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney over the profits handling of the dual release, and Hollywood took notice.
Following a bitter, public legal battle, Walt Disney Studios and Johansson reached a settlement; however, just how much the film lost due to streaming is still coming to light and may mean an end to Disney's dual release strategy.
Black Widow Profits Hurt by Piracy
In an article about the lack of theatrical streaming in 2022, Deadline reported that Black Widow's theatrical day-and-date release resulted in over 20 million pirated downloads, causing Disney to lose an estimated $600 million in streaming revenue.
Upon its release in July of 2021, Black Widow reportedly made $80 million at the domestic box office and $20 million in the U.S. and Canada via Disney+ Premier Access; and internationally, the film brought in $78M at the box office and over $40M via streaming.
However, after that strong opening performance, the numbers for the Scarlett Johansson film began to plummet, leading the actress to sue the Walt Disney Company over a breach in contract that originally guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release.
At the time, it was estimated that the decision to release via streaming cost Johnasson $50 million.
Marvel's subsequent Phase 4 theatrical films, including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, all debuted in theaters and without the Disney+ Premier Access option.
Disney Has Red in Its Ledger
Disney was far from the only studio experimenting with a theatrical day-and-date-release during the pandemic. In fact, several studios, including Warner Bros., sent their tentpole franchise films direct to streaming with no theatrical option.
In addition to the breach of contract, much of the problem with Disney and this particular situation is that Black Widow was a Marvel film.
While it's true that streaming has been on the rise while theater attendance has been on the decline long before the pandemic, Marvel films are an exception and typically drive the box office, as evidenced by both by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home.
In addition, while piracy has long been a problem for the film industry, Disney's decision to release a Marvel-branded film with a strong fan following on Disney+ - and behind a paywall - potentially fed the demand for pirated copies.
Black Widow's $600M loss just on Disney+ alone shows that the company didn't leave money on the table but practically gave it away; and while Marvel Studios regularly takes risks when it comes to their storytelling, risking a new release format - and audience demand - isn't worth it.
Due to these reports, coupled with Disney's bad press its short-lived estrangement with Johansson, it's unlikely that Disney will experiment with this type of release strategy in the future, at least when it comes to an MCU film.
Black Widow is available to stream on Disney+.