Last year featured a seismic shift in the theatrical release paradigm in the film industry. Pre-COVID, theaters had a chokehold on theatrical exclusivity windows, requiring upwards of 60 to 90 days before a studio could put a film on streaming. Then after the pandemic disrupted the exhibition industry for almost two full years, that quickly changed with studios releasing a ton of high-profile blockbusters simultaneously on streaming and in theaters. We have yet to fully take stock of what the real fallout is going to be from this paradigm shift, but according to a recent Deadline report, we know one thing for sure, Disney might have lost hundreds of millions of dollars on “Black Widow” thanks to its digital release and those pesky pirates.
In a recent report about 2021’s shift in theatrical release models, Deadline reports that from the time “Black Widow” was released on Disney+ (for a $29.99 premier access fee) and in theaters on July 9 through the month of August, the film was pirated approximately 20 million times. Yes, twenty million times. When you look at how much the film cost on Disney+ (again, $29.99), that equates to about $600 million in potential lost revenue because of pristine 4K pirated copies of the film circulating almost immediately after the film was released.
Obviously, it’s unclear how many of those 20 million downloads were from people who already paid to see the film in theaters or from those who wouldn’t have paid to watch it anyway, but if a large number of those folks were potential customers that just found it easier to pirate the film versus paying the money to watch it, then we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars Disney lost out on. This just adds fuel to the lawsuit fire brought forth by Scarlett Johansson last year, huh?
When you take into account the fact that “Black Widow” only earned $184 million at the domestic box office and $380 million worldwide during the entirety of its theatrical run (during COVID, of course), it’s clear Disney would have loved to have some more of that pirated money. We don’t know the full official numbers of how many times “Black Widow” was purchased on Disney+, but we’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s far less than $600 million worth.
All that to say, it’s very unlikely Disney is going to do the day-and-date releases on high-profile films unless it’s absolutely necessary. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has proven that people around the world are willing to risk COVID exposure to see a Marvel Studios film. So, future superhero films are likely theatrical exclusives anyway. But damn, that’s a costly lesson to learn.