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What ‘Black Widow’ Success Predicts About the Future of Movie Theaters


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With the pandemic reshaping the world for the past year and a half, the fate of movie theaters has been up in the air. While most theaters were required to close their doors early last year, streaming services such as Disney Plus and Amazon Prime haven’t stopped their output of content. In fact, multiple movies that should have been box office hits were delayed or even released exclusively to streaming services, skipping in-person viewing altogether. There is good reason, then, that there has been much debate over how movie theaters would react to and recover from the pandemic. Between forced closures, the convenience of streaming, and the rise of on-demand releases, the novelty of going to a theater to view a film might not be enough for the struggling industry to bounce back quickly.

However, this doesn’t mean that the era of movie theaters is over quite yet. Take Disney’s live-action Mulan for instance. Released on Disney Plus in September 2020 for a premium fee—$29.99 extra, estimated to be about the same price many would pay to see it at a theater—the film only grossed a net $35.5 million on its opening weekend. Considering previous Disney films’ overwhelming successes and the studio’s monetary loss, Mulan’s on-demand route didn’t do as well as one might expect.

In contrast, Marvel/Disney’s Black Widow, which premiered in theaters on July 9, 2021, raked in $80 million on its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada—the most successful any movie has been since the pandemic began. According to Deadline, the triumph continued as the film easily crossed the $100 million mark in domestic theaters in just six days.

To compare, it was also available on Disney Plus for the same extra fee as Mulan and earned about $60 million through it, significantly less than the live-action film—which was, notably, only available online.

Mulan, starring US-Chinese actress Yifei Liu, was released exclusively on Disney Plus. The film grossed $20 million less than Black Widow on the same platform. Photo thanks to The Japan Times.

David A. Gross, who runs movie consultancy firm Franchise Entertainment Research, attested in an email that Black Widow saw “an extremely impressive theatrical opening. Certainly the figure would be higher if every theater were open, if there were zero concern with Covid and if there weren’t a streaming option. For now, those impediments make the ‘Black Widow’ opening all the more impressive.”

The spy film starring Scarlett Johansson, which tells the tale of one of Marvel’s biggest female powerhouses and her mysterious past, is one of the first big-ticket movies to arrive in theaters since the shutdowns. According to the New York Times, an estimated 17 million people made the effort to watch Black Widow in theaters, braving crowds and over-priced popcorn to enjoy Marvel’s latest installment on the big screen. This could be because of the hype that comes with finally seeing a film that has been delayed for over a year, or simply because Marvel movies have always been of a different breed, but there is no doubt that movie lovers are genuinely excited to be back in theaters.

“Hollywood blockbusters continue to gain ground at the box office with each successive release,” said CEO of IMAX Rich Gelfond, “and that bodes very well for the many films lined up for exclusive worldwide theatrical release this fall and beyond.”

What’s the takeaway from Black Widow’s success, then? Even though many movie theaters remain closed—even though many have, unfortunately, closed for good—there are beginning to bounce back. Streaming services might have their foot in the door for the possibility of hosting more big-ticket movie releases, but the fact that Black Widow has had significantly high numbers in theaters shows that the pandemic has not completely flipped the film scene on its head like some predicted it could. While it might take some time for in-person viewings to reach the heights seen before the mess that was this past year, it’s safe to say that movie theaters aren’t going away any time soon.

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