When Disney first introduced Premier Access, it was as a safety net against the uncertainty of the pandemic and the future of cinemas - a way to keep the movie cycle going against all the odds. Existing subscribers could watch films that were intended for cinemas from the comfort of home.
Films that release through Premier Access on Disney+ are only available to subscribers, but also cost an additional fee. This is usually £19.99/US$29.99, and this one off payment gives you digital ownership of the film.
Black Widow was never really meant to be a film that would undergo this treatment. Marvel boss Kevin Feige continued to push the Scarlett Johansson-led flick back again and again, in the hope that it could get a standalone theatrical run.
In the end, the film got the same hybrid cinematic and streaming release as other titles such as Godzilla Vs. Kong. Despite the hesitancy around Premier Access, numbers are extremely promising; Disney+ has accumulated a whopping $60 million so far, only a few days after release.
This is the first time Disney has released figures for a Premier Access title, so it’s safe to say the House of Mouse is very much boasting about this number for PR. The Hollywood Reporter also points out that it will add extra pressure to other studios to do the same for their own streaming releases.
But that doesn’t mean that the cinematic release was a flop either. On opening weekend, the film set a new US box office record for this year of around $80 million, whilst also raking in $78 million in international markets. The previous holder for this year was F9, which achieved around $70 million in America (Variety).
Black Widow isn’t the first Disney Plus Premier Access release - there was also the live-action remake of Mulan, Raya and The Last Dragon and Cruella. However, none of these managed the same success across both mediums. So, what’s different here, and what can Disney learn from this?
Marvel is one of the leading brands on Disney Plus; it has the most-watched shows of any franchise on the platform and therefore a very loyal and dedicated fanbase who love to theorise and relive moments.
Back before COVID, most audience members would do this by multiple trips to the cinema. However, it's highly likely that lots of MCU viewers held out for that special first cinematic experience (such as myself), and then followed up the first viewing by purchasing the Premier Access copy so they could watch as many times as they wished.
Combine this pocket of loyal superhero fans with the seemingly even split of cinema-goers and home-watchers, and Disney has managed to surpass expectations with Black Widow and prove that the Premier Access feature may not just be a temporary solution after all.
Despite this home release success, Disney isn’t likely to give up on cinemas altogether. Cinema popularity is still strong, and Disney also needs a fallback for other countries that don’t yet have the streaming platform – China being the biggest omission (which is likely to be a huge market for the upcoming Shang-Chi film, due in September).
I strongly suspect that after this release, many meetings will be going on to discuss the future of other Marvel 2021 films. Just a few months ago, Disney CEO Bob Chapek had promised that the next scheduled Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, would be exclusive to cinemas, just like in pre-pandemic times.
However, the rise in COVID cases this summer and resounding win for Black Widow may just reverse this choice. Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home don’t yet have confirmed release models. The former is the more likely candidate for a dual release – Spider-Man is a lot more complicated due to the ongoing Sony and Disney conflict over the ownership of the character.
But it’s not just Marvel that also has a loyal fan base – Disney also has the behemoth that is Star Wars. Whilst we’re still quite a way off from a new film in the space opera franchise, this will be yet another perfect candidate that could bring in both casual moviegoers and hardcore nerds from across the globe for multiple viewings.
Of course, Disney's refusal to release data on other Premier Access films suggests that this method is only really worth it for specific franchises. Live-action Disney remakes and other animated flicks don't have the same committed following as the company's comic book adaptations and sci-fi series.
It’s easy to see why Disney thought that these films were good models to test with. Tom’s Guide points out that the additional streaming cost is primarily targeted at families who don’t want to spend lots of money on multiple cinema tickets – you're essentially spending the cost of a pair of tickets for unlimited viewing access.
Whilst these still pulled in purchases, the figures clearly aren’t good enough for Disney to be broadcasting. So, should Disney ditch Premier Access for everything else besides its leading IPs? Possibly – or it could investigate flexible pricing models.
Perhaps the blanket £19.99/$29.99 fee is too much of an ask for films that don’t have an already established fanbase. If Disney were to knock a little off the price for certain films, then maybe the uptake may be more rewarding.
The next film due to get the hybrid Disney release is Jungle Cruise, a Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired adaptation of a Disney World theme park ride. This film is unlikely to pull in the figures that Black Widow has, but perhaps future films could gain more downloads with more affordable subscription prices.
It’s also worth noting that Black Widow hit UK cinemas a few days before the Disney+ release. Uptake on opening day may have been a little subdued in the UK due to the Euro 2020 semi-final – but this slight delay is another fair way to approach the hybrid release model.
This window could afford to be slightly longer in the future, if we want a truly balanced model. The Hollywood Reporter claims that Black Widow tickets “fell off a steep 41 percent from Friday to Saturday, an almost unprecedented drop for a Marvel title.” Then again, these figures could still be high due to theatres still recovering footfall after COVID.
By giving cinemas the first exclusive access to titles, die-hard fans are sure to flock to theatres, which will ensure that a whole industry doesn’t collapse under the pressure of streaming services. Meanwhile, those who are more laidback will wait a short time for Premier Access. It’s generally a win-win.
Whatever Disney decides going forward, I personally believe that Disney would be mad to let go of Premier Access from a revenue perspective, especially when it comes to Marvel.
What I’m watching this week
The latest Bo Burnham comedy special from Netflix is a musical reflection of the social isolation of 2020. Bo records and edits all of the footage himself, creating catchy and bizarre musical videos from a small out-house. Some standout tunes include Welcome to the Internet and White Woman's Instagram.
Whilst labelled as a comedy, Inside deals with some rather sensitive topics surrounding mental health. It's a combination of sketches, music videos, stand-up comedy and documentary-style footage. If you love dark comedy, symbolism and the odd catchy tune, this is a must-watch.