Bob Chapek: Pandemic Brought Flexibility to Disney Content Distribution

As Hollywood puts the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, Disney, like other studios, has revisited its distribution strategy of original movies and TV shows. Speaking May 24 on the virtual JPMorgan 49th Annual Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference, CEO Bob Chapek said the pandemic put renewed focus on how consumers want to access content, rather than traditional norms revolving around the 90-day theatrical window.

“One of the things we learned is flexibility is good because there’s two dynamics going on: One is people’s willingness to return to theaters and theaters’ ability to return in a meaningful way,” Chapek said. “And then the second is the change in consumer behavior that’s happening naturally, with COVID probably acting as a bit of a catalyst, but was going to happen anyway.”

Disney is returning to the movie theater in late summer with exclusive (and curtailed) 45-day windows for 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy and Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Free Guy launches on Aug. 13 and Shang-Chi on Sept. 3. The films mark Disney’s first exclusive theatrical releases since the Aug. 28 release of The New Mutants.

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Other theatrical titles Cruella (May 28), Black Widow (July 9) and Jungle Cruise (July 30) will debut in cineplexes and on $29.99 Premier Access via Disney+ simultaneously.

“We’re trying to offer consumers more choice as they gain confidence in how they want to go ahead and return to theaters,” Chapek said, adding that consumer return to the box office has been stronger in select international markets.

“We’re seeing some hesitancy to return [to movie theaters] in a way that would look anything like normal back in 2019,” he said. “And as such, during this sort of interim period, it’s really nice to be able to give consumers some flexibility.”

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow

When asked why a theatrical tentpole title like Black Widow would get concurrent purchase access on Disney+, Chapek said the Marvel Universe movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, had been delayed twice — and a third delay was not an option.

“At the same time, we always knew that there was a risk that exhibition wasn’t going to be fully developed or that consumers wouldn’t want to go back and sit in the theater,” he said. “We realized we had to sort of ‘prime the pump’ and give theatrical exhibition a chance, but we couldn’t put all our eggs in the exhibition basket, because we knew that in the weeks leading up to the decision, the domestic market was not coming back and is still fairly weak. We’re really confident we made the right call there.”

Pixar Animation’s Luca

The June 18 release of Pixar Animation’s Luca direct to Disney+ without a $29.99 purchase fee, and bypassing theatrical surprised some observers. Chapek said the decision revolved around keeping Disney’s evolving distribution channels stocked.

“We’ve increased our investment in creative content to ensure that all channels have a full complement of offerings to sort of keep everybody happy,” he said. “We want to make sure, given the importance of Disney+ in the marketplace and our shareholders, that we keep feeding that machine.”

Indeed, Disney’s Christmas Day release of Pixar’s Soul was topped only by Warner’s same-day release of Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max.

“We believe that Luca will get a lot of eyeballs,” Chapek said.

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