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Disney Plus 'Black Widow' Debut a 'Watershed Moment' for Studios, Richard Greenfield Contends

Scarlett Johansson (left) as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios' 'Black Widow'
Scarlett Johansson (left) as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios' 'Black Widow' (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

So the North American theatrical exhibition business just had its biggest revenue weekend in 19 months.

Yet, celebrity equity analyst Richard Greenfield is warning investors to run--don't walk--from AMC, Cineworld, Cinemark and every other company vested in the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures. 

"The theater chains are in deep trouble. I mean, deep, deep trouble," the LightShed Partners principal told Yahoo Finance. 

How deep? Pretty deep. 

Over the weekend, Disney Marvel film Black Widow grossed $80 million at the U.S. and Canadian box office, and another $78 million at the foreign box office. It was the biggest theatrical performance for a major U.S. studio title since Disney's last "Star Wars" theatrical feature was released in the pre-pandemic month of December 2019. 

Still, the concurrent release of Black Widow as a $30 premium "Premiere Access" title on Disney Plus represents a "watershed moment" for the movie business, Greenfield said, one in which the studios have seized substantial leverage from the theater chains. 

"If you think about it, this movie did 158 million globally and 60 million directly at home," he added. "Disney keeps 80% of the 60 million. Of the 158, they probably keep, you know, maybe 60%, and that number goes down over as the film plays longer and longer. So this is a big signal that direct-to-home movies that, you know, don't have to be seen in theaters are here to stay."

Movie theaters won't necessarily go away, Greenfield contended, "but the leverage in the relationship is shifting towards the movie studio. They're realizing they can generate a lot of money directly to consumer. They actually get to have a direct relationship with the consumer. They know who you are, and you don't have to go to a movie theater. This is a pretty profound moment."

Greenfield's thesis--that the outsized Premiere Access Black Widow performance is bad omen for theatrical distribution--can be assailed.

It was the biggest day-and-date movie streaming performance so far--at least that we know about, because this is the first time a studio has released such a numb er. But it occurred with COVID-19's delta variant influencing renewed concerns among many about the wisdom of convening together in indoor environments. Los Angeles County, for example, has suggested that vaccinated people once again wear masks indoors, for example. 

And how many of the 2 million or so Disney Plus-subscribing households worldwide, which paid $30 to watch Black Widow, were from a portion of the market that doesn't regularly go to movie theaters, anyway? In other words, did Disney tap into an accretive portion of the market, rather than eat into theatrical distribution?

For his part, Greenfield's, er, reticence toward theater chains might have something to do with the recently outsized Wall Street performance of AMC Holdings, which like Game Stop several months earlier, seems to have been birthed out of a Reddit-fueled, artificial insemination. 

"AMC was not making money pre-pandemic," Greenfield said. "I mean, that's the most important thing-- they weren't making money pre-pandemic."