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Disney’s ‘Black Widow’ Strikes A (Tiny) Blow For Transparency In Streaming

Disney-Marvel's 'Black Widow'
(Image credit: Disney)

It’s not exactly what in the Before Times came every weekend: a detailed breakdown of box office grosses for movies released into theaters. Or the Nielsen Overnights that arrived every morning. Nonetheless, mad props go to Disney for including its online revenues in a news release on first-week box office for hit Marvel movie Black Widow

David Bloom

(Image credit: David Bloom)

The news set off an earthquake across Hollywood, signifying one more step away from the in-theater business. With any luck, the mere fact of its release also may lead to another already-overdue change: improved transparency about the business side of streaming.   

The female-led superhero movie snagged $80 million in North American box office gross, and another $78 million overseas. That set a pandemic-era record for theatrical releases, a record that actually stretches back to the end of 2019 and the last “Star Wars” movie. 

But weirdly, that wasn’t the biggest earth shaker contained in the release The Mouse House put out Sunday. That honor went to the news that Black Widow also snared “over $60 million” from Disney Plus subscribers willing to pay another $30 for “Premier Access” to the movie at home on the same day it hit theaters. 

That means at least 2 million households, a little less than 2% of Disney Plus’ entire subscriber base, thought it was a good idea to skip theaters completely and watch Black Widow at home on opening weekend. 

Because the streaming companies release so little information about viewership, we have no idea if this is a big win or not. But it sure feels like one, and Disney executives treated it that way. 

Black Widow’s strong performance this weekend affirms our flexible distribution strategy of making franchise films available in theaters for a true cinematic experience and, as COVID concerns continue globally, providing choice to consumers who prefer to watch at home on Disney Plus,” said Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution Chairman Kareem Daniel. 

Implicit in that comment is the belief that most people would have gone to theaters but for COVID concerns. It artfully ignores the potentially large percentage of people who would rather  watch even a big, loud, fast movie like Black Widow on their fancy home-entertainment system, especially if they have multiple children and the prospect of shelling out big money for tickets and concessions. 

LightShed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield, who frequently tweaks hidebound Hollywood for its slow embrace of streaming video, said the numbers suggest one thing: dump your theater stocks

The math is getting ugly for theaters, Greenfield pointed out. Disney gets to keep something like 80% of the $60 million it sold online, plus any new Disney Plus subscribers who signed up so they could watch, plus the much greater value of having a direct relationship with customers who really like Black Widow in particular and Marvel in general. We’ll call that net revenue $48 million, plus the considerable value of an ongoing customer relationship. 

Compare that with a theatrical release. 

Over a few weeks, Disney accrues around half the box office (and probably less overseas). It has no idea who watched, nor any way to connect with them directly to market a sequel, any other Marvel film or TV show, or any of the zillion merchandise offers, Disneyland rides, serialized graphic novels and other spin-offs it will stuff into the market. 

That $158 million in worldwide gross skinnies down to something like $79 million, and there it stops. That difference is indeed enough to get Mickey squeaking at a higher register. 

“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,” Greenfield said.

That’s only going to be more the case as the pandemic continues to fester. Just this week, Los Angeles County officials said they will again require everyone to wear masks in public indoor spaces, following a surge in infections in Hollywood’s backyard. Not incidentally, Los Angeles County is also one of the movie business’ biggest markets.

But let’s not lose sight of the real change here: almost-live updates on streaming box office. That could be really something if it somehow leads more studios to release more detailed data on their online projects. 

Netflix over the past 18 months began releasing data on its most-watched shows, and maintaining top 10 lists. But the viewership details have been scarce, limited to a handful of big hits, and typically coming during quarterly earnings reports, long after shows hit the market. Perhaps Netflix just wants to reassure investors that yes, people are watching some of its vast array of shows in droves. 

But Netflix provides virtually no detail on revenues from those shows, broken down, say, by region. (For instance, how much is Netflix making on those dozens of Indian shows it has bought, especially because so many are watching through sharply discounted mobile plans there.) The Top 10 lists seem more crafted to drive additional “pile-on” viewership than to provide any useful detail. 

And Netflix is better than most of its competitors. 

AT&T, for instance, hasn’t released much of anything about who’s watching what on HBO Max. Perhaps that will change when WarnerMedia joins with Discovery as a pure-play entertainment company. 

And maybe HBO Max’s new ad-supported side will force it to release more timely and substantive information for advertisers. Maybe the company will institute some sort of Premier Access approach for ad-supported subscribers who want the same day-and-date releases that full-price subscribers now get free. 

I’m not expecting radical transparency from the studios going forward, unless of course they have another chance for bragging rights, always a reliable cause for more talkative studio executives. 

But Wall Street, and not just Greenfield and his LightShed colleagues, need to keep holding to account the companies behind our streaming services. 

That means more data, more timely data, and more of the right data that actually measures performance. We can’t even begin assessing whether Black Widow or any other movie counts as an online “hit” until we have better and more complete data. 

For now, Black Widow will remain an anomaly, but a big one that likely will encourage at least Disney Plus to keep doing what it’s doing. Let’s see how long it takes other studios to open up, too.