Why Disney’s “Black Widow” Opening Numbers are Such a Brain TeaserThursday, July 15, 2021, 11:43 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
Since waking up Monday morning to the news reports that Disney’s “Black Widow” had an opening weekend of $158.8 million at the box office globally and another $60 million in rentals on Disney+ I’ve been thinking about how to interpret the numbers. I’ve chatted with industry colleagues, read much of the reporting and done a little back-of-the-envelope analysis, which I share below.
My top line takeaway: for now at the least, the opening numbers are a real brain teaser. There is simply no way to conclude anything definitive or even semi-definitive from “Black Widow” and anyone who is extrapolating from them is out over their skis. Rather, “Black Widow” provides all of us another little glimpse into what’s possible (note, not necessarily probable) as streaming becomes increasingly mainstream and the industry grapples with how to navigate the post-Covid world.
The glimpse becomes more meaningful by trying to understand the numbers at as deep a level as realistically possible; an exercise that itself is like catching a greased pig.
The first question: what percentage of Disney’s revenues from “Black Widow” came from streaming vs. box office? Since streaming is DTC, those revenues are more straightforward, assuming Disney is being fully transparent. It says it sold $60 million of D+ PVOD rentals, so we’ll accept it.
Disney’s share of the box office is more slippery to calculate. Disney said “Black Widow” did $80 million domestically, and $78.8 million across 46 international territories. Box Office Mojo says it’s on 4,160 screens. As best I can tell, the site has only limited data on international distribution. We do know “Black Widow” hasn’t even opened yet in China, which of course is a different kettle of fish to contemplate with piracy, etc.
Domestically, maybe Disney keeps 50% of box office. International is all over the board, but a decent estimate is low 40%s. Since domestic and international box office were about equal, we could just assume a blended Disney share of 46%. I'll readily concede that could be 3-4 points too high. Or 3-4 points too low. Ugh.
So maybe Disney’s box office revenues were .46 x $158.8 million = $73 million, bringing Disney’s total “Black Widow” opening weekend revenue to $73 million + $60 million = $133 million with D+ bringing in 45% and box office the other 55%.
My first reaction to this: considering Disney+ only just launched in November, 2019, for the extra charge PVOD model to drive 45% of revenue for this much-anticipated release is pretty damn impressive. And then it becomes very tempting to think, “well if D+ PVOD could already drive 45%, then maybe it could be driving 60% for 2022’s biggest movie, 75% for 2023, etc.” And when the movie closes in theaters and is available on streaming for a short time, streaming’s percentage of total revenues keeps going up (yeehah, three cheers for DTC!). Note also, “Black Widow” box office has fallen precipitously since last Friday. Before you know it you’ve convinced yourself that theaters are totally dead inside of five years.
Personally I think this sort of extrapolation would be erroneous, because nobody can accurately say how representative “Black Widow” is for other movies. On the one hand, there are lots of people still unwilling to go to theaters because of Covid, others who have budgetary reasons that make $30 PVOD preferable vs. at least 2x that for a family of four to see it at the theater (and don’t forget concessions), and still others who just prefer the convenience and pleasure of their home theater, irrespective of anything else. On the other hand, there are plenty of people willing to go to the theater post-Covid, others who have no financial constraints (or at least act as if they don’t) on taking their family to the theater and still others who have home theater fatigue and desperately want to see something (anything!) on the big screen.
And of course this just scratches the surface of the multi-faceted decision-making consumers are engaging in today. How does all this play out for non-tentpole movies? By calendar season? By geography? When D+ is available in China? Etc. It’s dizzying, and the point is, with all of these cross winds, anyone who’s choosing to only zero in on one side of the ledger is putting themselves on a very shaky “where you stand depends on where you sit” foundation. If you believe streaming is eating the world, Black Widow’s success on D+ is catnip; if you’re wistful about the movie theater experience of your youth, you might like to think it’s Black Swan’ish.
Now, if you’ve read this far, maybe you’re willing to read a little further (yes, that’s for you Andy Dufresne fans). The above back-of-the envelope only considers “Black Widow” revenues. Even more interesting is considering Disney’s unit profitability for streaming vs. theatrical.
Here’s where the greased pig gets even greasier. The pure delivery costs to Disney for either path aren’t that significant; in streaming it’s the usual CDN, etc costs, likely less than 10% of its $30 per transaction PVOD price, maybe even less than 5%. For theatrical, given digital distribution, it’s probably sub 5%, maybe even sub 2%. In either case, nothing to spend too much time on.
The big expense is marketing, as we all know. But how do you properly allocate marketing by distribution channel when ads are tagged with “on Disney+ and in theaters now?” Is it even relevant to try doing so? Or is the better way to just not allocate at all? This is a toughie, and I would only say that if Disney marketers try to allocate, it feels like they’d need to do some very careful consumer research to even arrive at some useful assumptions. I’m not a market researcher so I defer to others for the feasibility of that exercise.
All of this is why Black Widow’s numbers are such a brain teaser. It’s hard to discern Disney’s revenue from each channel. And it’s even harder to discern its unit profitability. Looming above all of this are the uncertainties related to Covid.
Now, put yourself in CEO Bob Chapek’s shoes. You’re definitely going to keep experimenting with D+ PVOD because you like what you see so far. But you’re not quite sure what you have on your hands. Some Wall Streeters will be pushing you to go harder on PVOD. Purists in Hollywood will be pressuring you to let up on the theaters, lest your legacy be “The Man Who Killed The Theatrical Business.”
Just last week I published “5 Reasons Going to the Movies is Facing an Irreversible Demise.” In the long term, anyone who believes otherwise needs to check their DNA for ostrich strains. But the long term is by definition a long time, and theatrical will never, ever go fully to zero. In the short to mid-term theatrical is still going to be a critical revenue stream for Disney and other studios as it was for “Black Widow.” So if I were Bob Chapek, Jeff Shell or any of the other key Hollywood decision-makers, I wouldn’t be too quick to put my foot on the necks of the theater chain CEOs.
The streaming/theatrical story is still playing out and it’s not clear at all what the pacing is going to be.