"Black Widow," the latest from Disney's Marvel Studios, opened Thursday night and is set to become the biggest opening since 2019.
The film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as the avenging super-spy, is projected to bring in around $80 million domestically this weekend. It could make more since it's Marvel — the biggest blockbuster brand in all of Hollywood — but it's hard to forecast because theaters are hardly back at full strength. Disney is putting its North American projections at around $70 million or more.
So far, the film, which opens in more than 4,000 theaters after being delayed three times, is off to a good start. It opened to $13.2 million Thursday night.
That's welcome news for a theater industry desperately trying to rebound from a pandemic that put the future of movie-going into serious doubt. Theaters couldn't ask for a better franchise than Marvel to continue the momentum kicked off by the strong performances of "A Quiet Place Part II" in May and "F9: The Fast Saga" in June.
"The return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to cinemas has long been one of the keystone dates circled on the calendar," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. "The immense level of goodwill from fans and casual viewers alike, especially after a trio of hit series released on Disney+, only amplifies the excitement of going back to a theater and sharing that Marvel experience again."
The release strategy "doesn't look like what we're used to" Robbins added, and there are giant asterisks on this weekend's opening, but "it's a big step forward from where we were a year ago, or even six months ago."
'Black Widow' at home or in theaters
That's because "Black Widow" will debut simultaneously in theaters and on the company's streaming service Friday as part of Disney's Premier Access function, so it's available to Disney+ subscribers for an extra charge of $29.99.
While Disney has also released big films like "Mulan" and "Cruella" via Premier Access, "Black Widow" is unquestionably the highest-profile film to be released on streaming so far.
Marvel's films have grossed more than $22 billion worldwide since 2008, according to Comscore. For many fans, Marvel movies are more like events for some and religious experiences for others, so having a Marvel film, especially one that stars such a popular character, on Disney+ is no small thing.
Making "Black Widow" available in homes is also an excellent way to lure potential subscribers to the service. And its streaming release is a clear example of how much things have changed in Hollywood lately. Just two years ago, it would have been unheard of for a Marvel movie to be released in homes and at cineplexes simultaneously.
Also, away from the box office numbers, which we'll know by Sunday, and its results on Disney+, which we may never know, this weekend also poses an interesting hypothetical: What if the same day release strategy of "Black Widow" becomes the norm as Hollywood heads into a streaming future?
Actually, it's already happening, as other studios experiment with releasing their own potential blockbusters in homes and in theaters at the same time.
"All anyone can do is speculate and trade conjecture about the impact of streaming blockbusters on opening weekend since studios have failed to be transparent with any meaningful streaming data," Robbins said. "Either way, there are significant concerns about the entire ecosystem of production and content if this release strategy becomes the way forward."
Financially, "it could cut into ancillary revenue, which may devalue many of Hollywood's most important assets and brands," he added.
And the impact might go beyond money.
"I think this impacts the culture of re-watching movies"
If offering blockbusters on streaming right away becomes a new standard, it might change how we watch these films, according to Suzanne Scott, an associate professor at the University of Texas' Moody College of Communication.
"For many, seeing these sorts of films in a theater is a sacred experience that I don't think they will give up simply because a film is also streaming," Scott told CNN Business. "If anything, I think this impacts the culture of re-watching movies."
A simultaneous release model "allows for new ways of engaging the film in a way a theatrical only release cannot," she added.
"I can envision many fans going to see 'Black Widow' in a theater and then immediately coming home to watch scenes over again, pausing to examine Easter eggs," she said. "Because so much of the MCU culture involves that sort of close analysis, streaming is in some ways a better fit."
However, she doubts that streaming "will become the preferred mode for a first viewing for those audience members who treat these films as events."
In the end, the strategies of how to release movies are changing by the day, and studios are still trying to figure it all out. The best course of action may be a hybrid model that includes a theatrical release with a streaming debut a few weeks later.
Despite the film's importance to the ever-growing world of streaming, "Black Window" is ultimately still more important to theaters, Matthew Ball, a former Amazon Studios executive, told CNN Business.
"They need an unquestionable win," Ball said. "And Marvel looks ready to avenge their 2020."
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