‘Doctor Strange 2’: Small (For Marvel) Theatrical Window May Cause Disney+ Pileup

Walt Disney and Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will arrive on Disney+ on June 22. That’s 47 days after its domestic theatrical opening date, which seems to be the new normal save for some explicit exceptions (Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, Chris Nolan’s Oppenheimer, etc.). The Sam Raimi-directed film will arrive six days after the theatrical opening of Pixar’s Lightyear. That makes for a kind of revolving door for Disney’s theatrical and streaming schedule, not unlike how The Batman arrived on HBO Max on April 19 just days after the theatrical release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Moreover, DC League of Super-Pets was supposed to open last weekend, which would have aligned with the HBO Max debut of the J.K. Rowling prequel threequel. Moreover, the MCU film has already earned most of what it’s going to earn domestically.

The question is whether the announcement of a Disney+ premiere earlier than expected for an MCU flick could decide if the Benedict Cumberbatch/Elizabeth Olsen flick passes $400 million domestic. With $378 million and counting, a normal rate of descent would give it around $402 million. I’m inclined to argue that Disney will still get it past $400 million because it’s in their interest to do so, but foreknowledge that the film will debut on Disney+ (and on various VOD/EST platforms) might make otherwise interested audience members think twice about seeing it (or seeing it again). I don’t think everyone knowing when The Batman would debut on HBO Max helped that film’s theatrical take, but with $370 million domestic from a $134 million debut (and $770 million worldwide on a $185 million budget), the damage was minimal. It perhaps kept the film from $375 million not $400 million.

Likewise, Paramount sent The Lost City to Paramount+ (and post-theatrical platforms) after 45 days, but the Sandra Bullock/Channing Tatum film still grossed $100 million domestic. As we’ve generally seen since A Quiet Place part II (which grossed $160 million domestic from a $57 million Fri-Mon debut… leggy for a Memorial Day weekend opener), the films (Sing 2, No Time to Die, Halloween Kills, etc.) that open well and play well don’t drop dead when they pop up on streaming or on PVOD. Halloween Kills grossed $92 million domestically despite debuting concurrently on Peacock which, I would argue, is around 100% of what it would have earned had it opened in 2020 in a non-Covid world. However, I’m still concerned that the lack of harm to theatrical (in terms of existing theatrical releases) is as much about viewer ignorance and lower profile streaming platforms versus audience preference.

Will a film arriving “early” on Disney+ do more damage to theatrical because Disney+ is a bigger and higher-profile streaming service versus Peacock or Paramount+? Moreover, and this applies to all of them, will we come to a point where corporate priorities are such that it’ll be in a studio’s best interest to convince viewers to just wait for the streaming debut versus seeing it in theaters? I’m less worried about that now than I was before Netflix’s free-fall, and even Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav seems to get that films that play well theatrically perform better on streaming than streaming-specific (quality notwithstanding) releases. However, in this specific case, an early debut for Doctor Strange 2 seems to be against Disney+’s current interests. They are needlessly creating a traffic jam with the exact kind of content they want to be able to offer on the regular.

Had Disney+ waited just two more weeks, with a release timed to the July 8 opening of Thor: Love & Thunder, they’d be able to say “Hey, we gave it a two-month window” while also not arriving on the same day as both the third episode of Ms. Marvel and the Obi-Wan Kenobi finale. Giving it two more weeks after that (presuming a Wednesday debut) would give it a 75-day window (Eternals got 68 days, Shang-Chi got 71 and Black Widow got 89 days not counting Premiere Access) and would give Disney+ something “new” in their key IPs (Marvel and Lucasfilm) a week after the season finale of Ms. Marvel on July 13. Considering that at least one reason the last three Pixar films got sent to Disney+ was to bulk up on A-level content, it does make some sense to spread out what you do have.

It’s not the end of the world. Bob Chapek and friends may be hoping for a Disney+ variation of the theatrical summer of 2018. If you recall, Avengers: Infinity War ($679 million domestic), Solo ($214 million), Incredibles 2 ($608 million) and Ant-Man and the Wasp ($216 million) opened within around ten weeks of each other. They each pulled “at least as well as could be expected” box office and ruled the first half of summer (all due respect to Deadpool 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). Yes, I’m including the always-doomed Solo, and the overseas indifference ($180 million outside of North America) is what killed that unrequested Star Wars story. However, considering the obvious boost Disney+ gets from Marvel content, Pixar or DWA movies and Star Wars stories, you’d think they’d want to let every big title have their singular moment.

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