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Here's how Disney Plus movie releases will work as theaters reopen

Disney Plus
(Image credit: AFM Visuals / Shutterstock)

Disney CEO Bob Chapek has hinted at the future of the studio’s theatrical releases and how this might impact Disney Plus’ Premier Access service. 

In light of pandemic-induced cinema closures across the world, the media giant has so far opted for a hybrid release schedule in 2021, with some movies releasing directly to Disney Plus (Pixar’s Luca, for example) and others heading straight to theatres (Shang Chi and Free Guy). A few titles, like Marvel’s Black Widow, are releasing simultaneously in theatres and on Disney Plus’ paid Premier Access service.

At a JP Morgan talk, Chapek suggested Disney intends to “celebrate flexibility” in terms of when and how its future products are made available to audiences, adding that the worldwide recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – coupled with the response to its imminent 2021 releases – will determine the number of movies released in any given format going forward. 

In many ways, then, the next few months represent a trial period for Disney. Chapek did, however, acknowledge the benefits of theatrical releases over straight-to-streaming equivalents, though clarified that the company’s future strategy is largely dependent on audiences’ willingness to return to theatres.

“Theatrical exhibition for us is a very good thing because it helps us build our franchises,” he said, “but we’re seeing some hesitancy to return in a way that would look anything like normal.”

So, can we expect hybrid releases to continue indefinitely? “It’s really nice to be able to give consumers some flexibility,” Chapek suggested, “whether we’re looking at a theatrical exclusive window with a fairly dramatically shortened timing window between the first and second offerings, or whether we’re looking at theatrical plus Premier Access or whether we’re looking at taking something directly to our service.”

As for how Disney determines which movies are released via which strategy, Chapek confirmed that it’s all dependent on the scale of the title. “If it’s something like a Marvel movie or a Lucas [Star Wars] movie, something that’s going to have a lot of legs playing into a larger mythology, then [going to a theater] is the way that fans tend to prefer to consume those movies.”

Marvel's Black Widow

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

It’s clear, then, that Disney’s preference is to keep its big-budget franchises premiering in cinemas for the foreseeable future, albeit with shorter release windows and a greater emphasis on seeing those movies transition to streamers as quickly as possible.

“It doesn’t look like things are going to return to exactly how Disney released films pre-pandemic,” Chapek confirmed, “but films will be arriving much quicker, and Disney Plus Premier Access may stick around a little longer if consumer habits change and it’s financially successful.”

Is sports getting the sack?

In some telling closing remarks, Chapek also hinted at the future of other major Disney properties. 

He said the company is ready to “step on the gas” to shift its linear businesses like ESPN to a streaming-first model if it has to, though he also noted that these still generate a lot of income that help fund Disney's streaming offerings. 

Chapek also confirmed Disney’s intention to integrate its theme parks with its streaming business, saying that, once parks re-open, the company will “aggressively move” to tie the two together – whatever that might mean. 

Essentially, then, Disney has big plans for the future of its entertainment properties – but it’s falling to audiences and the rate of pandemic recovery to determine when those plans are implemented.