Before the pandemic, if there was something studio executives rubbed their hands about, it was the near total eclipse of the theatrical window.
In 2021, for some studios that dream came true, and as far as 2022 goes, hopefully they’ve learned their lesson from this nightmare that, in Deadline’s annual survey, shows largely diluted box office grosses and lackluster home viewership for major studio theatrical day-and-date movies.
We’ve assembled the best data out there on the 30-day home viewership of these movies from third party data corp Samba TV and juxtaposed them next to their domestic box office results since the simultaneous release of movies on streaming has been predominantly a U.S. experiment. Thirty days essentially is the amount of time that WarnerMedia, the biggest practitioner of the dynamic model, made their theatrical movies available in homes at the same time before segueing them to cinemas exclusively in their second month.
Some streamers have tried to poke holes in Samba TV’s results, claiming that they’re not comprehensive enough. Granted, Samba only measures smart TV viewership at 3M households over a 5-minute interval — and not mobile. But in the same breath, these studios with frosh streaming services aren’t confident enough to make their viewership numbers public, and there really isn’t a better means of measuring streaming viewership out there (Nielsen measures the top shows/movies on a weekly basis, but its data is delayed by a month and reported in the Byzantine metric of billions of minutes).
There’s a lot of predictions by the media out there as to what will and won’t happen in 2022. In the wake of global box office roaring back with Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, studios executives would be financially foolish to put this year’s rich slate of event movies — Avatar 2; Disney MCU titles Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love & Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; Sonic the Hedgehog 2; Top Gun: Maverick; The Batman; etc., etc. — theatrical day-and-date on their streaming services.
But as older adults remain slow to return to cinemas during the pandemic, the question becomes whether more of these types of movies, often Oscar-bait ones, will be released day-and-date or on a truncated theatrical window. More on that later. The whole streaming of it all, might not be glamorous enough.
“You have to remember we’re still in the middle of the war,” one studio executive about said how the pandemic still is impacting those movies aimed at the 40+ crowd, “Because of that, we will continue the same strategy that we’ve had for the last two years: Total flexibility.”
Hindsight is 20/20: Following the success of No Way Home, there has to be some regret over at WarnerMedia for not holding onto Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 for better marketplace conditions and a pure theatrical release vs. its day/date Christmas 2020 debut. The filmmaker sure wasn’t pleased with the outcome, as voiced at CinemaCon back in August. WarnerMedia learned from its 2021 day-and-date experiment quite quickly, particularly given the uproar from talent and their reps. That plan, dubbed internally as “Project Popcorn,” reportedly cost the studio in excess of $200M to buy out talent from these movies going onto the service, an overall macro business decision I’m told will never occur again given its high cost. Within three months after its announcement, Warner Bros reverted to a theatrical 45-day window, effective this year.
Will there be more theatrical day-and-date in 2022?
It would be pollyanna-ish to think not, especially as Paramount under its new CEO Brian Robbins looks to eventize Paramount+. Typically it’s about two to three months in advance before a studio opts to change course with a film’s distribution plan, and it’s not a rapid light switch as talent needs to be negotiated with in regards to the cash out of their deals. So far, Universal is the only studio executing theatrical day-and-date with its Peacock streaming service on the Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson romantic comedy, Marry Me on February 11.
“It’s Not About You, It’s About Them”
This old quote largely has been attributed to Clint Eastwood, but it also can serve as a wisdom for any theater owner or pro-theatrical distribution studio executive looking to make sense of the entertainment conglomerates’ obsession with streaming.
More precisely, the leadership at these giants never believed that theatrical was faltering; it was always bound to be alive. Consumer habits changed only because they were forced to from March 2020 to March 2021, when theaters closed due to Covid. Execs’ desire to send theatrical films to their OTT services day-and-date is more about how cash-strapped they are given their investment in streaming. They’re quaking in their boots over the amount of money they’ve committed to these newfound businesses, i.e. Disney committing as much as $9B to Disney+ by 2024, with peak losses expected this year; Comcast having spent $2B on Peacock over the past two years; AT&T’s original pledge of $4B to HBO Max only to enter talks to sell WarnerMedia to Discovery. Congloms can’t roll out content fast enough, like streaming leader Netflix can (214M global subscribers), and they’re cannibalizing one another in regards to the amount of viewers they can get as subscribers growth plateaus. Meanwhile, share prices for some studios are in freefall: Disney was down by 24% at the end of 2021, to $154.89 from its annual high of $203.02.
If entertainment congloms are quiet about the audience draw for their movies and series, they’re even more clandestine about their subscriber counts — numbers that often are included in a greater number, i.e. HBO Max and HBO linear subscribers together total 45.2M subscribers; ViacomCBS boasts 47M worldwide, but that’s for everything including Showtime, BET and Paramount+, not just the streamer. Peacock as of October contended it had 54M subs, but that includes Xfinity cable subs who feasibly have gratis access to the service. MoffettNathanson — in a March report titled “U.S. Streaming Media: What Is Your RPU?” — pegged that the number of those who pay for Peacock’s highest movie tier, which includes day-and-date movies, is miniscule, somewhere around 3M subs. Why else would Uni put Halloween Kills, The Boss Baby: Back in Business and Marry Me on the service? Out of a desperation to get paid subscribers.
At the end of the day, it’s not about an entertainment congloms’ lack of faith in theatrical, it’s whether they can keep this streaming ship afloat.
“Studios are looking to go back to the theatrical window,” Eric Handler, Managing Director and Senior Research Analysts at MKM Partners, said about this year. “There’s sort of a balancing act there; they want to take multiple bites of the apple, which is what occurs when you have the windowing effect. But at the same point in time their corporate parents are trying to build out their streaming services.”
While the congloms have traded in profit for a volume strategy of attempting to mushroom subscribers, they realize that it’s theatrical that makes streaming content all the more attractive at the end of the day. The flywheel of it all is that any Marvel/Disney+ series is appealing because of a big-screen success like No Way Home faring extremely well at the box office.
If you collapse the flywheel too much, it becomes a flat plane and it’s just one thing — which is what Netflix has. When it tries to make a movie more than a flywheel, it doesn’t work. The streamer released Red Notice into theaters, and people didn’t buy it: It’s a TV movie, and they’re not paying to see it in theaters. They’re watching it for free at home.
And speaking of Red Notice, it’s arguably the most watched move measured by Samba TV on streaming in 2021, seen by 9.8M U.S. households in its first 30 days. Make note of that figure as we begin to assess the success of rival studios’ features on their OTT services. It’s certainly the high point, and the title arguably was pushed to be watched in homes (Netflix, by its own measure, has clocked the Dwayne Johnson-Gal Gadot-Ryan Reynolds heist film as its most-watched ever with 364 hours in its first 28 days).
In sum, none of these theatrical day-and-date event titles was exactly the Seinfeld finale, which pulled in 76.3M viewers. The 2021 Oscarcast, which hit an all-time low of 9.85M viewers, was watched by more people than what Samba recorded for any movie from Warner, Universal, Amazon or Disney. It seems we’re far off from such massive traffic, even over a three-day weekend.
Dissecting the Data
Samba TV measures across 46M TV devices and counts a panel of 3M households. They includes Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV+, etc. Some streaming corp comms heads love to trash Samba, saying it reps only a third of the actual viewership (again, the studios aren’t reporting their own numbers). If that is the case, then the in-home availability of these movies made an even greater dent at the box office. I will tell you that whenever a streamer makes an anecdotal exclamation to the press about a movie (“It was our most-watched movie in a debut weekend ever!”), Samba’s data frequently supports those claims.
There are some major movies that went unmonitored by Samba TV, and I’ve been told often that was because the data didn’t ingest properly. Conspicuously, those movies not monitored by Samba TV include Disney/Pixar’s Luca (which skipped theaters for a Disney+ exclusive release), Raya and the Last Dragon (the first of the studio’s theatrical day-and-date Disney+ Premier titles back in March, which fizzled with $54.7M domestic), Paramount/Paramount+’s PAW Patrol ($40.1M domestic) and Clifford the Big Red Dog ($48.9M domestic). Paramount has claimed both of its pics were profitable hits in their dynamic strategy, but I don’t buy it. Those are lackluster box office numbers — plus, why would the studio commit to a theatrical-only sequel on PAW Patrol?
While we’re just analyzing day-and-date theatrical/streaming titles, as a reference point, here’s how Amazon’s big acquisitions of studio titles did. Amazon did give these movies a limited theatrical debut but never reported their grosses — hence, the ticket sales, similar to Netflix’s, are negligible. Amazon went to great lengths to spend on event programming during the pandemic, and the studios, given the closure of theaters, were desperate to profit. Sony, despite being champions of the theatrical window, sold off nine of its theatrical titles to streamers between March 2020 and August 2021, the second-most of any studio behind Paramount, which unloaded 10. What’s interesting here is that the figures below are competitive with those rival studio titles that also had a wide theatrical release accompany their movies’ debut. Translation: Did a theatrical day-and-date title really spur viewership in home? WarnerMedia would contend the distribution plan created subscriber growth.
Amazon bought The Tomorrow War from Skydance and Paramount for $200M. The license fees shelled out for Sony’s Cinderella and Paramount/Skydance’s Without Remorse went unreported, but the Amazon snapped up Paramount’s Coming 2 America for $125M. Amazon exclaimed that Coming 2 America was its most-watched movie ever on its service.
As an aside, the one major Apple Original Films acquisition measured by Samba TV was Amblin’s Tom Hanks sci-fi movie Finch, which pulled in 1.4M in its first 30 days. Note that Samba only recently has started measuring Apple TV+ movies.
The two day-and-date titles on Peacock were chiefly an effort to spike subscribers to the OTT’s service premium no-ads pay tier. Peacock is largely free with ads to its subs. It’s clear from the results here that it’s still a fledgling service. Note that the experiment was done with branded titles, not originals. Some would argue that box office was impacted here, but Peacock really isn’t that big to ding ticket sales. Keep in mind, Halloween Kills wasn’t greatly received by audiences with a B- CinemaScore, and Boss Baby: The Family Business — a sequel released in the wake of Uni spending a ton to open F9 on the big screen in midsummer — as well as Blumhouse’s The Forever Purge. Marketing money had to be prioritized somewhere. According to our sister pub Variety, Craig Moffett, co-founder of MoffettNathanson, doesn’t have high hopes for Peacock’s livelihood in the long run given Comcast’s inability to invest in streaming at the levels that Disney and Netflix are.
This brings us to Disney, the franchise lord, which charged Disney+ subscribers an extra $29.99 for any theatrical-day-and-date title offered up in 2021. Takeaways abound with such a small but potent sample:
- The monthly viewership for the above tentpoles pales in comparison to some of HBO Max theatrical events — i.e. Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Dune, Wonder Woman 1984 and Space Jam: A New Legacy — and that’s because of the extra cost to Disney+ subscribers.
- Following Black Widow, it was clear that day-and-date leads to a freefall at the box office in the subsequent weekend of a Marvel Cinematic Universe title; the Scarlett Johansson movie weathered the worst second-weekend drop for a Disney-distributed Marvel movie at 68%. The crimping in windows, which of course impacted the star’s bonus, led to the twice-Oscar-nominated actress suing Disney and settling for a reported $40M+.
- Adding to the further erosion of box office for any theatrical-day-and-date release on streaming is the fact that these movies are pirated promptly, with clean 4K copies in several languages spread around the world. By the end of August, sources in the know informed us that Black Widow had been pirated more than 20M times. That’s close to a $600M estimated loss on Black Widow in Disney+ PVOD revenue alone.
- Word was that Disney wasn’t generous with exhibition in its theatrical-rental terms like Warner Bros was with their “Project Popcorn” titles, adhering to pre-pandemic types of terms.
- One would think that Disney was in the pole position, keeping all of the Disney+ Premier revenue, but alas, it had to share such monies at an estimated 15% fee with platform providers (i.e. Google Play, Amazon Fire Stick, etc.). The big question becomes whether the collapse of windows diminishes further home ancillaries on these titles for Disney — the general industry assumption being yes. Why else would Johansson sue Disney? These Disney MCU movies reap huge profits, with previous femme superhero Captain Marvel netting $414M after all windows. Why would any studio give up such money?
- Family titles such as Jungle Cruise and Cruella withstood more of a hold at the box office, but it can be argued that substantially more money could have been made at theaters for both of these well-received movies, which earned A- and A CinemaScores, respectively.
- Some might argue that Disney’s 20th Century titles The King’s Man and West Side Story should have gone to streaming, given how the challenged adult audience is. They could not, due to previous pay-cable window terms, but also the misfiring of those movies at the box office — $20M and $30M, respectively — has more to do with their release dates: King’s Man should have been released in January, outside of Spider-Man, while West Side Story should have seen a Christmas Day launch, not only to create another family event outside of Spider-Man and Sing 2, but also that’s when more adults are available.
This brings us to Warner Bros., which exercised the most breadth of day-and-date with both tentpoles and adult-geared titles.
One of the biggest observations to be made here with Warner’s data is an issue facing many studios: whether it’s really worth it to put an adult-demo movie theatrical day-and-date on a streaming service (or even with truncated window). These movies didn’t fare well at the box office, and likewise, their household draw over 30 days was underwhelming at 2M or less. This includes King Richard, Reminiscence, In the Heights, Malignant, Cry Macho, and multi-Oscar winner Judas and the Black Messiah.
On the box office side, clearly because of Covid, this demo remains stubborn to return in the short run. But would these movies have fared better in their home windows with an initial theatrical launch, even if the pic died at the box office? If a movie tanks in theaters and in homes at the same time, that’s not an ideal situation.
Many in the industry are hopeful that as the pandemic calms, adults will find their way back to the cinema.
“It’s about having the right kind of blockbuster movie,” said Imax Entertainment President and Imax Corp EVP Megan Colligan, “For some people, it could have been Dune; for others, it might be Avatar 2 or Top Gun: Maverick.“
“Content will be the catalyst that drives moviegoers, and I think it’s likely a movie that’s big, watercooler and feels unmissable,” adds Colligan on how the tentpoles will ultimately hook older adults and encourage them to return to theaters.
While the argument can be made that whatever is successful at the box office also is successful on the service, there’s the flipside to that: The bigger the movie, the bigger the drop at the domestic box office, i.e. Dune, The Matrix Resurrections, Mortal Kombat, Space Jam: A New Legacy and Wonder Woman 1984.
“The movies helped fill in the gap from the Covid shutdown,” WarnerMedia Studios and Network Groups Chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff told Deadline during a sit-down back in October. “Everybody, the entire industry was struggling with that.”
“The studios, everyone had a slightly different experiment with getting a return on investment,” she added, looking forward to a robust HBO Max series slate this year and debuting the studio’s theatrical slate within 45 days of each title’s cinema debut on the service, “Otherwise, you just keep pushing your movies. We weren’t going to sell to another streamer. This was our trying to put the Rubik’s Cube together.”
With Spider-Man: No Way Home heading to a $1.76 billion global gross, and massive theatrical events on deck, box office data corp Gower Analytics projects the domestic box office booming to $9.2 billion, +102%, with global soaring to $33B.
It’s just another reminder to the major studios that if their streaming service business doesn’t work out, they can always go back to making money on the big screen.
“If we really get to 30,000 feet, there are a lot of markers that say that there is a lot of consistent good news suggesting a diverse set of content is coming from a diverse set of studios,” said Colligan, “2022 is going to be a very, very big year.”