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Marvel's Shang-Chi set to stream (maybe 'free') on Disney Plus in mid-October

Disney is sticking with Shang-Chi's theaters-only release Sept. 2, but it's expected to hit Disney Plus quickly -- and possibly at no added cost.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set to be released only in theaters on Sept. 2. 

Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is expected to stream on Disney Plus in mid-October, possibly at no extra cost to subscribers, after it plays in theaters exclusively for 45 days. That's much faster than Disney's theatrical movies would hit the streaming service before the pandemic, when they typically took five to eight months to start streaming. 

But Disney isn't going to change its plan for Shang-Chi to be available exclusively in theaters starting Sept. 2, even as the delta variant of COVID-19 heightens film fans' worries about going to the movies. That means it won't be available the same day through Disney Plus' Premier Access, as Black Widow and other big Disney movies have been. So far, every Premier Access movie has been a same-day release that requires Disney Plus subscribers to pay an extra $30 fee. 

"At some point you've got to put a stake in the ground and say 'This is what we're going to do,' and that's where we ended up on Shang-Chi," Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Thursday, referring to the company's commitment to give Shang-Chi an exclusive period in theaters. 

But Chapek also indicated Shang-Chi would head to Disney Plus right after that 45-day window in theaters, setting up the Marvel flick to become available to stream there in mid-October. "The prospect of being able to take a Marvel title to the service, after going theatrical, [in] 45 days will be yet another data point to inform our actions going forward," Chapek said, referring to Shang-Chi and Disney Plus, during Thursday's conference call about Disney's fiscal quarter earnings. 

Thursday's comments were the first indication Shang-Chi's next stop after theaters would be Disney Plus. Typically, theatrical releases would move on to other formats -- such as Blu-ray, DVD and online rentals -- before reaching a streaming service. The company had already announced the 45-day theatrical window for Shang-Chi earlier this year, without specifying its next step. 

Shang-Chi is "an interesting experiment," Chapek said, as the company figures out how best to release its megabudget franchise films even as COVID-19 risks and movie fans' willingness to cram into cinemas keeps changing. 

Free, or not be?

Shang-Chi is expected to be streamed on Disney Plus at no added cost. (Some people refer to this as being available "free," though Disney Plus requires paid subscriptions.) 

But it's possible that Disney could tweak Premier Access or introduce a new fee-based model for Shang-Chi mid-October. While all movies on Premier Access so far hit Disney Plus the same day as theaters, Disney stressed Thursday that it values flexibility in how it decides to release movies while circumstances keep changing. Creating a new way to charge for Shang-Chi on Disney Plus in mid-October would be an easier hurdle to clear than suddenly switching the movie to include same-day Premier Access, which would provoke an outcry from theater chains and other partners. 

The delta variant of COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in studios' optimism around releasing big films they'd been holding back until the risks of going to the movies abated. The variant has increased cases and hospitalizations across the world, coming after vaccines had alleviated many moviegoers' inhibitions about crowding into cinemas. Now surveys indicate consumers are again feeling less comfortable about going to the movies

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