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Disney hints Marvel's Black Widow may stream online same time as theaters

If Black Widow is released on Disney Plus when it hit cinemas, that decision will probably be made "at the last minute," Disney CEO Bob Chapek said.

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Marvel's Black Widow was delayed multiple times as the pandemic decimated theater-going. 

Marvel Entertainment/Screenshot by Joal Ryan for CNET

Disney CEO Bob Chapek hinted Wednesday that Marvel's Black Widow movie may be released online on Disney Plus at the same time it hits theaters. Marvel's Black Widow is currently slated to open only in cinemas May 7, and until now Disney had consistently characterized that release as a theatrical exclusive. 

But Chapek said Wednesday that Disney would "remain flexible," after he was asked in an interview on Bloomberg whether the company is still committed both to Black Widow's May 7 release date and to its exclusivity in theaters. 

"We'll make the call ... probably at the last minute, in terms of how these films come to market, whether it's Black Widow or any other title," Chapek said. "We've had unbelievable success in theaters, so we think it's important to build our franchises -- but at the same time, we don't think it's the only way to do it."

The comments were the first inkling that Disney -- Hollywood's top box-office hit maker -- could adjust its theatrical release plans to include a streaming option even for Black Widow, part of its Marvel powerhouse of megahit movies. For most of its biggest new movies, like Black Widow and other Marvel films, Disney has been delaying their releases until these once-guaranteed blockbusters may have a better shot at becoming box-office behemoths. 

The company has been silent for months about how and when Black Widow would be available to stream, even after it announced in December that its animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon would be released on Disney Plus for an extra $30 fee alongside its March theatrical release. Wednesday's comments suggested the potential for a hybrid streaming-and-theatrical release for Black Widow, even as optimism grows about COVID-19 vaccinations and cinema reopenings in the US. 

Disney's theatrical release decisions are a meaningful signal about Hollywood's faith in the box office, but they also underscore the industry's willingness to keep offering wider choices for watching new movies even after the pandemic. Before the coronavirus restrictions decimated theater attendance, Disney racked up more top blockbusters than any other studio in the last five years.  

Other Hollywood studios have shown signs of optimism about putting their big films back on the big screen, as vaccinations have accelerated in the US, one of the world's biggest movie markets. Several have moved up the release dates for tentpole films, underscoring anticipation that cinema attendance may bounce back sooner than they had previously hoped. In January, AT&T's Warner Bros. rescheduled Godzilla vs. Kong from May to March 31. Then in early March, Sony brought Peter Rabbit 2's release up to May 14 from June, and ViacomCBS' Paramount Pictures moved A Quiet Place II from September to May 28.

In the pandemic, Disney has already make dramatic changes to how it "windows" the releases of its movies. As Disney first started to cope with coronavirus cinema shutdowns, the company delayed all its new theatrical films and started streaming already released movies on Disney Plus months earlier than planned. Frozen 2 began streaming three months early, in March 2020, as did Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, in May 2020, and Pixar's Onward hit Disney Plus just weeks after its theatrical premiere. 

Then Disney started switching some theatrical movies into Disney Plus streaming originals instead, essentially skipping theaters entirely. The company's live-action film version of the musical Hamilton arrived on Disney Plus this way in July, and Pixar's Soul did too in December. Upcoming films like Cruella, its live-action reimagination of 101 Dalmatians, and others will be a Disney Plus original films instead of a theatrical premieres as originally planned. 

The biggest change was Disney Plus' so-called Premier Access model. Premier Access requires subscribers to pay an extra $30 fee to unlock access to these big new movies, which are typically available to stream the same day that the film debuts in theaters. Disney first tested this in September with Mulan, the mega-budget remake of its 1998 animated classic, and it revived the model for its animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon in early March. 

Any Black Widow release on Disney Plus, if it coincides with the movie's stint in theaters, is widely expected to be through the Premier Access model with an extra fee. 

Regarding Disney's streaming app ESPN Plus, Chapek also said in the interview Wednesday that the the company wants ESPN's deals with sports leagues like the NFL and others to include the ability to stream programming on ESPN Plus. "Our ability to toggle [sports broadcasts] from linear to direct-to-consumer is really, really important," he added. 

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