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Want to see Marvel's Shang-Chi or Free Guy ASAP? You'll have to hit a theater

This summer may mark the end of Disney giving you a choice -- cinemas or streaming -- for how to watch its biggest, brand-new movies.

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Shang-Chi will hit theaters exclusively on Sept. 2. 

Marvel Studios; screenshot by CNET

Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy, two big-budget Disney movies coming up, will be available only in theaters for their first 45 days of release, marking what is likely the end of Disney's pandemic-era practice of giving fans the choice to either watch its highly anticipated movies in a cinema or by streaming them on Disney Plus as soon as they come out.

The latest news makes it virtually certain that Marvel's Eternals and other big-budget Disney films will go back to the pre-pandemic practice of hitting cinemas -- and only cinemas -- first for a period of time. 

During the pandemic, Disney and most Hollywood studios upended the long-held norm of "windowing" its movies, putting them only in theaters for months before widening their availability. But with movie-going decimated by coronavirus public-health restrictions, studios experimented with releasing movies online and in theaters at the same time, a move that would have been verboten a year earlier. 

Disney's experimentation with this so-called "day and date" or hybrid strategy is going to hit its high mark on July 9, when megabudget Marvel movie Black Widow streams on Disney Plus same day it hits theaters for an extra $30 fee. It'll be Disney Plus' biggest new film release so far, and it'll be followed by Jungle Cruise, another Disney film that will be available on Disney Plus with a surcharge and in theaters at the same time, starting July 30. 

But Shang-Chi -- which is directed by this year's Oscar winner for best director, Chloe Zhao, and which is Marvel's first movie to feature a predominantly Asian cast -- will hit theaters (and only theaters) Sept. 3. The action-comedy movie Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who realizes he's a non-player character in a video game and then races to become its hero before it's shut down, will be released in cinemas exclusively Aug. 13.

Disney, which announced the plans Thursday, didn't discuss its strategy for any other films after Shang-Chi. Marvel's Eternals is currently slated for release Nov. 5. 

Disney also didn't discuss when Shang-Chi would hit Disney Plus to stream, whether that's on day 46 of its release or much later. Before the pandemic, Disney's theatrical films would take about five to nine months to reach Disney Plus. It only reiterated that its theatrical movies would eventually be available on its streaming services, without any further detail. 

However, the 45-day window that'll keep Shang-Chi and Free Guy exclusively in theaters is shorter than the norm before the pandemic. For decades, new movies would spend 75 days or more in theaters only before they moved onto other formats of release, like Blu-rays and DVDs, online rentals and finally streaming. 

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, so its approach to theatrical releases is a bellwether for the industry. Disney is also the studio with the most to gain by returning to the pre-pandemic "windowing" system, assuming movie fans start flocking to theaters again. 

The Shang-Chi release plan indicates that Disney is easing back on the extraordinary measures it took to release new films in the last year. In what will be Disney Plus' biggest film release so far, its megabudget Marvel movie Black Widow is set to stream on Disney Plus for an extra fee the same day it hits theaters, on July 9. Called Premier Access, this streaming-release model requires a $30 payment on top of the regular price of a Disney Plus subscription. The Black Widow streaming decision was Disney's biggest bet yet on its Premier Access model, even as optimism grows about audiences returning to cinemas over the coming months. 

But that optimism appears to have reached a tipping point for Disney. CEO Bob Chapek said that "recent signs of increased consumer confidence and moviegoing to films" motivated the decision to premiere Free Guy and Shang-Chi in theaters only for a month and a half. 

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