Disney is moving two of its biggest 2021 releases to streaming: Black Widow and Cruella are now set to debut on Disney Plus as $30 Premiere Access titles alongside their theatrical releases. Additionally, Black Widow has been delayed an additional two months: it’ll now debut in theaters and on Disney Plus on July 9th, instead of the previous May 7th release date. (Cruella is still set to release on May 28th.)
Additionally, Disney announced further changes to its schedule: Pixar’s Luca will now be skipping theaters entirely (similar to last year’s Soul) and will release on Disney Plus for all subscribers with no additional fee on June 18th.
Alongside the new release plan for Black Widow, Cruella, and Luca, Disney also announced new theatrical dates for several other major 2021 films. Notably, Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy will now hit theaters on August 13th, and Kingsman prequel The King’s Man will hit on December 22nd. Deep Water and Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile have been pushed to 2022, hitting theaters on January 14th and February 11th, respectively.
Black Widow’s delay is a particularly notable one. Originally slated to hit theaters on May 1st, 2020, it has been delayed multiple times over the past year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s shuttering of cinemas. And while Disney has repeatedly said that it was still hoping to release Black Widow in theaters — with the potentially $1 billion-plus box office numbers that Marvel films tend to bring in — it seems the sluggish speed of reopening theaters has forced it to consider a simultaneous streaming debut.
And while the delay to July means that Disney will have a better shot at maximizing its box office returns (the film will still be released on the big screen for those willing to brave theaters), the interconnectedness of Marvel’s sprawling film — and now, streaming show — universe means the company can only delay new entries for so long.
Each change means reshuffling the entire Marvel release schedule. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, for example, is set to hit theaters on September 3rd now that Black Widow has taken its July date. But there are also storytelling concerns: Black Widow is all but guaranteed to tie into the upcoming Disney Plus Hawkeye show (which is planned for later in 2021), which means delaying the movie could also set back Disney’s streaming shows.
The unprecedented move by Disney to shift such prominent releases to Disney Plus also emphasized how important the streaming service is to the company’s future. As CEO Bob Chapek commented when the service hit its 100 million subscriber milestone earlier this year, Disney’s “direct-to-consumer business is the company’s top priority, and our robust pipeline of content will continue to fuel its growth.”
The decision to release Cruella and Black Widow — like Raya and the Last Dragon and Mulan before them — will help give Disney a better idea of what premium home streaming will look like going forward. And while theaters will certainly be a big part of Disney’s future release plans, one only needs to look at things like Warner Bros.’ ongoing HBO Max release experiment or the increasingly short length of theatrical windows to see how important streaming releases will be to the future of cinema.