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Entertainment Licensing: Disney Delays Release of Film Blockbusters

By Gary Symons

TLL Editor in Chief

More bad news for licensees that depend on the release of big, blockbuster movies from Disney, and particularly from its Marvel studio.

Disney says it has delayed its release dates for several upcoming films, including five Marvel titles and the fifth installment of the classic Indiana Jones franchise. Additionally, several Marvel films that still remain untitled are seeing their dates being pushed back.

Disney has been quick to point out that these upcoming blockbusters are not being delayed beause of the relatively anemic box office figures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Disney is citing pandemic-related production delays: an issue that tends to escalate when you have a universe of films that all depend on each other. In essence, a delay in one film project automatically creates a delay in another film that is based partly on the first film’s storyline.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The changes in the schedule are as follows:

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Disney): Release date moved from 3/25/22 to 5/6/22

“Thor: Love and Thunder” (Disney): Release date moved from 5/6/22 to 7/8/22

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney): Release date moved from 7/8/22 to 11/11/22

“Untitled Indiana Jones” (Disney): Release date moved from 7/29/22 to 6/30/23

“Untitled Disney Live Action” (Disney): Removed from schedule

“The Marvels” (Disney): Release date moved from 11/11/22 to 2/17/23

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Disney): Release date moved from 2/17/23 to 7/28/23

“Untitled Marvel” (Disney): Removed from schedule

“Untitled Marvel” (Disney): Removed from schedule

Untitled 20th Century” (20th): Removed from schedule

“Untitled Marvel” (Disney): Release date moved from 11/10/23 to 11/3/23

Note that films being removed from the schedule does not mean they are not going to be made. Rather, these are films slated for development, but that now no longer have a set air date.

Some of the changes in dates are much more significant than others. For example, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is being rescheduled from March 25 to May 6, a difference of less than two months, and “Thor: Love and Thunder” moving from May 6 to July 8 is a delay of almost exactly two months. By contrast, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is moving from July 8 to Nov. 11, a delay of more than four months, and due to that delay the film The Marvels is being bumped back all the way to some time in 2023, while “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has been bumped from Feb. 17 to July 28, 2023.

But among the many delays for Marvel films, the much anticipated Indiana Jones sequel has been pushed back nearly a full year. The film stars Harrison Ford as the now-aged archaeologist, and is now due to at the end of June in 2023, rather than this coming summer on July 29.

While none of that is good news for licensees or theatre chains, Disney has reconfirmed its commitment to releasing its major films in cinemas, as all of the movies on schedule for 2021 will be released exclusively in theaters for 45 days, before moving to Disney’s streaming services.

So, how big a deal is this for the licensing industry, and for the global box office? According to data collated by The Numbers and presented by Statista, Marvel is now the largest film franchise in the US, surpassing Disney-owned Star Wars, the James Bond series, Batman films, and Harry Potter.

Data collected by the company The Numbers and presented by Statista shows that Disney’s the Marvel Universe has surpassed all other film franchises, even though the series began later. As of this year, the top franchises in the US are Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, Batman, and Harry Potter.

However, The Numbers also collected data on what’s been happening with box office returns over the past several years, and it’s clear that theater revenue was in decline even before the pandemic hit in March 2020, when ticket revenues fell off a cliff. In fact, ticket sales reached their peak in 2002, climbing to 1.58 billion tickets sold. Over the next 17 years the number of tickets sold continued to generally decline, falling gradually to 1.23 billion tickets sold in 2019.

This chart shows the number of movie tickets sold in the US has been declining since 2002, which a much more precipitous drop in 2020 due to the pandemic.

This trend of declining numbers also may explain why Disney has not committed to releasing all its blockbusters exclusively in theaters after 2021. Like the controversial release of Black Widow, Disney may see the growth of its streaming revenue as equally important, particularly if ticket sales don’t rebound in the coming year.

Chart from Statista with data from Box Office Mojo shows how rapidly theatre revenues fell when the pandemic struck America in March of 2020.

More granular data from Box Office Mojo shows that, while films like Black Widow and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have managed to post decent numbers, the overall revenue from theaters in 2021 remains dismal compared to 2019.

US box office figures for 2019 show the industry generated roughly $11 billion dollars in ticket sales. Source: The Numbers

In 2019, ticket sales for the full year rang in at over $11.2 billion, and seven of the top films by box office returns were Disney products. Those included Avengers: End Game, which grossed $858.4 million as the top selling movie of the year.

Contrast that to 2021, as the lingering impacts of the pandemic continue to drive down numbers. While hard data is only available up to Week 40 of this year, the Numbers is projecting that total revenue from box office will reach just over $2 billion in total.

Box office numbers show a dismal picture in 2021, with total revenues in the US expected to reach just over $2 billion by the end of the year; less one-fifth of the revenues reported in 2019.

That stunning difference shows why Disney and other studios have made only temporary, lukewarm commitments to releasing tent pole content exclusively in theaters. The recovery of box office numbers is still lagging, due largely to the surge of COVID-19 cases in many parts of the US and around the world, and there’s no guarantee the early part of 2022 will be much better.

Ironically, while box office numbers in the US have been dropping for years, the opposite is true in other countries, and most notably in China. Driven by a growth in personal income, movie popularity has been growing rapidly in China, and even the first year of the pandemic in 2020 showed a robust increase in revenues. According to data from iResearch, ticket revenues were less than 20 billion yuan in 2012, and that figure rose to roughly 65 billion yuan in 2019, just as the pandemic was beginning to affect Chinese cities. (At the time of writing, one yuan was worth $0.16 USD)

Surprisingly, despite the impact of lockdowns and restrictions, revenues also climbed in 2020, increasing to more than 70 billion yuan.

As a result, the highest grossing film in the world this year doesn’t come from Marvel, or even from a US studio. Rather, the biggest movie in the world right now is not the latest Bond film No Time To Die or even Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but rather a Chinese film about the 1950s Korean War, centered on a story of Chinese soldiers defeating American troops.

In the first two weeks after its release, The Battle at Lake Changjin has made over $633 million at the box office. This puts it far ahead of Shang-Chi’s global earnings of $402m, and in just half the time, making it China’s highest-grossing film ever. It is very likely the film could eclipse the box office revenues of Avengers: Endgame.

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