Disney throws theaters lifeline with balance of 2021 film slate

The upcoming Marvel and Disney+ film "The Eternals," a new superhero movie from Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao, is scheduled for release on Nov. 5. It’s one of six films planned for release to theaters this fall, Disney said. (Marvel/Disney+/TNS)
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Christopher Palmeri Bloomberg News (TNS)

Walt Disney Co. gave theater owners some much-needed good news: The rest of its 2021 film releases will get exclusive runs in cinemas before becoming available for home viewing.

One of the biggest will be “Eternals,” a new Marvel superhero movie from Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao that’s scheduled for release on Nov. 5. It’s one of six films planned for the balance of the year, Disney said Friday.

The studio scored a hit last weekend with another new Marvel feature, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and that was a factor in its decision to give the rest of its 2021 movies exclusive theatrical runs. Struggling cinema owners need more big titles to draw fans back to the big screen. Year to date, box-office sales are running at a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

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Adam Aron, chief executive officer of the largest theater chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., applauded Disney’s announcement, saying on Twitter that the chain will sell “boatloads of tickets.”

“Eternals” stars Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden. It’s part of a remaining 2021 slate from Disney, including the animated feature “Encanto” and a revival of “West Side Story” directed by Steven Spielberg.

Box-office sales have remained in the doldrums this year, in part because studios have released many of their movies online the same day they open in cinemas. That’s cut ticket sales and hampered the efforts of chains like AMC and Cinemark Holdings Inc. to lure back consumers worried about COVID-19. Studios are sitting on a backlog of movies from 2020, when theaters were closed by the pandemic.

A few films have managed to overcome consumer concerns — and exclusive runs in theaters have helped. “Shang-Chi” set records for Labor Day holiday sales last week while playing only in theaters. Universal Pictures’ “F9: The Fast Saga,” has taken in more than $710 million in box-office sales globally this year.

Disney, along with other studios, has come in for criticism from theater owners for making new films available for home viewing at the same time they run in theaters. The National Association of Theatre Owners publicly called out the company in July for putting “Black Widow” online, saying it cut into ticket sales. The star of that film, Scarlett Johansson, is suing Disney, claiming the online release reduced her compensation.

Besides “Eternals,” Disney plans to release “Encanto,” which features music by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, on Nov. 24. It’ll get a 30-day exclusive run in theaters before going to the Disney+ streaming service on Christmas Eve. All of the other releases, including “The Last Duel,” “Ron’s Gone Wrong” and “The King’s Man,” will play for 45 days in theaters exclusively.

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