With 'Free Guy' and 'Jungle Cruise,' Disney Is Winning Both Sides of the Debate Over Hybrid Film Releases

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With‘Free Guy’ and ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Disney Is Winning Both Sides of the Debate Over Hybrid Film Releases

While Ryan Reynolds’ film was the toast of CinemaCon, Dwayne Johnson’s adventure tale has reached $100 million despite its premium release on Disney+

20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy” was the toast of CinemaCon last week, praised by theater owners as an argument against the day-and-date release strategies tested by Disney, the film’s distributor, which released the Ryan Reynolds action comedy exclusively in theaters. But the surprise box office legs of “Jungle Cruise,” one of those films available as a premium Disney+ title, shows that Disney is winning on both sides of the theatrical exclusivity debate.

Though the numbers have been watered down by the still-rebuilding nature of the domestic box office, “Free Guy” has performed like a hit from a bygone era: an original comedy that has used star power and strong word of mouth to endure on the charts. From its $28.3 million domestic opening, director Shawn Levy’s film saw a modest second-weekend drop of 34.8% and a third-weekend drop of just 26.7%, giving it a running domestic total of $79.3 million so far.

The success of “Free Guy” as the first film released exclusively in theaters by Disney in over a year was hailed by the leaders of the National Association of Theater Owners, as well as by rival Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman, who cited two reasons for its success: “No. 1, it’s terrific, and No. 2, you can’t watch it at home. Go f—ing figure!”

NATO has been pushing studios to phase out the day-and-date release strategies that have popped up in response to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic-era box office, pointing to the sharp weekend drops of films like Dinsey/Marvel’s “Black Widow” and Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad” as evidence that making films available at home, either at premium cost or no extra charge, are not financially beneficial for studios or theaters in the long run.

While Universal and Warner Bros. have made deals with theaters signaling a return to a theatrical window model — albeit a one shortened from 90 days that was typical pre-2020 to closer to 45 days — Disney has indicated that it will still consider using its Disney+ Premier Access release model when it feels it would be advantageous. And while “Free Guy” and possibly “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will have success as theatrically exclusive films, “Jungle Cruise” has managed to buck the recent trend of hybrid-release films that have dropped off in ticket sales after opening weekend.

It certainly didn’t look like that was going to be the case when the Dwayne Johnson/Emily Blunt adventure film opened to $35 million last month. Some analysts, including this one, expected that “Jungle Cruise” would sink quickly down the charts as its home-release option peeled away potential moviegoers. Instead, it has legged out to become the fifth post-shutdown film to top $100 million in North America, reaching the milestone after five weekends in theaters.

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What’s impressive about this performance is that “Jungle Cruise” didn’t have some of the advantages enjoyed by other $100 million grossers this year. Unlike Legenday/Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. Kong” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II,” the film did not open during an extended holiday weekend; and unlike “Black Widow” and Universal’s “F9,” it did not have a $70 million-plus opening thanks to its status as part of a tentpole franchise.

Instead, “Jungle Cruise” has found theatrical success in much the same way that “Free Guy” has. While it is not an original title — it is loosely based on a Disneyland ride — the film’s old-school appeal as a swashbuckling, family-friendly adventure film led by engaging performances from two popular stars ignited strong word-of-mouth and a desire to see it on the big screen.

“I thought that ‘Jungle Cruise’ would be hurt by day-and-date, but its quality has won out,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “If the quality isn’t there, of course day-and-date is going to hurt a film because it doesn’t have the staying power and people will opt-out of the theatrical experience. If it’s a film like ‘Jungle Cruise,’ that has the goods and builds enough buzz, people will go to theaters even as they get more selective about what films they want to see on the big screen.”

While the film’s $187 million global box office total so far isn’t enough on its own to make “Jungle Cruise” profitable on its reported $200 million budget — Disney announced $30 million in paid streaming sales on opening weekend but has not disclosed further numbers — the film has performed well enough for Disney to greenlight a sequel on Monday.

All of thissuccess for two Disney releases that didn’t have as high a profile as “Black Widow” makes the studio’s next moves all the more intriguing. Disney has continued to signal that it will keep its options open regarding Premier Access, with CEO Bob Chapek saying during an earnings call earlier this month that the company will do “what we believe is in the best interest of the film and the best interest of our constituents.”

So far, Disney has not yet announced another hybrid theatrical/streaming release. While Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will come out this Friday only in theaters, and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has signaled in interviews that he would prefer that this November’s “Eternals” be seen in theaters. It’s possible that Disney could try a hybrid release for “Encanto,” a Disney animated feature set for release on Thanksgiving weekend.

Disney has already tried the hybrid model with “Raya and the Last Dragon” back in March, and considering that even Sony, which swore to uphold theatrical exclusivity at CinemaCon, is in talks to sell “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” to Amazon, it wouldn’t be surprising for another animated family film to go the hybrid route.

Regardless, “Free Guy” and “Jungle Cruise” have shown how even during the pandemic and with a lawsuit on its hands, Disney is in a position that other studios envy. The studio has become an industry and pop culture juggernaut at the box office, so it knows better than anyone else that the theatrical model is critical to its long-term future (and profitability on big-budget features). But Disney+ subscribers have responded to paid streaming as well, so Disney is more than willing to go down that path again if the pandemic forces another sharp downturn for the movie theater industry.


Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • [email protected] • Twitter: @jeremyfuster

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