Why Major European and Japanese Cinema Chains Are Refusing to Play “Black Widow”

By Patrick von Sychowski | July 14, 2021 4:13 pm PDT

The Walt Disney Company has suffered the largest and most widespread theatrical refusal to play one of its tentpole releases after cinema chains in Germany, Belgium, Scandinavia and Japan refused to program Marvel’s “Black Widow.” The disagreement with many of Europe’s leading mid-size cinema chains centres on the windows and streaming for the film, which is also being made available day-and-date on the Disney+ Premium Access platform for USD $30 (where available) throughout the world. The move is particularly significant as “Black Widow” is seen as a key blockbuster for cinemas that are just reopening after the pandemic, but many exhibitors fear allowing a precedent to be set or losing out compared to larger pan-European chains.

While it is not known how many chains have made the decision not to show “Black Widow,” the no-showing is most widespread amongst chains below the level of the three major European operators Cineworld, Odeon and Vue. This raises questions about whether these chains have been offered more preferential terms or had a greater financial need to programme the Marvel blockbuster.

“I don’t understand other chains’ decision to show this film,” said Nordisk Film Biografer CEO Asger Flygare Bech-Thomsen. Nordisk cinemas span Denmark, Norway and Sweden and are currently not showing “Black Widow.” Once a precedent has been set with film terms, he noted, “it is difficult to row these things back.” Bech-Thomson said that Nordisk is currently negotiating with distributors on a movie-by-movie basis. “We’ll take it title by title,” noting that Nordisk is showing “A Quiet Place II” with a shorter window, because it was “a deal that was acceptable to us.”

Germany’s Cinema Family Says “Nein, Danke”
The most widespread decision not to show “Black Widow” in Europe has been in Germany, where several leading local chains have banded together and are not playing the film. Several family and operator-owned cinema chains had recently formed a negotiation alliance for film rental, with Cineplex , Kinopolis, Filmpalast-Gruppe and Astor Group; all part of the Cinema-Family-Group. These operators represent some of the biggest multiplexes in Germany, such as the Mathäser multiplex in Munich, the cinema with the highest admissions in all of Germany. As a result of this, “Black Widow” was only distributed with just over 260 “copies” across Germany, whereas a typical Marvel film could go out with around 600 copies.

Germany’s Cinema Family Group (CFG) members, (left to right) Gregory Theile, Michael Pawlowski, Kim Ludolf Koch and Hans-Joachim Flebbe (Photo: Silke Kammann – Blickpunkt: Film)

The Cinema Family Group (CFG), which represents around one in four German cinemas, most likely will not incur objections from German competition authorities as long as it restricts itself to the issue of windows and not price negotiations or rental terms for films. The majority of both Hollywood and local distributors in Germany have agreed to discussions with CFG, sources tell Celluloid Junkie, with only a couple who presently insist on discussing this on a one-to-one basis with each cinema operator. While cinemas are said to be willing to accept a shorter release window in favour of better rental terms, there is a line in the sand about screening day-and-date releases, which has also prevented Netflix films from showing in many cinemas.

When you search for “Black Widow” on the Cineplex website you get a detailed message explaining the cinema group’s policy and why it is not showing the film. The message is translated from German and reproduced in full at the bottom of this post. It highlights the difficulty of operating with 30% seating capacity restrictions and an oversupply of releases after the extended closures. But the crux of the decision over whether to show a specific film is the exclusivity of the theatrical window. “We have therefore decided, like many other owner-operated cinemas in Germany, to only play those films that are still shown exclusively in cinemas and are not already [also] being streamed at the same time as the cinema release,” reads the message.

When contacted by Celluloid Junkie, Kim Ludolf Koch, who heads the Cineplex group that encompasses 26 family-owned cinema operations throughout Germany, said that there had been some questions from audience members as to why “Black Widow” was not showing, but that “overwhelmingly there has been positive and understanding feedback.” With German cinemas having reopened later than many other European markets, there is also a large film offering already competing for screen space, including the very successful “F9.”

Koch confirmed that unless Disney changes its policy then Cineplex and the Cinema Family Group will also not be screening their next titles that do not have an exclusive theatrical window, which is also the case for films from streamers such as Netflix et al. Noting that the cinema industry is going through a ‘turbulent’ time, Koch says, “I don’t know what the new normal will look like,” in terms of releases, streaming and windows, but that they as an industry, “can’t agree before then,” on any precedent setting terms.

Looking For a “New Normal”
These sentiments were echoed by Nordisk’s Bech-Thomsen, who believes that a “new normal” will not be achieved until 2024 or even 2025, which is when Hollywood films that were green-lit post-pandemic will start to appear in cinemas. Concurring with this the PricewaterhouseCoopers recently released annual Global Entertainment & Media Outlook also believes that it will take until at least 2024 before the international cinema sector has recovered in terms of turnover.

“We will have two to three years of turbulence from now,” Bech-Thomsen observed. He acknowledges that release windows have been shrinking for a number of years but that recently it has “adjusted a little too fast,” which could hurt the long tail of cinema releases. “This is also a question of process,” Bech-Thomsen stated, “They are rushing things a little too fast.”

The refusal to show “Black Widow” comes as the topic of windows is being discussed, but apparently has not been resolved, at the Cannes Film Festival, which is taking place two months later than usual this year. While the release windows are fixed by law in France, which is why the film is not available to buy on Disney+ in France, there have been moves to change them to allow for more flexibility.

Hence there are also no disputes between Disney and French cinema operators. However, UGC is not playing “Black Widow” in Belgium, where the film is available as PVoD. Had it not been prevented from a day-and-date release in French homes, it is likely that Disney would have faced an even bigger European backlash, one that would have also encompassed the continent’s largest cinema territory (France), as well as Germany, Scandinavia and Benelux.

“Black Widow” – showing in two cinemas in Denmark.

The “Black Widow” No-Show Moves (Far) East
It should be noted that this boycott is not confined to Europe, with “Black Widow” also not playing on many screens in Japan, the world’s third largest cinema market. The Japanese cinemas’ decision is noteworthy because Disney+ is not widely available in Japan, as distribution of the streaming platform is limited to an exclusive partnership with local telecom giant NTT Docomo.

Previously the cinema release of Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” was blocked in Japan by large cinema chains such as Toho and 109 Cinemas. Disney has released films such as “Cruella” on Disney+ one day after the theatrical release in Japan. By some estimates around 40% of cinemas in Japan are currently refusing to show “Black Widow”.

Previous Disney Disputes
This is not the first time that Disney has found itself at the sharp end of pushback from exhibitors against its release strategy, as the distributor has faced the ire of both large and small cinema operators in Europe before. There is thus the sense that this is a conflict that has been in the making for some time, with the argument coming to a head now over the Disney+ day-and-date PVoD policy.

In Germany many smaller cinemas refused to show “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 2015 because Disney was seen as dictating too onerous rental terms and setting a minimum ticket price; the latter being illegal in territories such as the United States. It was felt that while a premium price for regular screenings of the latest Star Wars films might be sustainable in larger German cities, it would not work for cinemas in small and rural towns. It led to a stand-off that also encompassed other Disney films and lasted for several months.

More significantly, in 2010 there was a major falling out between Disney and the largest cinema chains in U.S., UK and Europe over the live action version of “Alice in Wonderland” which would have seen the release window shrink to just three months between the film opening in cinemas and being released on DVD. Disney ultimately retreated, though the release window has been steadily shrinking in the decade since, to the point where three months or 90 days became the new normal. Now a window of 60 days or even 45-46 days are seen by some as “long,” when compared to the fluctuating 30-day or day-and-date pandemic release strategies.

Earlier this year Disney got into a scuffle with U.S.-based Cinemark amidst the release of “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Even after the circuit had put tickets on sale to the public, they began canceling showtimes when they could not come to an agreement over film rental terms with the studio. Several other exhibitors joined the “Raya” cancellation parade including Harkins in the U.S. and Cineplex in Canada. At the time, several mid-sized cinema operators contacted by Celluloid Junkie about whether they would be showing “Raya” said they were not turned off by the high film rental price, provided Disney stopped enforcing other terms such as split showtimes and mandatory two-to-four week bookings. Unfortunately, most of these exhibitors weren’t playing “Raya” anyway because they were still closed due to COVID health mandates.

Reddit users are confused as to why Toho is not showing “Black Widow” in Japan. (Source: Reddit)

It is also worth noting that there have been disagreements on rental terms (if not windows) between other European cinema chains and Hollywood studios that have lead to films being delayed or initially not shown, such as the alleged stand-off between Vue International and Warner Bros. that led to “A Star is Born” only showing up for Vue bookings after other cinema chains had released the tickets.

Conclusion – Too Soon To Tell
Disney caused a surprise when, in addition to its domestic and international box office, it also released the PVoD takings for “Black Widow” on Disney+ during its opening weekend. The number was meant to be headline grabbing, with USD $60 million in revenue from over two million Premier Access transactions to watch the film at home. But it was still less than the USD $80 million that it took in North America (domestic), as well as USD $78 million from 46 international territories.

What is clear is that USD $60 million is a lot less than the combined total of USD $158 million, but that international earnings would have outpaced domestic (as is traditional for Marvel films) if it had not been for up to half the screens in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Japan and elsewhere not showing the release, even without the addition of China, where the film still does not have a confirmed release date.

It seems that there will be a protracted stand off between cinema operators and distributors over release windows and rental terms before anything resembling a “new normal” is established. Distribution patterns and terms have been evolving for the 125 years that cinemas have existed, but rarely has a change been imposed on the industry with such a sudden impact; compounded by coming on the heels of the most costly disruption in the history of the industry due to the extended COVID closures of cinemas throughout the world. Nordisk’s Bech-Thomsen says that he is not opposed to changes per-se, but that “these need to be slower and more transparent.”

J. Sperling Reich provided additional reporting.

“Black Widow” message from the Cineplex website, translated from German.

Dear Movie Friends!

For a few days, more and more news has been coming in asking about the film BLACK WIDOW. In short: we won’t be showing the film at Cineplex. We would like to briefly explain why we decided against it:

So far, we have received the films for a certain time exclusively from the film studios in cinemas in order to be able to present them to the guests, i.e. you, in an economically reasonable framework. This is the only way we can refinance our high operating costs and immense investments made in recent years. Unfortunately, this exclusivity was broken in the times of the pandemic and could not be rescheduled for each upcoming film release – as is now the case with BLACK WIDOW. In addition, due to the Corona, we can only use approx. 30% of the seating capacity. At the same time, there is currently an oversupply of film productions that have had to be postponed several times due to the pandemic. We have therefore decided, like many other owner-operated cinemas in Germany, to only play those films that are still shown exclusively in cinemas and are not already being streamed at the same time as the cinema release.

Believe us, it was anything but easy for us to make this decision. We are also big film fans and would love to present this film on the big screen.

But for a future for all cinemas we need economically sustainable conditions. In addition to the amount of the film rental that we pay to the film distributors, a very important factor is a certain exclusivity that sets real cinema films apart from the streaming offer. We are in close contact with all of our distribution partners and do not shy away from negotiations in order to find meaningful ways for the future together – for a shared, unique cinema experience!

Patrick von Sychowski
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