Black Widow is out now, but why isn’t it on Disney+ Hotstar?

Black Widow, the latest Marvel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, hits theaters worldwide this week as well as on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets. It was supposed to hit Indian cinemas at the same time, but COVID-19 had other plans and now a release date for India is unclear. And it won’t be released for at least three more months on Disney+ Hotstar, because Black Widow is due out October 8 on the streaming service, as per its general availability on Disney+. Indeed, Premier Access – a video-on-demand tier, where Disney+ members pay $30 (around Rs. 2,200) or the equivalent for each premium title, on top of the monthly subscription – is not a thing on Disney+ Hotstar.

Neither Disney+ nor Disney+ Hotstar ever bothered to explain the lack of Premier Access on Disney+ Hotstar. Before writing this, I even reached out to the two to see if they’d like to shed some light on the curious move. No answer.

Maybe Disney+ doesn’t offer Premier Access titles on Disney+ Hotstar because it thinks people won’t pay. In India, it is generally accepted that video on demand does not work. This is why the theatrical model has been bypassed in the country. Here’s how Hollywood works: theaters –> video on demand –> Blu-ray –> streaming. But here, pre-COVID, new Bollywood films would spend 56 days in cinemas before being rolled out directly to streaming services. Once the pandemic put a damper on the box office, as Hollywood opted for on-demand premieres, Indian producers went the streaming service route with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar.

There have been attempts in the Indian on-demand space during COVID-19. Eros Now, thanks to its new parent ErosSTX, has announced that it will launch at least 10 Hollywood releases as a pay-per-view offshoot of its streaming service. And last year Zee5 unveiled ZeePlex – on both streaming and satellite TV boxes – which took a big gamble on Salman Khan-led Radhe after cinemas closed for the second time in April. It doesn’t seem to have worked unfortunately. After an opening figure of 4.2 million views, Zee5 never announced updated numbers, which doesn’t bode well. Industry experts believe that Zee5 will end up losing money on Radhe. Naturally, this will not convince anyone to experiment with on-demand premieres in India.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Photo credit: HBO Max/Warner Bros.

While the controversial box office success of previous Khan films supports the opposite, perhaps the film’s ratings matter too. Radhe sits at 9% of the critics’ rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience score on IMDb is 1.8 out of 10, for 164,000 users. At the time of writing, Black Widow is at 82% – there are 170 reviews at this point, so that’s unlikely to change significantly either. More importantly, there is little viewership overlap between the two. Marvel’s fanbase is understandably more urban and younger, which should theoretically mean more propensity, better access, and fewer mental barriers when it comes to paying for content online. Justice League Snyder Cut scored 100,000 orders in the first few days on BookMyShow Stream, one of five platforms it was released on.

As with DC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably one of the biggest Hollywood franchises in India. This means that there are many Indians who will want to watch Black Widow this week, in line with the rest of the world. But they’re overlooked because Disney prefers to get a theatrical release first. By forcing fans to wait forever, Disney is essentially guaranteeing that Indians will resort to searching for Black Widow torrent sites or other methods to access Disney+. Those with the means can spend Rs. 699 for a month of Disney+, Rs. 2,699 on Black Widow ‘Premier Access’, and a bit more about a VPN to watch it on Disney+. Everyone else will flock to piracy networks and torrents, which can compromise their security and safety on the internet.

But even the piracy route cannot help Indian Marvel fans who watch movies in local languages. In reality, Black Widow is set to be the first Marvel movie to be available in six languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. It’s a smart move given that “dubbed” local releases account for 50-60% of the Hollywood box office here, according to a 2019 report. Snyder Cut would have sold significantly more if WarnerMedia had bothered to dub it in Indian languages. But that was never the case. Disney+ Hotstar has been better at this, even retroactively adding Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu dubs for recent releases like Pixar. Lucas, and Raya and the Last Dragon. With Black Widowthese six releases are ready and waiting to roll out, if only Disney would come to their senses.

luca sea monster transformation luca

A picture from Pixar Lucas
Photo credit: Disney/Pixar

After all, it’s impossible to say now when Black Widow will arrive in cinemas in India. Due to caution about the inevitable third wave, given the spread of the Delta variant and the (declining) rate of vaccination, most states have refused to let theaters reopen. Or in some cases, they were closed following the lifting of restrictions. And for good reason perhaps, given that the rate of new cases is increasing. If the third wave ends up being as bad as expected, it will mean cinemas will remain closed for even longer. So what will Disney do if it’s unable to get out Black Widow in Indian cinemas before October 8? Will this kick Disney+ Hotstar out on the road and keep Indian fans waiting even longer? Or will it suck it up and just drop Black Widow as a streaming first in India?

In October, if Disney ends up favoring the latter, then it might as well come out Black Widow on Disney+ Hotstar now. What sense does it make to delay the release for three months, just because Premier Access isn’t a thing? All this will eventually do is make Marvel fans search for illicit means, the longer they’ll have to wait. If Disney goes the old way and keeps hanging on Black Widow until cinemas are fully functioning in India, well, that will only hurt its local box office prospects week after week. ‘Cause after a while there might not be anyone in India still waiting Black Widow. But if Disney+ Hotstar gets Premier Access, viewers can decide if they want to see it now — or wait for the big-screen experience.

A delay Black Widow The release in Indian cinemas will also make things worse due to other variables. For one, there are more Marvel movies on the way in 2021 – for theaters only, no Premier access. On September 3, Simu Liu becomes the MCU’s first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Oscar-winning actress Chloé Zhao delivers a new set with Eternals, scheduled for a premiere at the end of October in India. And Tom Holland wraps up the year with the Spider-Man: No Way Home trio on December 17. A start in September for Shang Chi in India seems highly unlikely at this stage. And like Black Widow is pushed further, Disney will also move the other Marvel titles around so they don’t clash at the box office.

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Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Photo Credit: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Of course, Disney is far from the only Hollywood studio that fails to service India in line with other markets. Since HBO Max is not available here, that means none of Warner Bros. Theatrical titles 2021 – from Godzilla vs. Kong to mortal combat – have been given proper release in India. Warner made an exception at the request for Those Who Wish Me Dead directed by Angelina Jolie, but that seems to have been unique. He says James Gunn’s upcoming The Suicide Squad, LeBron James-starring Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Hugh Jackman-led Reminiscence are “for theaters only,” though he previously said the same for Those Who wish me death. But while Warner briefly experimented, others showed no such insight either.

Hollywood is on the verge of collapse as cinemas reopen in India. While the rest of the world is on the verge of recovering from the pandemic – the US and UK have fully vaccinated half of their population, while India is currently at just under 5% – the films arrive in droves and quickly. Universal Pictures launched Fast & Furious 9 in May, now in cinemas worldwide and is due out on video-on-demand (outside India) in late July. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II arrived in theaters in May and will hit Paramount+ in mid-July. Disney also has Emma Stone Cruel on the record, and Jungle Cruise with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt later in July. All of these films are likely to clash with each other, alongside dozens of Bollywood films that have been waiting for over a year.

Considering the COVID-19 situation, it is time for studios to experiment with new release models in India. Black Widow made the ultimate sacrifice for her superhero family in Avengers: Endgame, but Disney won’t heed those lessons to let us meet Natasha Romanoff’s other quasi-family and bid her journey goodbye. 10-year MCU with the rest of the world.

It’s Google I/O time this week on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast, as we discuss Android 12, Wear OS, and more. Later (starting at 11:29 p.m.) we move on to Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s Netflix zombie heist movie. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.
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