The Quorum

Will Disney+ take advantage of a soft September release schedule?

Last week, Lionsgate announced that it was pushing ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, from September to April of next year. It’s a move that may not have registered with many people, but it was significant in that it left an even bigger hole in the September release schedule.

Before MARGARET moved, the month of September was already looking pretty thin. With MARGARET gone, only five post-Labor Day wide releases are left. On top of that, based on The Quorum’s tracking, none of the films currently slated for September are showing overwhelming strength. 

The absence of big theatrical releases coincides with the two high-profile Disney+ films. On September 8th, the streamer will release PINOCCHIO starring Tom Hanks, while the eagerly anticipated HOCUS POCUS 2 arrives three weeks later. Even though the box office is experiencing a remarkable recovery, it could be that the big film story this September doesn’t come from theatrical but rather Disney+. 

SEPTEMBER – A CLOSER LOOK

September has never been a box office powerhouse. Summer vacations wrap up, kids go back to school, and movie-going slows to a crawl. When we look at the total box office by month in 2019, only February had lower grosses than September. Despite the overall slowdown, three types of movies have succeeded in September.

First, family films. When looking at the highest grossing September release by year, you can see below that animated movies showed strength early in the decade. THE LION KING re-release was the top grossing film of 2011. After that, Sony had an impressive run with two HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA movies and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. To be clear, family films make far less in September than in the summer, but even medium-sized fish can flourish in the tiny pond that is September. HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 may have grossed $170M – still a record for an animated September release – but that would be a modest performer in the summer.  

Second, horror films. They rose to prominence in the back half of the decade with THE NUN and the record-breaking IT and IT CHAPTER 2. 

A third kind of film has also done well in September: the glossy, mid-budget, dramatic thriller. Though none were the highest grossing of the month, they all opened above $20M, and most crossed or approached $100M in total. 

Looking at the upcoming September releases, Warner Bros hopes to continue its horror success by bringing SALEM’S LOT to theaters on September 9th, though few people expect it to earn anything close to THE NUN or the IT films. A second horror film, SMILE, opens at the end of the month. A trailer for that film was just released yesterday, so we won’t have a read on audience awareness and interest for a few days, though the pre-trailer numbers are unremarkable. 

DON’T WORRY DARLING looks like the closest thing to a dramatic thriller, though awareness is stuck in mid-teens despite the release of a trailer in early May. Sony seems high on THE WOMAN KING, but awareness is only at 14%. 

The final September release, BROS, has already been given a large marketing push, including two trailers (a red band and green band) and spots on RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE ALL STARS, though the numbers are still on the light side. 

What’s missing from the September schedule is a family film. At least on the theatrical side. That’s where Disney+ comes in. They are filling that void with PINOCCHIO and HOCUS POCUS 2; both made exclusively for the streaming platform. 

THE ARRIVAL OF DISNEY+ ORIGINALS

With these two films, we are entering a new phase for Disney+. On the feature side, the streamer has been home to would-be theatrical films like SOUL, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, and TURNING RED that shifted to Disney+ for Covid reasons. It also served as the day-and-date platform for CRUELLA, JUNGLE CRUISE, and BLACK WIDOW. But PINOCCHIO and HOCUS POCUS 2 represent the arrival of high-profile, library-driven titles made specifically for the streamer. 

It doesn’t end with just these two. Later this year, we’ll be getting DISENCHANTED, the follow-up to the 2007 box office hit ENCHANTED. A new THREE MEN AND A BABY film is in development. Same for SISTER ACT 3. 

These Disney+ titles could represent an inflection point in the post-pandemic theater vs. streaming ecosystem. During the robust box office turnaround of the past six months, streaming features have taken a back seat to theatrical. How many big 2022 streaming hits can you name? THE ADAM PROJECT? HUSTLE? Any others? None have come anywhere close to TOP GUN: MAVERICK, JURASSIC WORLD, or DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS in terms of cultural impact.

But that might change with PINOCCHIO and HOCUS POCUS 2. Currently, these two films are tracking far better than any of the five September theatrical releases. Awareness for the two Disney+ titles are significantly higher than the other titles. In the absence of any enormous box office draws, these Disney+ titles have a good chance of becoming the zeitgeist titles. 

If they attract a sizable audience, we could find ourselves entering a world where studios give greater consideration to streaming titles when deciding on a date for their theatrical releases. Studios already factor in some non-theatrical factors when deciding on a date. That’s especially true for sporting events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics. But streaming content has far less weight in the dating decision—case in point STRANGER THINGS. Paramount didn’t move TOP GUN: MAVERICK even though the new season of the Netflix phenom dropped on the same day. 

But if PINOCCHIO and HOCUS POCUS 2 take off, it is easy to imagine a world where a studio may opt against opening a film on the same weekend as a high-profile Disney+ film, especially if the studio is looking to date a family title. That would be a remarkable sea change.

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