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What’s the cost of piracy? For Marvel and Disney's 'Black Widow,' perhaps $600 million

That’s a lot of mid-pandemic MCU freeloading.

Black Widow Still Scarlet Johansson

It’s no secret that Black Widow didn’t take a spider-sized bite out of the box office, coming amid Disney’s mid-pandemic attempt last summer to finally get long-held blockbusters out the door. Debuting simultaneously both in theaters and at Disney+, the movie ended up earning a respectable (but not typical Marvel-level) $380 million worldwide (with $184 million of that coming in North America), with Disney’s split-release strategy also spawning a lawsuit over the film’s revenue-sharing approach from star Scarlett Johansson.

Now, thanks to a new report at Deadline, at least some of the blame for Black Widow’s uncharacteristic underperformance among Marvel movies has some fresh context. Millions upon millions of high-quality pirated versions of the movie reportedly made the rounds almost as soon as it released on screens both big and small, leading to a speculated $600 million in potential box office losses for the hugely-anticipated MCU followup to Avengers: Endgame.

“Following Black Widow, it was clear that day-and-date [theatrical and home release] leads to a freefall at the box office in the subsequent weekend of a Marvel Cinematic Universe title; the Scarlett Johansson movie weathered the worst second-weekend drop for a Disney-distributed Marvel movie at 68 percent,” the report observed, noting that Disney isn’t likely to try its hand again — at least not anytime soon — in debuting its biggest movies as Disney+ premium video on demand (PVOD) add-ons as soon as they’re available in theaters.

“… Adding to the further erosion of box office for any theatrical-day-and-date release on streaming is the fact that these movies are pirated promptly, with clean 4K copies in several languages spread around the world,” the report added. “By the end of August [2021], sources in the know informed us that Black Widow had been pirated more than 20M times. That’s close to a $600M estimated loss on Black Widow in Disney+ PVOD revenue alone.”

Disney, of course, hasn’t disclosed an estimate of the financial hit that piracy may have dealt to Black Widow’s overall success, and it’s possible that some of those 20 million pirated views overlap with viewers who might’ve paid to see the movie at least once, whether in theaters or at home. But any number that approaches $600 million in potential lost box office revenue is a big one — especially considering that Marvel’s latest theater-first release, Spider-Man: No Way Home, has so far snared an incredible $1.37 billion box office worldwide…with the movie’s domestic haul ringing in at more than $600 million all by itself. That said, there's not really anything that can compete with Spider-Man these days.

Johansson and Disney settled the Black Widow lawsuit in September of last year, and Marvel has since teased a “top secret” project that puts the actor in a producing role for an upcoming MCU movie (or, perhaps, a series) that’s unrelated to Black Widow. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s a safe bet Disney will give it top, first-run billing either as a theatrical release or a tentpole project at Disney+. But in the wake of Black Widow’s disappointing revenue numbers as a split-release experiment, it’s tough to envision Disney promoting it — at least when it debuts — as both.

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