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Disney is sticking with theatrical releases for Shang-Chi and Free Guy - but when will they hit streaming?

By Josh Weiss
Free Guy Shang-Chi

After months of hybrid premieres for blockbuster films, Disney will test the efficacy of a post-COVID theatrical marketplace with exclusive big screen rollouts for Free Guy and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Free Guy, which opens this weekend after more than a year of delays, brought in $2.2 million from preview screenings Thursday night, according to Variety, which projects the Ryan Reynolds/Shawn Levy comedy to close out its North American debut with cose to $18 million.

Of course, nothing is certain with a nationwide surge of COVID-19 fueled by the more contagious Delta variant.

During an investor's call this week, Mouse House CEO Bob Chapek revealed that the studio will be trying out a 45-day theatrical window before movies make their way to the world of streaming. Since Free Guy was originally a 20th Century Fox property, there was an existing, pre-2018 acquisition agreement where it was obligated to play theatrically before premiering on HBO and (most likely) HBO Max in late September.

“We acquired [Free Guy] under a different distribution assumption and set of agreements," Chapek said (via Variety). "We don’t have the degree of freedom to do [a Premier Access release] on Free Guy." While Free Guy could eventually make its way to Disney+, the company reportedly has nothing "confirmed anything beyond the theatrical date at this point."

And what of Shang-Chi? Well, due to exhibitor contracts, Disney and Marvel Studios cannot enact the same theatrical/Premier Access strategy used for Black Widow, which became the first MCU tentpole to be made available online.

As we all know by now, that decision resulted in an acrimonious legal rift between the studio and Scarlett Johansson. The Legend of the Ten Rings will also play exclusively in theaters for 45 days — starting on Friday, Sep. 3 — before it arrives on Disney+ at the tail end of October. Chapek described this model as “an interesting experiment" and “another data point," writes Deadline

That said, if the global health crisis doesn't start to let up soon, we may be seeing another influx of big titles with split releases. “We value flexibility in being able to make last-minute calls,” the CEO said, adding that the company "didn’t anticipate the resurgence of COVID." With so much uncertainty right now, Chapek concluded that there's "nothing in stone."