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Sony and Marvel Making Billion-Dollar Bet on Spider-Man Appearing in Theaters

With vaccination rates plateauing and COVID-19 delta variant concerns — plus joint streaming releases — keeping audiences away from movie theaters, the movie “resurgence” of the summer may wind up being short-lived.

One of the first studios to already consider caving to those fears was Sony, which pushed (Spider-Man anti-hero film) Morbius from March 2021 to October 2021 to now January 2022, and had rumors swirling that (fellow Spider-Man-adjacent movie) Venom: Let There Be Carnage would also move from its already-pushed October release into next year. For now, those rumors have been disputed. But things can change rather quickly given the nature of the pandemic and Sony’s situation around digital distribution.

You see, unlike many of its box office competitors, Sony doesn’t have its own streaming service. That’ll change somewhat come 2022, with Netflix getting the initial post-theatrical window on Sony films before heading to Disney properties (along with the rest of the existing library content that’s also set to be housed between Disney networks, Hulu and Disney+). But right now, Sony Pictures is still largely dependent on box office revenues for this year’s releases. Any streaming release before 2022 would wind up going the PVOD route. If there’s a 2022 streaming release, it’s headed to Netflix with no additional paycheck heading toward Sony unless the two parties arrange a deal outside of its existing agreement.

We mention all of this in the setup here, because Sony isn’t moving ALL of its movies. Or even all of its Spider-Man-related movies just yet. Co-produced with Disney’s Marvel Studios, Spider-Man: No Way Home is still slated to arrive in theaters in late December 2021. And hype is certainly growing for that title’s release. According to Sony, the trailer is the most-viewed teaser trailer ever (feel free to cast some skepticism there, since there’s a million ways to actually get to that “number”).

The buzz is palpable in Marvel fan corners of the internet and beyond, in a way that simply hasn’t existed for any of its theatrical releases since… perhaps the last Spider-Man movie (Spider-Man: Far From Home) just months after fellow Marvel blockbuster Avengers Endgame hit theaters. Since then, the Marvel calendar’s experienced a slew of delays like every other studio, plus an overdue movie (Black Widow) get shorted by a dueling streaming/theater release, and two origin story films coming this fall with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals.

While Sony ultimately controls how the upcoming Spider-Man movie is released and collects most of the box-office receipts, Marvel certainly gets just as well that the Spider-Man movie must succeed for both studios’ collective sake. For understandable reasons, Black Widow‘s grossed just $180 million at the U.S. box office, making it 21st among the 24 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to-date (though that doesn’t include Disney+ Premier Access rentals that would push it up into the top 15 or 16). By comparison, the two co-produced Spider-Man movies to-date have each collected more than $330 million at the U.S. box office (both top-11 among MCU films).

Without knowing what internal expectations for Shang-Chi or Eternals look like, one would guess that new titles, pandemic and no streaming option puts expectations somewhere near(pre-existing character) Black Widow‘s haul as a best-case scenario. That obviously doesn’t work long-term for Disney, Marvel and the massive budgets many of these movies command. Same goes for Sony. And that’s where Spider-Man potentially helps soften the blow of COVID’s effect on the box office these past two years.

Especially for Sony.

Because while Disney/Marvel can still profit off of various business ventures (networks, streaming, merchandise, music, etc.) to continue making some money as a short-term fix, this movie and its billion-dollar global box office potential is really all Sony has. Pre-pandemic, this movie would’ve guaranteed over $1.1 billion in worldwide and would’ve become the highest-grossing Sony film ever. Now, it’s playing a tepid game to avoid delays and streaming purgatory that neither studio can stomach.

For Marvel, shifting this movie means potentially shifting several next year as its carefully-laid cross-movie/show continuity tries to roll with the pandemic’s punches. They’re at the mercy of Sony there, admittedly. But Sony also has little wiggle room with regard to streaming, as discussed. Plus, having to push in 2022 creates greater hurdles for both Disney and Sony, since the Netflix deal may supersede any possible idea to go the “Premium Access” route on Disney+. If No Way Home is pushing to 2022 and landing on streaming in full or in part, it’s basically doomed to Netflix — and losing out on what could be hundreds of billions of dollars at the box office.

So unless COVID concerns get significantly worse (and they very well could) between now and the slated December 17 release date, you’ll probably see Disney and Sony play a bit of chicken with moviegoers until they absolutely have to make a change here. But with the house of cards both could be dealing with should they have to move this Spider-Man movie, it’s probably smart money to bet that both opt to keep it as-is, versus playing any more wait-and-see on a complete “return to normal” (a concept that’s appearing further and further away until vaccination rates increase, and/or children under 12 are able to get vaccinated as well).