Disney delayed "Black Widow" and multiple other superhero films and animations Tuesday, dampening hopes of a swift recovery for US movie theaters that have only just reopened after a year's pandemic-mandated closure.
"Black Widow" starring Scarlett Johansson had been billed as the major spring release to entice fans back to multiplexes, which were permitted to restart at limited capacity in Los Angeles last week and New York earlier this month.
It will now open July 9 -- two months later than expected -- and will be simultaneously available on the Disney+ streaming platform for home viewers, at an additional cost to subscribers.
Disney, which is increasingly prioritizing streaming and has experimented with different release models during the pandemic, said the move reflects "the evolving preferences of audiences" in a market "that is beginning to recover from the global pandemic."
"We will continue to employ the best options to deliver The Walt Disney Company's unparalleled storytelling to fans and families around the world," added distribution chairman Kareem Daniel in a statement.
The news comes as a blow to theater chains which have absorbed heavy losses during a year of unprecedented closures that has also seen the traditional "window" in which new releases can only be seen on the big screen all-but obliterated.
Pixar's Italy-inspired animation "Luca" will now only appear on Disney+, from June 18, while live-action "Cruella" featuring Emma Stone will appear on big and small screens from May 28, the company said.
"Black Widow" was originally due for release in May 2020, before Covid struck. Its latest delay meant another film in the record-breaking Marvel franchise -- "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" -- has itself been postponed to September.
The "domino effect" is likely to affect major releases from other Hollywood studios that had been eyeing lucrative summer slots.
Despite the Los Angeles theater revival, this weekend industry watcher Exhibitor Relations warned the "re-opening is still slow going at the box office."
North America's top-ranking film -- Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon" -- grossed just $5.1 million at almost 2,300 screens.
But there was some good news for theaters Tuesday with reports that Cineworld -- operator of North America's second-largest chain, Regal -- struck a deal with Warner Bros to show the studio's films exclusively on the big screen for a 45-day "window" next year.
Warner Bros had angered theater operators and prominent Hollywood filmmakers by announcing all films this year would be available from day one on its own HBO Max streaming service.