Disney has delayed the release of Black Widow along with several other Marvel films and animations, dampening hopes of a swift recovery for cinemas around the world.
Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson, had been billed as the major spring release to entice fans back to theatres, but it will now be released two months later than expected, on July 9, and will be simultaneously available on the Disney+ streaming platform for home viewers, at an additional cost to subscribers.
Disney, which is increasingly prioritising 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," distribution chairman Kareem Daniel said.
The news comes as a blow to cinema chains, which have absorbed heavy losses during a year of unprecedented closures. The traditional "window" in which new releases can only be seen on the big screen was also all but obliterated in the last year.
Pixar's Italy-inspired animation Luca will now only appear on Disney+ from Friday, June 18, while live-action Cruella featuring Emma Stone will appear on big and small screens from Friday, May 28, the company said.
Black Widow was originally due for release in May 2020. Its latest delay means another film in the record-breaking Marvel Avengers franchise – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – has also been postponed to September.
The "domino effect" is likely to affect major releases from other Hollywood studios that had been eyeing lucrative summer slots.
Elsewhere, Ryan Reynolds's comedy Free Guy is facing further delays, although the Canadian actor reacted to the news with a tongue-in-cheek video on Instagram.
"Hey guys, great news. We have a new release date for Free Guy. We've had a couple of hiccups, but this time it's 100 per cent locked in. I've never been so sure of anything in my entire life as long as I've lived," before announcing the date, Friday, August 13, in a clearly dubbed voice, to show it had been changed for its original schedule.
Kingsman prequel, The King's Man, has also been delayed until Wednesday, December 22. Deep Water and Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile have both been pushed to 2022, set to hit cinemas on Friday, January 14 and Friday, February 11, respectively.
Despite cinemas in the US reopening, industry watcher Exhibitor Relations has warned the "reopening 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 cinemas in the US, with reports that Cineworld had 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 previously angered cinemas and prominent Hollywood filmmakers by announcing all films this year would be available from day one on its own HBO Max streaming service.