The Predator film franchise might never have scaled the heights of the original 1987 movie — a suspenseful action classic, directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger — but its three sequels to date have been reliably entertaining theatrical experiences, and reliably profitable at the box office. (The latter goes for the trashier Alien vs. Predator spinoffs, too.)
So it’s a surprise to see the latest film in the series, Prey, go straight to streaming on Hulu. Although it has a stripped-down premise, presenting a clash between an alien Predator and a Comanche warrior 300 years ago, word from the largely positive reviews is that the film would play well in theaters if it had the chance (indeed, that’s how some critics saw it). Prey would probably be a welcome addition to the relatively quiet late-summer release schedule for audiences and theater owners alike.
Not only that, but by debuting on streaming only, Prey is swimming against the tide. While some studios sought to push films to streaming to boost their subscriber numbers during the pandemic, the box office has well and truly bounced back this year, led by the extraordinary success of Top Gun: Maverick. Studios are now betting on theatrical runs for films in well-known franchises — like the Predator series — boosting their profitability. And they’re turning their back on straight-to-streaming releases, even to the extent that Warner Bros. has canceled its HBO Max Batgirl film completely.
So what gives with Prey? The answer, as so often with questions like this, comes down not to cunning strategy, but to boring business stuff — and maybe a bit of sour grapes.
Predator is owned by, and Prey was made by, 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox). Disney acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019. Disney also owns a majority stake in Hulu, which is where it likes to put its more adult-oriented content that doesn’t fall under the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, or Marvel brands. (In the U.S., anyway; internationally, it all just goes on Disney Plus.)
But, according to Variety’s Adam B. Vary, before it was acquired by Disney, 20th Century Fox had a deal with HBO Max to stream all its theatrical releases there. This deal still applies for any films that originated before the Disney merger. This explains why recent 20th Century releases like Free Guy, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story, and Death on the Nile have appeared on HBO Max instead of, or as well as, Hulu or Disney Plus.
It’s the grandfathered 20th Century Fox/HBO deal; same reason Free Guy went to HBO Max instead of D+. All 20th titles that originated pre-merger w/theatrical release must go to HBO Max. If PREY got a theatrical release, the same would happen. AND THAT IS FORBIDDEN, apparently.
— Adam B. Vary (@adambvary) July 20, 2022
This clearly rankles with Disney as it works to build its streaming audience. In the case of Prey, it seems the company has decided that it would rather forgo a theatrical release for the film than allow it to appear on HBO Max. According to an interview director Dan Trachtenberg gave to Uproxx, Disney wants to use Prey as the first big-ticket franchise 20th Century production to drive subscriptions to Hulu.
“Hulu hasn’t really had… There hasn’t been a 20th franchise baby that has come out yet,” Trachtenberg said. “So they’re hoping to really ignite the platform to say, ‘We’re not just putting out the smaller, lower-budget fare. That this is also a place to have giant cinematic experiences.’” Prey is certainly a flashier proposition than recent Hulu hits like Nomadland or Palm Springs.
Given the current box office climate, Disney might well have chosen to give Prey a theatrical run, if all things were equal. But it is not, and Disney would rather deny audiences this theatrical experience, and hopefully tempt them into a Hulu subscription, than let a competitor get their hands on the precious Predator IP.