If you’re a Marvel fan living in the U.S., you’ve probably spent the past week avoiding spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That’s because much like The Avengers, it came out in Europe a week before its U.S. release date.
It used to be the case that the U.S. always got Hollywood blockbusters first, but now the staggered release schedule is often the other way round. This is sometimes for practical reasons like music licensing and international film edits, but in general it’s just more profitable to release a movie on different dates around the world.
One somewhat dubious theory is that putting smaller countries first deters piracy. The huge U.S. audience is such a hotbed for illegal downloads that a lot of pirated copies show up almost as soon as a movie is released. So if a movie comes out first in the U.S., other English-speaking countries will find it easy to just find a copy online before it comes out in their country. American audiences are far less likely to track down the handful of low-quality copies coming out of England or Ireland in the six-day window between release dates.
Piracy aside, there are some far more solid marketing reasons for putting smaller countries first. If the cast has to go to several premieres over a two or three-week period, they can stay in the international press for longer, creating more buzz for the movie. Also, overseas audiences could potentially be used as a test case for how to market the movie when it comes out in the U.S. a week later, kind of like collecting polling data just before election day.
It’s up for debate whether this strategy actually does curb piracy, but in the specific case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel is shooting itself in the foot.
The greatest strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the way it has woven multiple superhero franchises into one extended universe, which now includes numerous Avengers-related movies, one current TV show, four upcoming Netflix series, and a handful of short films. The TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is particularly significant right now because the next episode will tie into the new Captain America movie. (No spoilers, but if you’ve seen a trailer for Winter Soldier, you’ll already know that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a pretty big part to play.)
The problem of staggered release dates comes into play when you consider the continuity of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While U.S. fans may be annoyed that they have to wait an extra week for Winter Soldier, they also get to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. several weeks (if not months) before everyone else. Let’s take a look at a timeline of what’s going down in the Marvel universe:
-March 26: Winter Soldier opens in Europe, South Korea and the U.K.
-April 1: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 16 (pre-Winter Soldier) airs in the U.S.
-April 4: Winter Soldier opens in the US.
-April 8: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 17 (Winter Soldier tie-in) airs in the U.S.
-Some time in the future: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs everywhere else.
Put simply, if non-U.S. audiences want to keep up with Marvel continuity, they have to pirate the latest episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For example, if you’re watching the show as it airs in the U.K., you’re still several episodes behind the U.S. This means if you’ve seen Winter Soldier already, then Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. won’t make sense for weeks.
There’s no easy solution to this issue, except perhaps making episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. available to buy online instead of forcing overseas fans to wait to catch up. It’s not really popular enough to warrant the Game of Thrones treatment of being aired near-simultaneously in several countries at once. There’s also no real precedent for a TV series that ties in with a movie franchise in real time, so Marvel is presumably resigned to the fact that their most dedicated fans are all going to resort to illegal downloads to stay up-to-date.
It could be worse, of course. Japan doesn’t get Winter Soldier until April 19.
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