The Predator film franchise may not have reached the level of the original 1987 film, which was suspenseful action classic, directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but its three sequels have been reliably enjoyable theatrical experiences, and reliably profitable at the box office. (The latter applies to the less trashy Alien vs. Predator spinoffs.)
So it's a surprise to see the latest installment of the Prey series, which is now available for streaming on Hulu. Although it has a stripped-down premise, presenting a confrontation between an alien Predator and a Comanche warrior 300 years ago, the majority of positive feedback suggests that the film would perform well in theaters if it had the chance (in fact, some critics saw it).
Prey is putting its weight to the test by making its debut on streaming only. While some studios sought to move their films to streaming in order to increase their subscriber numbers during the epidemic, the box office has well and truly recovered this year, led by the extraordinary success of Top Gun: Maverick. Studios are now betting on theatrical runs for well-known franchises like the Predator series, even to the extent that Warner Bros. has completely canceled its HBO Max Batgirl film.
So what does Prey offer? The answer, as so often with questions like this, comes down not to clever strategy, but to boring business stuff and perhaps a bit of sour grapes.
Predator is owned by, and Prey was created by, 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox). Disney purchased Hulu in 2019, and it maintains a majority interest in the company's adult-oriented programming that isn't under the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, or Marvel brands. (In the United States anyway, it all just goes on Disney Plus.)
According to Variety's Adam B. Vary, 20th Century Fox had a contract with HBO Max to stream all of its theatrical releases there prior to the Disney acquisition. This agreement still applies for films that were originally released before the Disney merger. This is why recent 20th Century films 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.
The 20th Century Fox/HBO agreement is grandfathered; for the 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.
Prey, a film about the film, has a clear affinity with Disney as it strives to expand its streaming audience. According to a presentation directed by Dan Trachtenberg to Uproxx, the company would rather forego a theatrical release rather than allow it to air on HBO Max.
Hulu hasn't really had a 20th franchise baby, according to Trachtenberg. So they're hoping to really ignite the platform to say, Were not just releasing smaller, lower-budget movies; this is also a place to have massive cinematic experiences. Prey is certainly a flashier proposition than previous Hulu releases like Nomadland or Palm Springs.
If all things were equal, Disney might have chosen to give Prey a theatrical run. However, this is not the case, and Disney would rather deny audiences this theatrical experience, and hopefully encourage them to purchase a Hulu subscription.