With the first week of major virus-preventing isolation looming, Disney threw parents a bone. The House of Mouse made Frozen 2 available for streaming on Disney+ three months early, a godsend for families staring down untold weeks and months of being trapped in their houses with children to entertain.
It was a nice gesture, not to mention a shrewd business move for a fledgling streaming service marketing to a captive audience of potential subscribers. It also turned out to be the opening salvo in a potentially industry-shifting trend, as movie theaters across the country shut down or reduce seating capacity in response to CDC and government regulations, and studios grapple with what to do with the films scheduled for release at a time when no one is able to or, alternately, allowed to go see them.
Universal announced Monday that it is, at least for the moment, doing away with the theatrical release window for some of its titles, including another family event release, Trolls World Tour. That means that the movie will be available on-demand at home on the same day as it opens in theaters—or whatever theaters there are still left for it to open in—on April 10.
In addition, films the company currently has in theaters, including The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma. will be available to rent for 48-hour windows for $19.99 starting Friday, March 20 in the U.S.
“Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles in the home that is both accessible and affordable,” NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said in a statement.
This is an undeniably smart move.
Studios have, in recent weeks, scrapped release plans for their biggest blockbuster releases, including Paramount’s A Quiet Place 2, Disney’s Mulan, MGM’s Bond film No Time to Die, and Universal’s F9, the Fast and Furious installment now delayed a full year. Staring down the barrel of massive financial losses at the prospect of these tent poles being released to a minuscule potential pool of ticket buyers, pushing back seemed the only option.
Last weekend’s domestic box office was the lowest in two decades, a site of carnage especially for the arthouse indie market. Take Focus Features’ Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an abortion thriller that premiered at Sundance, currently ranks on Metacritic as the best reviewed film of 2020, and posted just $18,404, a meager $4,601 per-theater average. Compare that to a Sundance hit from last year, The Farewell, which debuted in the same number of theaters to over $350,000 and a per-theater average that was 22 times higher.
None of the new releases—I Still Believe, Bloodshot, or The Hunt—managed to cross $10 million domestically, spelling huge losses. The Vin Diesel-starrer Bloodshot, for context, cost an estimated $45 million to make and market. Releasing any movie exclusively in theaters right now is financially ludicrous.
But while Universal’s decision is a coronavirus-related stop-gap attempting to salvage the prospects of releases that would otherwise be hammered by the pandemic, it’s a decision that has the potential to change movie release strategies, well... forever.
Even before the current public health crisis greased the wheels on Universal’s decision, the industry movement toward more day-and-date release strategies had been speeding down a one-way highway.
As streamers like Netflix and Amazon have disrupted moviegoers’ viewing habits, movie theater attendance has declined, and the demand for day-and-date access to titles has increased from consumers, it was a matter of time before traditional theatrical windows were scrapped—or at least dramatically reconsidered—by major studios.
Institutional standard-bearers like the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (or at least, certain members like Steven Spielberg) have treated the debate as an existential crisis. Filmmakers have begun weighing the value of the immediate platform of a streaming or on-demand release versus a traditional theatrical rollout. Millions are able to see your work! Or maybe it will get lost completely in the glut of content! And are you contributing to the death of independent cinema? Also shouldn’t the film be taken in as intended on a big screen?
On the consumer side, at least anecdotally and with very few exceptions for major, buzzy blockbusters and tentpoles, the response to most film releases has increasingly been: Is it on Netflix? And, if not, when will it be?
Inevitability should never be the reason for any industry-disrupting move. But circumstances certainly could be. At face value, that’s what we have here: circumstances.
When movie theaters might as well not even exist, of course it makes perfect sense for a studio to do this. It’s in service of both customers’ needs—people are at home; give ’em something to watch!—and its own need to gross revenue from these titles.
Universal was also careful to clarify that this isn’t going to be a blanket policy for all of their 2020 titles. There was also no timeline given for how long the company plans to employ this strategy. That is to say, if the company thinks it’s not making enough money, it can stop. If it thinks an upcoming title is worth holding for when we’re all allowed back in theaters, it will. And when all of this is over, it may stop this whole day-and-date release thing completely and go back to business as usual.
But Universal uncorked something big here, and it’s worth watching how the industry shifts in response. It would be shocking if other studios do not follow suit in some capacity. What will be interesting to gauge is how they follow suit, and what lessons are learned collectively.
Will consumers bite at the $19.99 price tag? There’s sticker shock at first glance, but for Americans living in cities like New York and Los Angeles, that may fade. In those cities, where the government has shut down movie theaters completely, it’s not uncommon to pay that much or more for a reserved seat at a cineplex.
Of course, that’s to see a movie on a big screen, not on your home TV, which raises the question of value. And value brings up an age-old debate. Maybe it’s worth it to spend $20 to rent an effects-heavy thriller like The Invisible Man or an animated film like Trolls World Tour, which will keep the kids happy and quiet for two hours. But is it for a Jane Austen period piece like Emma.?
That speaks to what is actually invaluable with this experiment, which is data.
Universal will find out what people will shell out for what movie. Other studios may charge different amounts, or have different renting windows, or jigger with their own strategies in their own ways. When all of this is said and done and whatever pandemic release plans were put in place to salvage titles and bottom ends are rolled back, consumer behavior and expectations will have been changed and studios will have hard numbers on how.
Cinema attendance already experienced a 25 percent drop last year, as the number of streaming services has veritably exploded.
As The New York Times pointed out, the National Association of Theater Owners has repeatedly said that it doesn’t see these streamers as an existential threat. “Through every challenge, through every new technology innovation over the last twenty years, theatrical admissions have been stable and box office has consistently grown,” John Fithian, the association’s chief executive, said in January.
It’s true that there’s no reason to believe that these new developments are a death knell for traditional cinemas. Look at the decision to push back so many major releases instead of simply dropping them on-demand on streaming as proof of that; there is still major monetary value to the theatrical release. More, what Universal is doing with Trolls World Tour and its other titles is not necessarily feasible or practical for everyone—at least not yet.
In the wake of Disney’s decision to rush Frozen 2 to Disney+, for example, many wondered if the live-action version of Mulan was next.
The film’s March 27 release date was officially postponed last week in response to the coronavirus outbreak, after weeks of speculation over how Disney would handle things, given the moviegoing ban in China. But sources told The New York Times that funneling the film to Disney+ was not an option, citing piracy concerns and the fact that the streaming service is not yet available outside of the U.S.
That bit of information is intriguing given the biggest upcoming title for which no decision has still been made in terms of its release: Marvel’s Black Widow, which has a May 1 release date.
On the one hand, making it available for home viewing as much of the world is mandated inside seems like a no-brainer. Marvel fans would gladly shell out $19.99, and likely much more than that, to have the film as an entertainment option while in isolation.
But Marvel is owned by Disney, meaning its likely streaming outlet, Disney+, faces the same issues for piracy and global availability as it does with Mulan. And that’s not to mention what potential cash boon there could be in eventizing the theatrical release even more once cinemas start to open up again.
Like so much of what is happening now and how it will affect the future, there are uncountable unknowns when it comes to what the film industry will look on the other side. But every decision that’s being made, from production shutdowns to release delays, will have ripple effects. Universal’s decision to make current and upcoming titles available on-demand day-and-date is akin to dropping a boulder in a puddle.
It sounds like not a big deal. Paying money to watch movies from your couch. Have we already forgotten about Blockbuster Video? But the simple act of pressing play on your remote versus purchasing a ticket at a movie theater is a gesture worth billions of dollars. What happens with that money now?
Yes, as the prophecy once foretold and we all probably suspected, Trolls World Tour is the film that will change the movie industry as we know it.