Coronavirus Could Change the Way Movies Are Released — Forever

The sacred “theatrical window” may go by the wayside as studios scramble to limit their losses

March 20, 2020 11:36 am
trolls world tour streaming release
"Trolls: World Tour" could prove to be on of the most consequential movie releases of 2020

Just as it was foretold in the prophecy, the end of history begins with Trolls: World Tour.

With the theatrical exhibition sector of the film industry now in freefall as brick-and-mortar auditoriums from neighborhood arthouses to big-box multiplexes close their doors, studios have scrambled to figure out their next steps. Everyone’s losing money, but the race is on to salvage what can be salvaged, and Universal seems to be the first to mobilize.

In a decisive, unprecedented announcement, executives have agreed to shift their titles that would otherwise be playing publicly right now — horror remake The Invisible Man, satire The Hunt and subsidiary Focus Features’ Austen adaptation Emma. — to video on-demand availability. More shocking still, they pushed Trolls: World Tour up from its slated April 10 premiere date to go “day-and-date” on Friday, meaning that it will stream on the same day that it ostensibly enters whatever theaters remain operational on Earth.

Maintaining the so-called “theatrical window,” that grace period between a film’s initial debut and its migration to home video during which buying a ticket is the only way to see it, has been of paramount importance to Paramount (and Universal, Disney and the like). In tandem with the rapid ascent of Netflix and other barbarians at the streaming gates, the past few years have seen an attendant increase in disputes over when and how movies should be put out into the world. The studios have held fast to the regulation 90-day window despite increased pressure from streaming-first platforms, which stand to maximize exposure with day-and-date. The release of The Irishman, for example, caused some friction between Netflix and theater chains AMC and its Canadian equivalent Cineplex. They wanted a 60-day separation; the Big Red N wouldn’t budge. 

Trolls: World Tour comes to us, then, as a possible harbinger of cataclysmic change. That’s not to say the rules shall be instantaneously and permanently rewritten, as these extraordinary times have occasioned extenuating circumstances all over the place. But it’s not hard to see the sequel about a colony of hirsute, music-loving critters as a cartoon canary sent into the coal mine of Hollywood policy. Even if it’s just an experiment, the results it yields could prove telling, and indicative of a new direction for the industry once everything returns to a relative state of normalcy.

Related: “The Hunt” Hype Is Much Ado About a Gory, Nothing Movie

It’s no coincidence that Universal would choose to make this particular project their test subject, considering the combination of qualities and circumstances that make it uniquely suited to the opportunity. For one, the studio can afford to take a hit on Trolls if that’s how things play out, seeing as it wasn’t clocked to be their big earner for the season in the first place. (In no universe will Disney just throw Mulan up on their streaming service; they can’t afford not to net however many hundreds of millions the film would’ve grossed in ticket sales.) 

Also significant is the fact that Trolls happens to be a kiddie flick, studio bread-and-butter in that it usually requires ticket purchases for parents and multiple youngsters. When it goes to streaming this week, it’ll only run each household $20, an amount that crucially sits in between a typical rental price and an afternoon out at the movies. Universal may lose out on the extra cash from multiple tickets sold, but their gains could stand to balance that scale. Parents are hard up for ways to occupy their housebound children right now, and 90 minutes of peace and quiet probably seems more than worth the cost at the moment. Kids also tend to demand repeat viewings of their favorite programming, and the rental window expires after 48 hours. Both notions make for a more compelling sell than grown-up fare like Invisible Man or Emma

But films like those two, mid-budget studio output for mature audiences, would stand to suffer the most if this gambit catches on. As industry-beat writer Julia Alexander notes at The Verge, executives would love nothing more than having an inexpensive place to shunt off titles they predict will draw modest receipts. Naturally, Universal wants to get the latest Fast and Furious in theaters, where it can rake in the billion dollars they’re counting on — for them, that’s where maintaining the window counts. But for those releases in which a studio doesn’t have much hope, they see widespread accessibility for the self-selected few already interested as an unambiguously positive.

Back in December, the now-Disney-owned Fox Searchlight hung Terrence Malick’s latest film A Hidden Life out to dry with a tiny, poorly promoted theatrical run. On the one hand, going day-and-date would certainly result in more eyeballs beholding the splendor of Malick’s vision; on the other, the prospect of such a work existing outside the cathedral of cinema is too depressing to consider.

Related: The Gospel According to Terrence Malick

Other studios have taken notice of Universal’s move, and are now following suit. Sony has announced that they’ll put Vin Diesel superhero vehicle Bloodshot on VOD following a lackluster opening last Friday, though chairman Tom Rothman released a statement confirming that “Sony Pictures is firmly committed to theatrical exhibition and we support windowing.” 

Trolls: World Tour may not be an overnight game-changer, but it does signal a new willingness to test the waters of day-and-date afforded by this extraordinary crisis. When this all ends, a juncture getting more difficult to conceptualize with every passing day, what we come back to will be a greatly altered version of the status quo. The film industry will have withstood the most massively sweeping disruption in its history, but even if movies themselves will not fully die out, they’ll exist within harsher conditions than ever.

It’s no secret that Hollywood’s middle class is vanishing, as tentpoles with eight-figure budgets gobble up more and more of the yearlong release calendar and Netflix cranks out quickie straight-to-streaming titles on the cheap. If studios start to feel emboldened about the potential for making day-and-date releasing work, that endangered species of art — adult dramas not based on preexisting intellectual property — could disappear completely. We can’t say the Trolls didn’t warn us.

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