COVID-19 prompts major movie release delays, early VOD release


The coronavirus pandemic has impacted America’s largest ride-hailing and e-commerce companies. Now, the United States’ biggest movie studios are making significant changes in response to COVID-19. Namely, Disney has indefinitely delayed the release of its spring blockbuster “Black Widow,” mirroring actions taken by MGM, Paramount, and Universal.

Universal has also announced it will debut “Trolls World Tour” on video-on-demand (VOD) platforms next month. In doing so, the company made a significant change to how it distributes its mid-tier films in America. But with major movie exhibitors AMC and Regal shuttering theaters across the U.S., the big studios are likely to make more of their new releases available to stream.

Blockbuster Movie Release Delays

Traditionally, Hollywood blockbusters begin making their way to theaters in the early spring. This year, hotly anticipated big-budget films like “Black Widow, “F9,” “Mulan,” and the 25th James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” were scheduled for release in March and April. However, the major studios decided to delay the release of these tentpole films in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Production companies like Disney, MGM, Paramount, and Universal nail down the premiere dates for their biggest films years in advance. But with COVID-19 keeping audiences at home, the studios have made drastic changes to their U.S. release slates.

Now, even mid-tier films like Disney’s “The New Mutants,” Sony’s “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place 2” have lost their premiere dates. America’s movie exhibitors have also been forced into taking bold action because of the viral outbreak.

On Tuesday, AMC Theaters, the nation’s largest theater chain, stated it would shutter all of its locations for the next six to 12 weeks. Regal Cinemas, the second-biggest film exhibitor in the U.S., said its venues would close indefinitely the day before. The two corporations made their determinations after the White House recommended public gatherings shouldn’t exceed groups of 10.

Still, just because America’s theatrical exhibition network has been suspended doesn’t mean the release of new movies will stop.

In the Shadow of the Coronavirus, Hollywood Studios Pivot to VOD

As the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered America’s movie theaters, the big studios have pivoted to VOD distribution. Some production companies have even taken to abandoning the traditional movie release schedule in light of COVID-19’s impact.

Previously, major film companies put their big movies in theaters for 74 days exclusively. After that, they make their films available for purchase as digital downloads. Around 90 days post-release, Hollywood production firms release their content on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD platforms. But the industry has changed its practices this month.

Disney kicked off the trend by putting “Frozen 2” on its Disney Plus streaming service on March 15. The conglomerate initially intended to premiere the film on its platform in June. The House of Mouse also made “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” available for digital download two days early. Since then, Hollywood’s most prominent firms have followed its lead. One day later, Warner Brothers revealed its films “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” would come to VOD on March 24. As such, the corporation put the DC Comics-inspired movie on sale 46 days after its theatrical debut.

Similarly, STXfilms made its crime comedy “The Gentleman” available digitally on March 24, just 60 days after its US opening.

On Monday, Universal announced an even bigger change to its film release schedule. The studio revealed recently debuted movies “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt,” and “Emma” would be available for digital rental on March 19. Notably, “Invisible Man” is the oldest of the three titles, having made its theatrical bow on February 20. Universal also said its forthcoming family film “Trolls World Tour” will be available in theaters international and on VOD on April 10.

The production company will charge consumers $19.99 to stream the above-listed titles for 48 hours.

The Shift From Theatrical to Digital Distribution

The major film studios have looked to change the traditional movie release paradigm long before the coronavirus outbreak. In 2011, Universal attempted to release the abysmal “Tower Heist” on VOD three weeks after its theatrical opening. However, the corporation discarded the initiative after the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) threatened to boycott the film.

Hollywood production companies have reconsidered their distribution strategies as Netflix has become a media juggernaut.

Initially a DVD rental service, the company has evolved into a subscription-video-on-demand (SVOD) platform that attracts more Millennial viewers than broadcast TV. As the brand has come to occupy a dominant position in the media landscape, the studios started launching their own streaming services to compete. Last month, Warner Bros. revealed it greenlit the production of mid-budget movies specifically for release through its HBO Max SVOD.

The rise of Netflix isn’t the only reason the big studios have become more interested in streaming their content. In the United States, film distributors take roughly 60 percent of the revenue generated by movie ticket purchases. But they claim 80 percent of the revenue from premium VOD services.

Plus, when consumers rent or buy a movie through Amazon Prime Video or Apple’s iTunes, those technology companies get part of the revenue. Conversely, Hollywood production companies don’t have to split their SVOD earnings with a third-party hosting service. The studios also save on marketing costs when they don’t have to promote separate theatrical and home video releases.

The shift from cinema to digital distribution hasn’t gone unnoticed by America’s film exhibitors. Last October, AMC got in on the action by debuting its own SVOD. The service hosts new Disney, Paramount, Sony, and Universal movies 90 days after their theatrical releases.

The New US Movie Landscape

The truth is the convenience of VOD and SVOD platforms have been eroding the appeal of the theatrical experience for years now. The staggering but necessary inflation of cinema concession prices has exacerbated the issue. NATO reports 2017 and 2019 saw the weakest U.S. movie ticket sales years since 1995.

Furthermore, the major U.S. streaming services have gotten very good at developing TV shows that are ideal for binge-watching. Director Cary Fukunaga told GQ that Netflix influenced the creative direction of his series “Maniac” by giving him notes based on its vast collection of viewership data. As such, SVOD companies are giving consumers an incentive to watch their content instead of heading to the movies.

Also, because the average U.S. movie ticket price is $9.16, and Netflix starts at $8.99, going to the theater isn’t the most economical entertainment option. The coronavirus pandemic is only pushing consumers in a direction they were already headed.

The public will still flock to the box office to experience big-budget spectacles like “Black Widow” and “F9.” But smaller movies that aim to connect with viewers on a more intimate level are probably destined for digital distribution. Thankfully, quieter, more thoughtful films are generally better served by being shown in private environments.

Still, Hollywood studios will need to adjust their pricing to facilitate the theatrical to digital transition for their mid-tier releases. No one should have to pay $20 to see “The Hunt.”


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