Seems like it was less than three months ago (it was) when I used the mediocre success of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s theatrical release by Walt Disney Studios and the runaway popularity of “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ streaming to demonstrate how television series have taken over the entertainment industry reins from theatrical motion pictures. And now we find ourselves in uncharted territory. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has closed movie theaters nationwide and forced the ailing film industry into a premature coma. A coma from which it may not awaken.
With AMC (8,043 screens nationwide), Regal (7.206 screens) and Cinemark (4,630 screens) closing down their movie theaters and many municipalities across America banning public gatherings larger than 100 people, Hollywood waved the white flag and admitted that the traditional theatrical path for films is gone (at least for the time being). All motion pictures, large and small, have had their theatrical releases pulled or postponed.
But Hollywood isn’t about to give up all its box office profits. And so studios have rushed to get their films in front of viewers by collapsing the traditional theatrical/home window. In the past, film distributors preferred a solid 90-day “window” between the time films were playing in theaters and the time they were available for home consumption. This allowed theaters to make their money and gave home video/DVD distributors enough time to build up their ad campaigns. With the disappearance of physical media, that window of distribution has been shrinking. Today, it’s gone altogether.
Two weeks ago, Disney rushed the hit animated film Frozen II (still playing in just over 150 theaters) to its Disney+ streaming service. Universal Pictures followed up by announcing that many of its films still in theaters (The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma. among them) would now be available on VOD/streaming services for a mere $19.99 (for a 48-hour rental). Universal said it would start rolling out its new slate of films as well. The animated sequel Trolls World Tour is the first of those new films slated to hit home streaming on April 10. Warner Bros., unwilling to be left behind, shunted Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey to streaming as well. Disney/Pixar’s animated fantasy Onward (released three weeks ago) is already available on digital streaming and will hit Disney+ starting April 3.
On top of the final US theatrical box office, for what it’s worth (a mere $9.5 million), was Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot. Based on the Valiant comic book of the same name, the films stars Vin Diesel as an American soldier who gets killed and resurrected via nanobots that transform him into a near-invincible superhero. In announcing the film’s move to streaming, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group’s chairman Tom Rothman told Variety, “Sony Pictures is firmly committed to theatrical exhibition and we support windowing.” After giving lip service to the status quo, he continued. “This is a unique and exceedingly rare circumstance where theaters have been required to close nationwide for the greater good and Bloodshot is abruptly unavailable in any medium. Audiences will now have the chance to own Bloodshot right away and see it at home, where we are all spending more time. We are confident that—like other businesses hit hard by the virus—movie theaters will bounce back strongly, and we will be there to support them.”
It remains to be seen if other studios will jump on this bandwagon, dumping big budget summer tentpoles like Wonder Woman 1984 and Top Gun: Maverick directly to home streaming or wait out this COVID-19 pandemic, moving opening dates to later in the year when movie theaters are allowed to reopen. By that time, will American viewing habits have fundamentally changed? Will viewers, already comfortable with giant screen TVs and digital streaming, give up on movie theaters altogether?