With movie theaters closing worldwide in order to curb the spread of coronavirus, studios have had little choice but to delay or cancel the theatrical releases of their most highly anticipated films. Pop culture junkies can be grateful that COVID-19 came along just late enough to enjoy awards season, but the reality of this distressing pandemic is that its repercussions will likely effect the entertainment industry (yes, including next awards season) for some time to come. For the time being, the majority of delayed releases extends only through March, April and May, but with leading experts announcing that the current crisis could possibly stretch as far as July or August, it has become increasingly apparent that the entertainment industry is in a strange state of limbo. Even more so, the precedents being set via on-demand and streaming services could change standard release procedure for the foreseeable future.
Countless studios have gone the route of delaying release or suspending production. Major blockbusters like MGM’s No Time to Die, Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II, Disney’s Mulan, and Universal’s F9, as well as lower-profile features like Issa Rae/Kamail Nanjiani rom-com The Lovebirds and indie horror film Antlers, were all set to release between March and May. However, all of them have been delayed, some to late 2020, but most without a set date (which considering the current ambiguity of coronavirus’ lifespan as a pandemic, is the smarter move).
The major release changes however lie in streaming and on-demand viewing. Universal Pictures, along with other studios, announced that their movies currently in theaters were to be available in Video On-Demand format on Friday, March 20 (Universal has since followed through on this promise). This includes the Elizabeth Moss helmed gaslighting allegory The Invisible Man, and stylized Jane Austen adaptation Emma, both of which were receiving glowing reviews and steady box office money after initial release. Warner Bros. and Disney, amongst others, have taken similar action by releasing Birds of Prey and Frozen II, respectively, to online streaming services.
Interestingly, Universal also decided to release The Hunt, a film already delayed last year due to controversy surrounding its violent nature in conjunction with US political tensions and the rise of mass shootings. Clearly, Universal is hedging bets on all of its properties, not just ones primed for success. Frankly, they should be pushing The Hunt harder, because as one of the first studios to make such a move, naturally the films in question will get the most exposure; a great opportunity to recoup costs of movies that they think might not survive the hype, especially when watching a mid-tier film from home at a fraction of the cost for a whole family is a much more alluring offer.
Universal also was at the helm of the biggest new precedent: a full on-demand release alongside a theatrical premiere on the same date. The specific film in question is DreamWorks Animations’ Trolls World Tour, the follow-up to their surprise megahit children’s comedy Trolls in 2016. However, Universal has stated that for the time being their other major film releases will also be released in this manner.
In a vacuum this move is a negligible action in Hollywood, simply a victim of circumstance. That being said, if and when Trolls World Tour becomes an “at-home box office hit” and other studios follow suit, who is to say premiers won’t continue to take this form in the future, after the international crisis has finally died down? If the numbers work out in studio’s favors, plenty big budget movies will gladly risk premiering digitally, even after theaters reopen their doors. Theatergoers have been on a slow decline for years, an inevitable repercussion of the digital age, so if this precedent becomes the norm, will this be the fine nail in their coffins?
That prediction is not out of the realm of possibility. We unfortunately do not know how long we will be forced to quarantine and practice social distancing, and during that potentially long period new habits are bound to form. Watching television and films on our laptops and phones is already a pre-baked habit of the last decade, with social distancing only reinforcing that instinct. Those in self-quarantine are at an unprecedented time of minimal external stimuli, so watching a film premiere from home won’t have a hard time wriggling it’s way into common practice. Theaters could be doomed.
The good news is that such release methods simply aren’t viable for all films. Those hoping to make their film’s eligible for Academy Award nominations must adhere to the Oscar eligibility rule that states any eligible film must have a theatrical run of at least seven days in a commercial theater (and be shown at least three times a day). Studios hoping to capitalize still on an at-home premier could still adhere to this rule by theatrically releasing after an on-demand release, but it is hard to financially justify a small-scale release after a large scale one; by the time everyone has seen it from the comfort of their couch, who will go see it in theaters? Perhaps big studios with high budgets looking for Oscar nominations might not care about box-office numbers if the streaming numbers talk loudly enough (in fact, they usually make about 80% of money from on-demand purchases), but then good luck selling to the theaters. If anything, cutting out a middle man might even be preferable to studios. With Oscar bait ruled out, there is also the matter of specialized viewing. To some, nothing compares to seeing the latest Avengers movie in full-blown IMAX. Of course there are film festivals as well, which simply cannot be replaced in a digital format (although Cannes has begun to make contingency plans if they are forced to cancel).
Then again, back when Netflix began making the first tepid moves with streaming, many maintained traditional theater would never die. And while it hasn’t truly, streaming has made that possibility uncomfortably more feasible for those skeptics. This could be yet another step in that direction. Just who would have thought that not only would it be caused by global crisis, but that it’d all start with Trolls World Tour? But there will always people of all ages who want the quintessential “escape to the movies” experience, and once the viral curtain is lifted country by country, and those in quarantine healthy enough are allowed out again, that sentiment will ring truer than ever.