NBCUniversal announced today that its movie studio Universal Pictures and specialty label Focus Features will be releasing their films in theaters and on-demand, simultaneously.
In other words, it’s eliminating the theatrical window — the period between when you can watch a movie in theaters and when you can watch in the comfort of your home. (Netflix has been unwilling to abide by this window, which is why the major theater chains weren’t showing “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story.”)
This is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led many theaters to close or operate at reduced capacity, and forced some communities to adopt more extreme modes of social distancing. As a result, this past weekend, the domestic box office hit its lowest point in at least 20 years.
The release dates of a number of big films — including “Mulan,” “No Time to Die” and Universal’s “Fast & Furious 9” — have already been pushed back, but that doesn’t help films that are already in theaters. And it sounds like Universal has decided that it doesn’t make sense to push back its entire slate.
The first films to fall under the policy are “The Hunt,” “The Invisible Man” (which is very good) and “Emma,” which are currently in theaters, and which will launch on-demand this Friday. Next up is “Trolls World Tour,” which will be available in theaters and on-demand on April 10.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you’ll be able to watch these movies on a subscription service like Netflix or Disney+ (where “Frozen 2” was released ahead of schedule this weekend) — the announcement doesn’t mention NBCUniversal’s planned Peacock streaming service at all.
Instead, it means that the studio will be releasing its films to a variety of on-demand marketplaces like iTunes and Amazon, at a suggested price of $19.99. That might seem like a lot to pay for a 48-hour rental (rather than a purchase), but it’s downright affordable compared to the $50 rentals for in-theater movies that a startup called the Screening Room tried pitch a few years ago.
“Universal Pictures has a broad and diverse range of movies with 2020 being no exception,” said NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell in a statement. “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.”
While Universal’s strategy could be set aside once the current crisis ends, there are broader questions about how the pandemic will affect the theatrical movie business.
In fact, Rich Greenfield of research firm LightShed Partners recently told The New York Times that this will “hit the accelerator” on the shift to streaming and that “most of the global exhibition business will be in bankruptcy by the end of the year.”