Coronavirus Is Pushing Movies Out of Theaters and Online Faster Than Ever Before

Elizabeth Moss in Universal Pictures’ The Invisible Man. Photo: Universal Studios

COVID-19 has been blamed for a cascading series of once-unthinkable outcomes in Hollywood these past few weeks: the executive-ordered closure of movie theaters across the country, gigantic tentpole movies fleeing to later release dates, the relative flop of a Pixar feature. Now, coronavirus panic is threatening to level the barrier between theatrical releases and video on demand. After years of studios resisting the efforts of streaming giants such as Amazon and Netflix to release their movies “day and date” — online and in theaters at the same time — the global viral scare has finally persuaded Disney and Universal Pictures to dramatically close the first-run gap.

On March 16, Universal Pictures announced that beginning March 20, current theatrical movies The Invisible Man, Emma., and The Hunt will be available “on a wide variety of the most popular on-demand services” for 48-hour rental at a suggested price of $19.99. The studio’s animated sequel Trolls World Tour will now become Universal’s first official day-and-date release on April 10. “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,” NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell said in a statement. “We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible.”

Later that day, Fandango announced that the VOD released date for Birds of Prey and The Gentlemen would be moving up to March 24, as well. The decision was announced after Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan shared news of Universal’s move on Twitter, noting she would not be opposed to doing the same thing.

On March 13, Disney became the first studio to forge into this new distribution model, pushing up the streaming release of Frozen 2 by three months to make it available on its proprietary OTT service Disney+. The animated blockbuster, which arrived in theaters November 22 and has grossed $1.44 billion at the global box office to date, had been originally scheduled to land online in June. And while the Burbank studio made no specific mention of coronavirus in its press release touting the post-theatrical push, oblique mention of “surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period” made Disney’s agenda clear.

What many industry observers have noticed so far: None of the studio releases shifting to a concurrent online and in-theater distribution scheme could be classified as a new tentpole or event movies. The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Emma., Birds of Prey and The Gentlemen had all largely run their course at the box office, and Frozen 2 is already a certifiable blockbuster. Hence, Disney’s Mulan was indefinitely delayed rather than plunked onto Disney+, the 25th James Bond installment No Time to Die shifted from April to Thanksgiving, and Universal’s F9 shifted gears into a spring 2021 release corridor rather than face the financial straitjacket of straight to VOD.

But on the heels of Disney’s fourth release delay for Marvel/Fox’s long-beleaguered New Mutants — following a tumultuous postproduction process, getting lost in the post-Disney-Fox-merger shuffle, and the studio most recently putting its rollout on indefinite delay out of COVID-19 anxieties — industry observers have begun wondering out loud: Will the Josh Boone–directed X-men spinoff become the studio’s next major release headed for streaming? Will New Mutants wind up on Disney+ or Hulu before reaching the multiplex?

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Movies Are Heading Out of Theaters and Online, Fast