A mere 24 hours removed from Universal’s unprecedented decision to make three recently released movies — The Invisible Man, Emma., and The Hunt — available via video on demand while also still in theaters, the trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners has clapped back.
In a statement Tuesday that arrived as both a warning to other studios considering following Universal’s lead, and an implicit rebuke to distributors like Disney (which pushed up its streaming release of Frozen 2 by three months in response to COVID-19 quarantines), NATO took aim at the growing supposition that coronavirus-related theater closures will result in a lasting compression of the standard 90-day window between when films arrive at the multiplex and when they can begin streaming online.
“Although there has been speculation in the media that the temporary closure of theaters will lead to accelerated or exclusive releases of theatrical titles to home streaming, such speculation ignores the underlying financial logic of studio investment in theatrical titles,” NATO said. “To avoid catastrophic losses to the studios, these titles must have the fullest possible theatrical release around the world. While one or two releases may forgo theatrical release, it is our understanding from discussions with distributors that the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal.”
On Monday, Universal shattered industry protocol by announcing that Trolls World Tour, the sequel to the 2016 DreamWorks Animation hit Trolls, will be distributed both online and in theaters on April 10, becoming the first major Hollywood studio to embrace a Netflix-like day-and-date release scheme for one of its new movies. According to the New York Times, that move may have shifted the movie-release paradigm with executives across Hollywood seeing it “as an opening to experiment with a pay-per-view model that would allow consumers to gain immediate or near-immediate access to new movies in their homes for a premium price.”
Such a scheme was embraced by Chinese film distributors in January when the coronavirus began its creep across Wuhan province. In response to government-ordered theater closures during the lucrative Lunar New Year release corridor, Huanxi Media skipped a theatrical bow for its impending blockbuster Lost in Russia (which had been forecast to generate as much as $1 billion in ticket sales over its first week) and released the movie for free on its proprietary streaming services instead.
In its release, NATO struck a note of optimism correlating moviegoing with the indomitable human spirit. “No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return,” the association said. “The social nature of human beings — the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behavior in response to pandemic threats — is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are. When they return they will rediscover a cutting edge, immersive entertainment experience that they have been forcefully reminded they cannot replicate at home.”
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