Prior to culture grinding to a coronavirus-mandated halt this month, Hollywood monetized movies in two distinct ways — through theatrical ticket sales and video on demand — and never the twain did meet. Despite a general willingness on the part of major movie studios to compress the industry-standard 90-day window between theatrical and digital releases, and the energetic lobbying efforts of streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, the nation’s biggest movie-theater chains effectively blockaded any such breach. But now, after a span of days that has seen the lowest cumulative box-office grosses in two decades, and the indefinite closure of the nation’s top-ten largest movie-theater chains owing to COVID-19 terror, a rupture with the old way has begun in earnest.
On Thursday, the indie-movie distributor Kino Lorber announced a groundbreaking agreement with art-house cinemas across the country to implement a “virtual theatrical exhibition initiative” that bridges the ticket sales–streaming service divide. Through its newly created Kino Marquee division, the initiative enables an online release of movies that are also currently scheduled to run in theaters by mimicking elements of the theatergoing experience. Viewers buy “tickets” to stream first-run movies through the marquee page of the theater they want to support — BAM in Brooklyn, New York; Sie Film Center in Denver, Colorado; the Loft Cinema in Tucson, Arizona; and Aperture Cinema in Winston Salem, North Carolina, among those participating — and the resulting revenues are split 50-50 between Kino Lorber and the theaters at a time when more movie houses are being forced to shutter every day.
Up first: the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize–winning “Brazilian Dystopian Spaghetti Western” Bacurau, which had opened at BAM on March 13 for a single day before the marquee was forced to shut down. The movie will now become available via Kino Marquee invitation to all 60 of the theaters across the country where it had been originally programmed.
The Virtual Theatrical Exhibition Initiative™ is being put into play just one day after Sony announced it will make the Vin Diesel thriller Bloodshot — which hit the multiplex March 13 and had grossed a paltry $9.3 million to date — available for digital purchase on Tuesday. And on March 17, Universal gave the first indication of what could be a seismic industry shift, pushing the day-and-date rollout of the animated sequel Trolls World Tour to April 10, and making the current theatrical films The Invisible Man, Emma., and The Hunt available through video on demand.
It all combines to raise the inevitable question: Why aren’t all new movies available to watch online now?
At a cultural tipping point when big movies are getting drop-kicked off the release calendar almost hourly — on Thursday, Illumination Animation’s Minions: The Rise of Gru was jettisoned from its July 3 theatrical release and put on indefinite hold — and the multiplexes still in operation are facing perilous attrition, major Hollywood movie studios have never faced less incentive to maintain a three-month window between theatrical and streaming. Back in 2011, for instance, when Universal attempted an experiment, offering the release of its thriller Tower Heist via VOD just three weeks shy of its theatrical bow, several of the country’s largest theater chains announced they would boycott booking the film, forcing Universal to back off its plans. Now, however, with so many theaters shut, movie exhibitors have no such leverage. And that leaves the door ajar for continued experimentation along the lines of Kino Marquee.
But even while a day-and-date release is becoming increasingly viable for films like Bacurau, there has been no indication to date that Hollywood will dump its biggest-budgeted fare straight to streaming anytime soon. With myriad ancillary revenue streams from branded merch, kids’ fast-food value meals, and theme-park attractions tied to “tentpole” movies’ financial overperformance, major movies like No Time to Die, F9, and Black Widow will still wind up in theaters first for the foreseeable future, industry sources say.
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