If MoviePass’ short life injected new energy into the theatre going industry, then COVID-19’s long life is looking like it’ll have the opposite effect. Many industries were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly the ones that required large gatherings of people, such as movie theatres.
When the President officially declared the pandemic, the states ordered all non-essential businesses to close, which caused a strain on smaller industries such as the comic book industry and bigger ones such as the movie theatres.
In fairness, movie theatres have been struggling for many years, which is why they had to raise concession prices and rely on subscription services like the late MoviePass and the current AMC A-List. They also rely on studios to deliver a steady stream of high grossing blockbusters to drive audiences to see the latest “event film” such as Avengers: Endgame or Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. As soon as the industry was forced to shut its doors, then theatres were not able to play new movies which caused the studios to reevaluate the summer release strategy. Some films like Tenet or Mulan kept getting pushed back a couple of weeks while others like A Quiet Place: Part II and F9: The Fast Saga abandoned the 2020 movie season in favor of the (hopefully) safer 2021 movie season.
Though some studios decided to abandon a theatrical release for some of their lower projected films, in favor of a streaming service or a VOD release such as WarnerMedia’s Scoob, Disney’s Artemis Fowl and Universal’s Bill & Ted Face the Music. Audiences were happy for this since it gave them new movies to consume while “safer at home” orders were in place and studios took the loss since these particular films wouldn’t have broken box office records.
Universal stirred up some controversy early last year by claiming that Trolls: World Tour’s VOD success would provide Universal with a new distribution strategy that would allow them to release films on VOD and in theatres on the same day. One of the largest theatre chains in the world, AMC, took issue with that new strategy and banned all Universal films from playing in their theatres. Long story short, and to the surprise of no one, it didn’t take long for AMC and Universal to come to terms and create a new theatrical window for movies before being released on VOD. Before this new deal, movies were required to play in theatres for three months before being released on any sort of home media, now they only need 17 days.
The reason behind this actually makes sense if you’re paying attention to the trends. A major blockbuster makes most of its money in the first 3 weeks of it’s release, then, generally, a new film will take the audience and the cycle starts over again. It’s a short window but a sad necessity. That theatrical window might have to close even further then theatre owners want since many are claiming they’ll likely never set foot in a theatre again, even after safer at home measures are lifted.
There is, of course, the other side of the coin. Drive-in movie theatres have seen an increase in traffic for the first time in who knows how long. With so little to do out in the world right now, people have found ways to spend their time. Often going to see a classic film such as Hook or a new film such as The Croods: A New Age. The box office numbers for these films aren’t anything too special but it has kept those institutions alive. So perhaps, when things open back up again and the theatres are able to welcome people into their screens again, we’ll see record numbers. In fact, the relative success of The Croods: A New Age might be proof positive of this.
What people probably want are options. Theatre owners are scared that if people had the option to watch a film on DVD/Blu-Ray or VOD, that they wouldn’t want to go to the movies and pay for overpriced concessions. But that doesn’t explain why screenings of Jurassic Park, Alien, or even King Kong are sold out whenever they go back into theatres. There’s something innately special to the theatre going experience. VOD also doesn’t have the same infrastructure to reach the kind of money that a film like Avengers: Endgame would make. Perhaps, for these reasons, audiences won’t give up the movie going experience. Given the option, going out to the movies to watch the latest blockbuster or a classic film that can be viewed on any number of streaming services might just be too special to lose.
Is the best option to release films in theatres and VOD at the same time? Perhaps. Theatres becoming a boutique service might not be so bad. Ten months ago these speculations were years away from reality but now the current global crisis is forcing many industries to reconsider how they do business and theatres might not have the luxury to live in the past much longer. The post-Covid world is shaping up to be interesting.