During the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters have been closed indefinitely, forcing many planned theatrical releases to be either postponed or released on demand. Though the major chains (the most well-known being AMC, Cinemark, and Regal) are in their early stages of re-opening and plan to open their doors in early to mid July, the first major film release, Mulan (dir. Niki Caro, 2020) does not open until a couple weeks later, forcing the chains to rely on older films to entice audiences to return to a dark, enclosed movie theater.
However, these films that the chains are planning on showing are already readily available on streaming services. For example, Regal Cinemas recently posted the “bringback” movies that they would be exhibiting before Mulan’s release date, which includes films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (available on HBO Max), Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010, available on Netflix), and Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008, available on Disney+). Why would an audience plan on paying to see these films when they more than likely have these streaming services to watch from the comfort of their own homes?
The idea of bypassing movie theaters and going straight to on-demand streaming for new releases also poses the same dilemma. When movie theater chains first closed around mid-March, there were a few high profile releases still in theaters, as well as some due in the week after the closures. Shockingly, the film that received the most press coverage for its release was Trolls: World Tour (dir. Walt Dohrn, 2020), distributed by Universal Pictures.
Besides releasing the film into the few drive-in theaters still operating, Universal decided to release the film onto on-demand streaming services, such as YouTube and Amazon, for a 48 hour rental for a $19.99 flat fee. People did think that its price was a bit high, considering most other rentals are priced around $9, but for a new theatrical release that appealed to large families, the $19.99 would be a cheaper price than physically going to a movie theater. The film ended up grossing about $77 million in its first three weeks of release, shattering digital records and creating a profit, prompting Universal to consider this same day release and rental strategy for more of its upcoming films. The studio would make a considerable amount of money if they bypassed movie theaters since they would be receiving money directly from the consumer instead of splitting the profits with the theaters. In response to Universal’s consideration, AMC Theatres announced that it would boycott Universal’s films if it continued this strategy. However, if more studios follow Universal’s example, and some already have, like Disney releasing Artemis Fowl (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2020) directly onto Disney+, the need for movie theaters may disappear.
The movie theater issue is a complicated one. On one hand, it is the most ideal place to watch films. A dark air-conditioned room, state-of-the-art sound system, the overall escapist movie-going experience that can transport you into the film and force you to forget about the outside world for a couple hours. On the other hand, there are many downsides – the biggest being the pricing. Adding to these problems, the COVID-19 still poses an issue of people voluntarily being in a dark, enclosed space and the time needed for thorough cleanliness and safety. Same-day-release strategies have some downsides as well because though people are in the comfort and relative safety of their own space, they are surrounded by distractions (their phones, the background noise, the light obstructing their TV or computer) that force people to pay less attention to the film. The film becomes an afterthought rather than the main event.
Will there be a viable, long-term solution that works for both studios and the theaters to keep our escapist fantasies a reality? I guess we’ll have a better idea in mid-July.