Those who listened carefully—and knew how to read the signs—heard the first domino fall a few weeks ago when MGM delayed the release of No Time to Die, the upcoming 25th James Bond film, from an original opening date of April 3 to November 12 in light of the recent virus outbreak. At the time, it seemed a pretty drastic decision to push the opening of such a tentpole film seven months, especially after so much had already been committed to and spent on advertising.
Following that, we saw other premieres cancelled, as studios delayed movies in the uncertain market. The next big domino to drop was announcements from major cinema chains saying they would be voluntarily cutting capacity in auditoriums and limiting ticket sales to 50% in an effort to encourage social distancing. But as the outbreak continued to spread, pretty much all of the commercial cinemas soon shut their doors.
Along the way, other studios followed MGM’s example of pushing back release dates of upcoming major titles. Things like Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, and F9 have all been delayed; some by months, some with no new scheduled release. We also saw multiple studios halting production of major films currently in the works such as James Cameron’s
Avatar sequels, Matrix 4, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, and many more.
The next domino to drop was by Disney last weekend when the company upped the digital release date of Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker a few days, followed almost immediately by the announcement it would be making Frozen II available on its Disney+ streaming service months earlier than planned.
Then the biggest domino of them all (so far . . .) dropped this past Monday, March 16 when Universal
Studios announced it would be making three films still early in their theatrical runs available for viewing at home in a premium-video-on-demand release: The Invisible Man (released theatrically on February 28), Emma (released theatrically on March 6), and The Hunt (which just opened at theaters on March 13). As of today, you can watch any of these movies in the comfort of your own home without any special hardware for just $19.99 on platforms like Vudu, Fandango Now, or iTunes.
Even more surprising, in that same announcement, Universal also said that its upcoming Trolls sequel, Trolls World Tour, would debut on April 10 at home, day-and-date with its originally scheduled theatrical release.
Having followed the day-and-date landscape for some time, these changes—and the speed with which studios made them—are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Outside of the elite Bel Air Circuit—where an invitation-only group of A-listers are allowed to watch cinema content in their personal screening rooms using the same digital files sent to commercial theaters—there has been no way for “normal” people to view content still playing in theaters at home, and studios have maintained a very clear firewall of release windows to ensure that theater owners are given exclusive access to this premium content.
Typically, movies play exclusively in the theater for a month or so before going to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) services such as pay-per-view or airlines, then to an online digital release such as via Kaleidescape, Vudu, or iTunes, then a disc release about 14 weeks after the theatrical run, then to home video services like HBO a couple of months later, and then
finally to non-pay TV services.
Universal’s recent moves have taken this model and blown it up.
And, here is a bit more perspective on how radical Universal’s decision is to make these films available at the 48-hour PPV viewing window of $19.99. Just a few years ago, Universal was one of the early investors in a high-end home theater startup
company called Prima Cinema. Prima planned on bringing first-run, day-and-date theatrical content to the home market, but with a slew of restrictions that included an insane amount of anti-piracy measures, a limit on the number of seats in the theater, biometric sensors, and requiring a piece of proprietary hardware installed in a closed system that cost $35,000. Oh, and each viewing cost $500.
That is why letting anyone with a Roku, Firestick, or AppleTV watch Trolls day-and-date for $19.99 is utterly gamechanging. (Currently the quality of these titles appears to be limited to HD resolution, not 4K HDR, but this is a rapidly changing landscape and that is subject to change.)
After the big Universal domino fell, other studios started adopting a similar strategy.
Sony Pictures announced the latest Vin Diesel actioner, Bloodshot, which just hit theaters on March 13, would be
available for purchase for $19.99 starting March 24. Warner Bros. is releasing the Ben Affleck sports drama, The Way Back, which hit theaters on March 8, for purchase on March 24 as well. And the faith-based music drama, I Still Believe, which Lionsgate released on March 13, will be available on March 27.
Then, on March 20th, the next domino dropped—the biggest one so far from Walt Disney Company, which announced that its latest Pixar release, Onward, which just hit theaters on March 8, would be available for purchase starting at 5 p.m. eastern and heading to Disney+ for streaming on April 3. This was a massive release from Pixar, with an estimated budget of $175-200 million, yanked from theaters after less than two weeks and put into the home market.
With commercial theaters forced to temporarily shutter their doors, the home market is the only outlet for studios to get these films out there and try to recoup some of the costs. Of course, I’m sure an argument was made for just “freezing” films in the theater as they were, and going back to business-as-usual once theaters reopen. But with film releases often scheduled months or years in advance—and films already stacked up in an uncertain pipeline—sometimes it is a now-or-never proposition to secure a film’s release date.
This offers Hollywood an almost guilt-free major-market test of bending or easing the early-release window. With commercial theater owners forced to close and unable to claim this is hurting their profits, the studios can experiment with the market demand and interest in early release and see if there is enough money to be made from going into homes early.
What we are seeing now could be an end to theatrical releases as we knew them, or it could just be a temporary anomaly forced by unprecedented events.
Either way, we’ll continue covering this news as it develops. Meanwhile, you now have the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic content in your own home far earlier than normal.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.