In perhaps one of the biggest moves in home entertainment history since Hollywood started releasing movies on VHS, Universal and the AMC theater chain came to an unprecedented agreement yesterday that will drastically shorten the time it takes movies to make it from the theater to your home. Where the traditional theatrical-to-home release window has been 72 to 90 days, this new agreement slashes the time to just 17 days. One proviso is that the film must play theatrically over three weekends, meaning that if a movie is released on Saturday the 1st, it could be available for home viewing on the 17th, but
if it’s released on Monday the 1st, it can’t go into homes until the 22nd.
Also, the agreement makes these films available for early premium-video-on-demand (PVOD) rental viewing, not for purchase or for release to streaming services like Netflix. Previous Universal PVOD titles released during the pandemic, such as The Invisible Man, Emma, and The Hunt, carried a rental price of $19.99 for a 48-hour viewing window. (Information on when titles would be available for sale was unavailable.)
Since the vast majority of theatrical box-office receipts are typically brought in within the first few weeks of a film’s release, in theory this new arrangement shouldn’t have too much impact on the box office take. In reality, however, it seems highly likely that many families and luxury home theater owners will opt to wait just a few extra days to enjoy the movie in the comfort of their own homes on their own schedule.
While this current agreement is just between Universal and AMC, it will be interesting to see how other theatrical
chains such as Cinemark and Regal react, or how quickly other studios head to the bargaining table looking for similar terms. Of course, the other studios might wait to see how Universal does with this gamble before deciding to jump in, but now that the early-release genie is out of the bottle, it will likely be difficult to stuff him back in.
It’s also interesting that this deal comes between Universal and AMC, a duo that had a very public spat just three months ago over the early PVOD release of Trolls: World Tour. After NBCUniversal chief executive officer Jeff Shell announced he expected to release movies simultaneously in theaters and in direct-to-home formats, AMC chair/CEO Adam Aron responded quite publicly by declaring that they would no longer show any NBCU titles in any of their cinemas in the US, Europe, or the Middle East.
It’s certainly not news that cinema chains and studios alike are suffering financially in these unprecedented times and will likely continue to do so until a vaccine has become widely available, and this agreement offers some clear advantages to both sides. With their symbiotic relationship, theaters can’t exist without content to show, and studios need the revenue of massive blockbusters to fund other projects.
With a shortened release window as an option, studios might be more inclined to release films domestically on a smaller scale—perhaps in cities where the virus has been more contained or in drive-ins, which have been seeing a bit of a resurgence—unlike the international release strategy Warner is adopting for Tenet. It also might open the way for smaller-budget films to find a theatrical release instead of going straight to video or streaming. Being able to bring the film to PVOD after a shorter time could allow for a bump at the box office, while having a wider PVOD release follow shortly after that can benefit from the advertising and buzz generated from the commercial release.
But this is certainly a bigger gamble for the cinema chains than it is for the studios. That lengthy window was one of the biggest hooks theaters had to get people to come to the movies, with most people opting not to wait three months to see a buzzworthy flick. Having the theaters agree to such an early release window feels a bit like another nail being driven home.
Once a new consumer habit has been formed, it’s difficult to get people to change, and after being home for months and getting into the habit of watching movies there, the allure of waiting just a couple of weekends to enjoy something in the comfort—and safety—of your home might be too tempting for many to pass up.
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.