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With Theaters Closing, Universal Opts to Move Recent Releases Online

‘The Invisible Man,’ ‘The Hunt,’ and ‘Emma’ can now be streamed—but not for free. With theater chains shut down for the foreseeable future, more studios may experiment with making their non-blockbusters available online. But will customers be interested?

Getty Images/Scott Laven

As we reckon with the coronavirus pandemic severely affecting every facet of our lives, it’s hard to know when we’ll return to a sense of normalcy. Part of what “normalcy” would entail are things we’ve taken for granted: being able to eat out at restaurants and bars, attend and watch sporting events, and go to the movies. In the meantime, we can still settle for takeout, watching whatever the hell is going to air on ESPN in the coming weeks that isn’t about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots, and, now, streaming certain movies that would otherwise be viewable only in theaters.

On Monday, Universal Pictures took the bold step to make some of its current theatrical releases—The Invisible Man remake, The Hunt, and Emma—available on demand as of this Friday. Per Variety, the films can be purchased for $19.99 for a 48-hour rental period. And in an even more unprecedented move, Universal will make a film available to rent at home on the same day as its theatrical release: Trolls World Tour, which was slated to hit theaters on April 10. Of course, with major theater chains like AMC and Regal closing down for weeks, there probably won’t even be any theaters open by the time Trolls World Tour comes, uh, trolling along.

Moving on from the fact we are talking about something called Trolls World Tour—a film I honestly hadn’t thought about for more than two seconds before Monday; I assume it’s a parent’s worst nightmare—this move could have serious ramifications for the rest of the entertainment industry. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, studios’ major tentpoles, including Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, No Time to Die, and Fast 9, have had their release dates pushed back. But Universal’s decision to make one of its films a day-and-date release—available online and in theaters at the same time—could set a new precedent.

Major studios and customers have clamored for a day-and-date release model for years—or at the very least, closing the gap between when a movie hits theaters and when it’s available on demand. (Typically a monthslong process.) You can understand why theater chains like Regal and AMC would be resistant to the idea: If you can see a movie the day it comes out from your home, why take the time and energy to go to a multiplex to spend a similar amount of money? They fear that the immediate availability of movies on demand will threaten, and possibly kill, the theatrical experience. Why do you think some execs and companies in the entertainment industry are so concerned about the rise of Netflix?

But now that theaters won’t be open for weeks—possibly even months—and Hollywood is facing financial losses in the billions, these kinds of compromises might become the new normal. Beyond Universal’s slate of on-demand rentals, Disney pushed the streaming release of Frozen 2 up by three months so that it became available on Disney+ over the weekend, while Warner Bros. will make Birds of Prey—which was out in theaters in February—available to rent on March 24. These concessions might be necessary so that studios can make some money in the lean weeks and months to come, but there’s a limit to which kinds of films will get the on-demand treatment.

After all, despite all those upcoming rentals, there’s no word from Universal about putting Fast 9 on demand—instead, it’s had its theatrical release moved to April 2021. While this sadly means we won’t know how Han inexplicably came back from the dead for another year, it shows that studio blockbusters aren’t likely to ever get the VOD treatment, no matter the circumstances. Universal can keep Fast 9 in its proverbial vault knowing full well that, post-outbreak, the film is a lock to make a ridiculous amount of money at the box office. That same principle should apply to Mulan, No Time to Die, and any other upcoming blockbusters that will be affected by COVID-19. (It seems like only a matter of time before Marvel’s Black Widow has its May release pushed back, and there’s no chance in hell that film will live on Disney+ before it’s in theaters.)

But these Universal movies will become a fascinating litmus test to see just how much of a desire there is for earlier on-demand releases. The Invisible Man received great reviews, but will people be willing to fork over $19.99, more than a month of Netflix, to rent it? If you’re already subscribed to streamers like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, with an unfathomable amount of content in their catalogues, would renting a relatively new movie really be that appealing? If this gambit proves successful, is this how most movies’ release models will function? If theaters are closed for months with no end in sight, will a studio eventually take the risk and make one of its big-budget blockbusters available on demand? It’s hard to have a definitive stance on anything during such an unprecedented time in our lives, but the coronavirus is changing everything—including, perhaps, the entertainment landscape’s own sense of normalcy.