In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, movie theaters have shut down around the world in countries including China, South Korea, Japan, India, and France. And beginning March 16, theaters will close their doors in certain cities in the US, including New York and Los Angeles. Other cities’ theaters have struggled to stay open by reducing theater capacities, allowing moviegoers to maintain distance from one another. And movie release dates for everything from Mulan to Fast & Furious 9 to the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die, have been delayed.
It seemed inevitable that distributors, seeking to avoid a pile-up of releases in the latter half of the year, would find another way to release some of their films — especially with many individuals and families cooped up at home in quarantine or self-isolation. And with a wealth of streaming options available, the solutions seemed simpler than they might have in another time.
On March 16, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell announced that the company would make its films in current theatrical release available digitally, likely by the end of the week. Those films include The Invisible Man, a horror film based on the classic movie villain, starring Elisabeth Moss; The Hunt, a satirical political horror film starring Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank; and Emma, a Jane Austen adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Would-be moviegoers will be able to digitally rent the films for a 48-hour window on major platforms for $19.99. (NBCUniversal is one of several investors in Vox Media, Vox’s parent company.)
Furthermore, Shell announced, Trolls World Tour — set for an April 10 release date — would be released in the same manner.
It seems likely that other studios will follow NBCUniversal’s lead, though shortening the window between theatrical and digital release has been a bugaboo for Hollywood since streaming’s rise in popularity. (The obvious exception is Netflix, which, as a streaming-first service, has occasionally released films like The Irishman and Marriage Story in select theaters for a short run before making them available on its streaming service.)
But these are not normal times, and a business struggling to stay alive with its main source of revenue gone — especially with theaters around the world remaining closed — has to improvise to keep from going under completely. Disney announced over the weekend that it was releasing Frozen 2 on its relatively new Disney+ streaming service that weekend, moving the date up by several months. (It had been available to digitally rent or purchase on services such as Amazon and iTunes since February 11.) Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hit on-demand services on March 13, a few days ahead of its March 17 scheduled digital release date.
Whether these moves set precedents for post-pandemic Hollywood is an open question, and one that industry insiders fear. But for now, people hiding out from the virus and keeping distance from vulnerable people will get to see their favorite characters (or scare themselves silly) with some home-popped popcorn.