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Since you can’t go out, Hollywood is letting you watch a few new movies at home

Movie theaters are closing, so you can rent “The Hunt” at home on Friday and “Trolls World Tour” next month.

A scene from Trolls World Tour.
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You can’t go to the movies. So some movies are going to come to you.

That’s the message from media giant NBCUniversal, whose movie studio is going to start letting customers rent a selection of movies that are supposed to be in theaters now. The studio will also let customers rent some upcoming movies the day they’re supposed to go into theaters. (NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which is an investor in Vox Media.)

Starting Friday, March 20, movie-watchers can rent The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma “on a wide variety of the most popular on-demand services” for $20 in the United States and the equivalent of that amount in markets outside the US. On April 10, the day Trolls World Tour was supposed to be in theaters, Universal will let people rent that one at home, as well.

This is both a no-brainer and a big deal.

The no-brainer part is that it has become all but impossible for studios to release their movies in theaters because theaters are being shut down across the world due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of Sunday, theaters were closed nationwide in 32 countries outside the US, including China, France, and Italy; inside the US, various local governments, including those in New York City, Los Angeles, and Ohio, have also ordered theaters to shut down this week.

So the only way for anyone to see new movies — and for studios to make money from them — is to let people watch them at home, via distributors like iTunes or local cable companies.

The big deal part is that some customers and some studios have been asking for this for years — either by allowing so-called “day and date” releases, where you can watch the movie at home the same day it comes out in theaters, or, more modestly, by shortening the “window” between the time movies come out in theaters and the time you can watch them at home.

These options actually exist for some small indie movies — which generally don’t play in theaters owned by big chains — but that’s about it. Up until now, the big theater chains, like AMC, have hated the idea — because, obviously, if people watch at home they won’t spend their money at big theater chains — and they’ve been able to force Hollywood to play along.

In 2011, for instance, Universal announced plans to let people rent Tower Heist (it stars Eddie Murphy, and I’ve never seen it either) for $60 (!). A week later, the studio abandoned the plan after theater chains threatened a boycott.

We’ll see where this one goes. Right now, the big movie studios, including Universal, have been responding to the coronavirus threat by postponing their biggest spring movie launches, including Universal’s latest Fast & Furious sequel. And it’s notable that the press release announcing the new rental program today said nothing about Fast 9, which was supposed to arrive in theaters May 22 but is now supposed to come out in April 2021.

And this morning, analyst Rich Greenfield sent out a note arguing that it simply wasn’t possible for studios to come close to recouping the money they’d lose by skipping theaters, which is why they’re all hoping — so far — they can keep their biggest movies in a vault for now and then bring them to theaters this fall or next year.

“We would love to be able to tell you that for $30 to $40 you could watch Mulan or No Time to Die tonight in the comfort of your own home, while you are socially distancing yourself from other humans,” Greenfield wrote. “However, when you look at the difficulty in replacing the planned profits studios expected to make with a fiduciary duty to talent using contracts that never anticipated a direct-to-consumer release strategy, we believe it is essentially impossible for studios to do anything beyond delay major movies until theaters reopen and life returns to normal.”

One middle-ground option: Disney, which released Frozen 2 in theaters last year, moved up the release of that movie on its own Disney+ service by three months and started streaming the movie for its subscribers last week. Given that other big studios like Universal and Warner Bros. are owned by conglomerates that plan to launch streaming services of their own, we may see more of that.

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