Universal Pictures, in a bold move to confront the coronavirus’ threat to the movie industry, is collapsing the theatrical window.
In an extraordinary step, the studio on Monday said it would make its movies available in the home on the same day as their global theatrical releases, beginning with DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour,” opening April 10 in the U.S.
The company will also make movies that are currently in theatrical release available on-demand beginning as early as Friday, starting with the Elisabeth Moss horror film “The Invisible Man,” the satirical thriller “The Hunt” and Focus Features’ period comedy-drama “Emma.”
The movies will be available on a wide variety of on-demand services, including those owned by parent company, Philadelphia-based cable giant Comcast Corp. and its European subsidiary Sky, for a 48-hour rental period at a suggested retail price of $19.99. The movies will also be released on platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and FandangoNow, which is part-owned by NBCUnivesal.
The decision is a radical departure from the longtime industry practice of waiting 90 days between a movie’s release in theaters and when it is available for home viewing. Theaters have long resisted collapsing the so-called theatrical window, fearing it would undermine their business by discouraging consumers from going to the multiplex.
The Nation Assn. of Theatre Owners, the Washington-based trade group representing cinemas, declined to comment.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the shutdown of theaters and forced studios to reconsider their strategy for distributing movies. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have ordered cinemas to close in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Theaters have already been closed in countries hit hardest by the virus, including Italy and France.
Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada were $55.3 million for all films from Friday through Sunday, marking the weakest box office weekend in more than 20 years. Revenues fell 45% from the previous weekend.
Receipts for Pixar’s “Onward,” the biggest movie at the box office currently, plummeted 73% to $10.5 million in its second weekend, an especially steep drop for a Disney family film.
All three major new releases disappointed at the box office, with less than $10 million each. Lionsgate’s faith-based film “I Still Believe,” Sony Pictures’ Vin Diesel movie “Bloodshot” and Universal Pictures thriller “The Hunt” each underperformed. The latter took in a disappointing $5.3 million.
Multiple studios have postponed release dates for potential global blockbusters. The Walt Disney Co. has delayed its live-action “Mulan” remake indefinitely, while Universal has pushed the debut of its upcoming “Fast and the Furious” sequel “F9" by nearly a year.
For its current releases, though, Universal opted to let customers see them at home early.
“Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles in the home that is both accessible and affordable,” said NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell. “We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible.”
The decision came after Disney on Sunday made “Frozen 2" available for streaming on its Disney+ service three months earlier than expected. Disney, in a statement, said it decided to push up the streaming release to provide families with “some fun and joy during this challenging period.” Launched in November, Disney+ has grown to 28.6 million subscribers so far. NBCUniversal this year is planning to debut its own streaming service, dubbed Peacock.
Universal’s VOD move, however, is more dramatic than Disney’s “Frozen 2" announcement because the animated sequel had already been available for digital purchase. The Universal tactic mirrors a controversial strategy known as premium video-on-demand that had been tested years ago as consumers have clamored to see movies at home sooner. Theaters rebelled against that practice, saying it would destroy their business model.
Studios including Universal and 20th Century Fox have long wanted to experiment with early home releases, but talk of radical change simmered down after Disney (the biggest proponent of the theatrical model) bought Fox.
Universal in 2011 announced an experiment with an early launch of the comedy “Tower Heist“ to Comcast cable subscribers in two markets, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., for $59.99 via video-on-demand. The studio abandoned those plans after theaters threatened to boycott the movie.