For years now, the tectonic plates beneath Hollywood have been steadily shifting. Audiences have drifted away from movie theaters toward an ever-expanding array of at-home-viewing options, and everyone in the movie business has felt the continuous rumblings — from filmmakers to theater owners to studios to streaming services.
But in that already uncertain landscape, the COVID-19 pandemic has struck with all the unpredictable and shocking violence of a magnitude-9.0 earthquake. Not only have recent events shaken the fundamental pillars of film distribution like never before, but the aftershocks may reverberate long after the pandemic abates.
The near-instantaneous and total shutdown of movie theaters across the world left studios scrambling to push back the releases of a slew of upcoming films — including such highly anticipated titles as the James Bond film “No Time to Die,” the “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9" and Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” — to avoid certain box office doom. But with no clear timeline on when movie houses may open again, simply postponing every film in the pipeline and shutting off the spigot of revenues is not a sustainable strategy.
Tossing out the usual playbooks, film companies have been looking for new ways to get their films directly to content-hungry audiences who are stuck in their homes. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Smaller, less costly films may be easier to shift to digital releases, while the economics of the big-budget tentpoles that are most critical to the studios’ bottom lines still require the machinery of the global box office to be operating at full capacity. And longstanding relationships between the major players in the movie ecosystem will need to be carefully considered even as they are recalibrated.
But in Hollywood, as elsewhere, necessity is the mother of invention. Here are the various ways three films have navigated the coronavirus crisis to a home release and what lessons might be gleaned from each one.
‘Trolls World Tour’
If you were looking for a film to upend the traditional model of distribution, an animated kids’ movie about fuzzy-headed trolls might seem an unlikely candidate.
But when the global shutdown scotched the opening of “Trolls World Tour,” Universal quickly decided to release its DreamWorks Animation sequel simultaneously over Easter weekend in the small handful of theaters still operating and on VOD, at a cost of $19.99 for a 48-hour rental. Such day-and-date releases, which collapse the traditional months-long window between when a movie debuts in theaters and on home video, have long been anathema to theater owners. But with a $90-plus million investment sunk into “Trolls World Tour,” including a marketing campaign already in full swing, and with parents starved for fresh content to amuse their housebound kids, Universal dived into the breach.
While the original 2016 “Trolls” grossed more than $346 million worldwide, “Trolls World Tour” has, unsurprisingly, taken in a fraction of that: roughly $2 million from some 21 drive-in theaters in America and at cineplexes in Singapore and Russia. But while digital revenues are not reported like box office figures and it will take time for the studio to fully determine the overall financial results, Universal insiders say the film’s release on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms has been a major success.
According to the studio, the film enjoyed the biggest opening weekend ever for a digital title, generating approximately 10 times the revenue of Universal’s biggest opening for a traditional digital release, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which earned a reported $2-3 million domestically on its first day. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal this week, NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell touted the success of “Trolls World Tour,” saying it “demonstrated the viability of [premium video-on-demand]. As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”
Following in Universal’s footsteps, Warner Bros. announced last week that it was shifting the planned May 15 theatrical release of its animated “Scooby-Doo” film “Scoob!” to a VOD release.
Like “Trolls World Tour,” Paramount’s romantic comedy “The Lovebirds” was on its final taxi down the runway toward its theatrical release when the pandemic hit. Starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, the film was set to debut on March 16 at Austin’s South by Southwest and open in theaters on April 3, only to see all of those plans scrapped. Rather than postpone the film, Paramount decided to cancel its release entirely and sell it to Netflix, which plans to make “The Lovebirds” available via streaming on May 22.
The move didn’t come as a huge surprise to industry observers. Paramount made a similar deal with Netflix with its 2018 sci-fi horror film “The Cloverfield Paradox” after deciding the film was not commercially viable in theaters. And though Nanjiani’s 2017 “The Big Sick” — which, like “The Lovebirds,” was directed by Michael Showalter — proved a sleeper hit, romantic comedies have been struggling at the box office in recent years, while Netflix has given the genre a new lease on life with films like “To All the Boys” and “Always Be My Maybe.”
Watch for other adult-skewing comedies — and small-to-medium-budget films in general — to also adjust their releases in the face of the pandemic. Earlier this week, Universal announced it is moving Judd Apatow’s Pete Davidson comedy “The King of Staten Island” from its planned June 19 theatrical opening to a June 12 digital release, while the soon-to-be-launched streaming platform HBO Max revealed it has acquired the Seth Rogen comedy “An American Pickle” from Sony Pictures, which had initially eyed a theatrical release later this year.
Remember the name. #ArtemisFowl is streaming exclusively June 12 on #DisneyPlus.
Unlike every other studio, Disney was in the unique and fortuitous position when the pandemic hit of having its own subscription streaming platform in place, Disney+, which launched with much fanfare in November and instantly became a heavy hitter in the streaming wars. Having already rushed the Pixar film “Onward” onto the service after its theatrical run was curtailed by the shutdown, Disney announced this month that it would shift the planned May 29 theatrical release of the fantasy family film “Artemis Fowl,” based on author Eoin Colfer’s bestselling YA series about a young criminal mastermind, to an exclusive digital release on Disney+.
The story of a 12-year-old genius on a desperate search for his kidnapped father who must infiltrate an ancient, underground world of fairies, the film should find an eager audience in quarantined families, says Disney+ President of Content and Marketing Ricky Strauss.
“ ‘Artemis Fowl’ is the type of epic adventure film we know audiences look forward to every summer,” Strauss told The Times. “With most people around the world likely to still be at home and excited for new content, we are happy to be able to bring this movie to Disney+ at a time when it’s needed most.”
Though he clearly made the film for the big screen and a release direct to streaming could be viewed as a demotion, director Kenneth Branagh says he fully supports Disney’s decision. “They were really looking for a family event that could be part of keeping up that sense of excitement in dark times, and it seemed like a natural place for it to go to,” he told The Times. “While it would be dishonest to say anything was particularly planned at a time like this, I personally was very happy that the decision was made.”
Indeed, with big tentpole titles absent from theaters, Disney plans a significant push for “Artemis Fowl,” which gives its nascent streaming service a ready-made piece of theatrical-quality content. In an interview with Barron’s this month Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger speculated “There may be a few more [movies] that we end up putting directly onto Disney+,” but no titles have been announced.
Branagh hopes that his film has an added emotional resonance for audiences during these trying times. “There is a sense of fun and resilience about Artemis,” he said. “Although it’s a piece of fiction, the story has people go through a sort of catastrophic endangerment of the very way that they live and learn to have that very rare thing: grace under pressure.”
Having made such big-screen hits as “Thor,” “Cinderella” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” Branagh fervently believes in the theatrical experience and is hoping audiences can return to cineplexes as soon as it is safely possible. Indeed, he is in post-production on an adaptation of Agatha’s Christie’s “Death of the Nile,” which Disney’s 20th Century Studios has slated to open in October, and also co-stars in Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated sci-fi thriller “Tenet,” which Warner Bros. has scheduled to hit theaters on July 17.
But at the same time, Branagh sees an undeniable upside as studios look for ways to not only keep the movie business alive but give audiences something to take their minds off the daily drumbeat of dire news.
“I most fervently hope and pray that [theatrical business] returns,” Branagh said. “But meantime, there are also very striking experiences that we’re having as we’re exposed to storytelling in all sorts of different ways in our living rooms — in our lockdown worlds — that are also profoundly important to us.”
From director’s chairs to executive suites to movie theater seats, no element of Hollywood will be untouched as society movies forward from the pandemic. We asked people all around the industry what the future might look like.