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Universal becomes first studio to move theatrical releases to streaming

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With the effects of Covid-19 hitting harder every day on a global scale, the movie business – just like every other business, it has to be said – is suffering. Not only have hotly-anticipated movies seen massive release delays and production pauses, but cinemas are closing down all over the place. 32 Countries have already fully closed all cinema chains with 15 others – including the US – partially closed and/or limiting cinemagoer numbers to a handful. In the face of this, we said that the movie business may need to change. And now Universal Pictures’ parent company, NBCUniversal, has taken the first step in doing so.

Effective immediately, Universal will start moving a number of its current theatrical releases to streaming VOD services worldwide. The titles identified thus far as moving are The Invisible Man, Emma, and The Hunt (the latter having just released in cinemas a week ago!). These will be made available as 48-hour rentals on a wide variety of VOD services for the recommended retail price of $19.99 in the US or the equivalent pricing in international markets. These VOD services will more than likely include the likes of Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, etc. According to the breaking report from THR, this will happen as early as this coming Friday, 20 March.

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On top of that – and this is the real gamechanger – Universal will release select upcoming films like Trolls World Tour on VOD services at the same time as they hit cinemas. THIS IS MASSIVE! Debate about studios abolishing or at least shortening the traditional theatrical exclusivity window (usually around three months) has been raging for years, especially as home entertainment systems started rivalling the cinematic experience. Up till now, the industry has understandably baulked at it, as it would mean a huge financial hit to cinema chains. But now Covid-19 is changing all the rules, as NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell addressed in the announcement of their plans.

Given the rapidly evolving and unprecedented changes to consumers’ daily lives during this difficult time, the company felt that now was the right time to provide this option in the home as well as in theaters. NBCUniversal will continue to evaluate the environment as conditions evolve and will determine the best distribution strategy in each market when the current unique situation changes.

Universal Pictures has a broad and diverse range of movies with 2020 being no exception. 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. 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.

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Universal has yet not revealed which other movies outside of Trolls World Tour – which is still getting its full marketing campaign – will get the day-and-date digital release treatment, but I would definitely NOT expect them to include the already delayed Fast & Furious 9 and A Quiet Place. In fact, don’t be surprised if other major upcoming releases like Top Gun: Maverick also aren’t given simultaneous VOD releases. These tentpole blockbusters are what keep studios and cinemas afloat, essentially subsidizing the revenues of smaller films. Without the revenue they bring in, which includes the snacks and refreshments upon which cinema chains actually make their money, the effects would be catastrophic.

When I mentioned yesterday about the possibility of studios taking this paradigm-shifting leap, I was referring to Disney as they sounded like the perfect candidate thanks to Disney+. But looking at it from the studios’ perspective, a subscription model service may actually not be the answer here, as it will definitely lose them money. A once-off purchase/rental system like Universal is proposing will be more in line with theatrical revenues.

And it looks like this shake-up is already spreading to the rest of the industry. In the wake of the Universal’s announcement, as well as Disney’s move to give Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker early digital releases, Warner Bros.’s Birds of Prey and STXfilm’s The Gentlemen are bumping up their VOD releases to next Tuesday, 24 March. I don’t expect them to be the last either.

These are unprecedented times we’re in and Universal may have just become the frontrunner in a whole new age of entertainment consumption. Covid-19 may have forced this situation, but if it works, the implications will be gigantic. For both us, the consumer, and the entire cinema industry.

Last Updated: March 17, 2020

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