It is possible that premium video on demand, the idea and the viability of that distribution window in the minds of Hollywood executives, has gone through more deaths and resurrections in the past six weeks than a vampire trapped in Groundhog Day (or Palm Springs, or Russian Doll, for you streaming modernists).
We can mostly blame Disney for this latest roller coaster ride for a distribution window that calved into existence amid the exigencies of early pandemic. Back then, a bunch of projects such as Trolls World Tour needed some way to recoup their suddenly interrupted box office runs, and nascent streaming services needed a way to get some consumers signed up. No one thought it would be around forever, but it seemed like a smart hack of a terrifying mess.
Also read: Is Disney Plus Done with Premier Access?
Fast forward 17 months, and we keep hearing that Hollywood, both the studios and the exhibitors, hopes to leave PVOD in its rear-view mirror, along with the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, the town may need to keep PVOD around, because the pandemic isn’t going away, and suddenly looks like it’s going to get worse again. To quickly recount PVOD’s latest ups and downs:
A month ago, for week one of the release of Black Widow, Disney bragged about making “more than $60 million” from PVOD, alongside a very nice (by pandemic standards) theatrical box office gross.
Week two, Black Widow’s theatrical gross tanked and theater owners weirdly celebrate, saying they could have made so much more if the movie had just released in their venues only.
Week three, Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson sues, saying PVOD depressed her expected massive backend payday. Now, an admirably huge front-end payment won’t be bookended by an equally substantial backend buffed up by an anticipated box-office bonanza. Disney’s withering return fire regarding the suit suggests the studio wasn’t amused by the rapid escalation of a pay complaint over a contract signed years ago, in a very different world.
And then Jungle Cruise steamed into view, a particularly recursive marketing exercise from Disney with two big stars to headline and a theme park ride as inspiration. That it cost a mega bundle to make and market, yet only rousted $35 million from theaters and “more than $30 million” from PVOD suggests something missed somewhere. Pundits declared, again, the death of PVOD, because surely that was the problem with the crummy theatrical gross.
But is anyone paying attention to what’s going on out there? Trade publication Variety had a piece this week pondering whether Jungle Cruise could be considered a hit, given its strong critical reception and ticket receipts that would have been disastrous in 2019. And it’s not the only one pondering in near-epistemological terms the meaning of a “hit movie” in a pandemic era.
All those considerations keep ignoring context, though. A British survey this week found more than 40% of citizens don’t want to attend large public gatherings, or take overseas vacations. The numbers aren’t better in the United States.
Indeed, Paramount, which spent the pandemic selling or cellaring its priciest projects, pulled family-friendly Clifford the Big Red Dog from its fall schedule. Reports surfaced that the company took that drastic step after watching audience-sentiment surveys plummet the past three weeks, especially among moms. The growing dismay among the parental units likely to be taking their progeny to theaters left Paramount raising a red flag on the Big Red Dog.
New York City will require proof of vaccination for going to theaters, among other public indoor gatherings. More and more cities and counties are at least requiring everyone to mask up in similar situations. .
Throw in the fact that at least 15% of American theater screens remain closed. Some de-screening in the long run will help the overbuilt industry, but for now, apples-to-apples comps for “hit movie” are impossible, and likely will be for a while to come.
It’s worth noting that Black Widow remains atop the PVOD cumulative-audience list, according to trade association Digital Entertainment Group (DEC). For a company trying to make back the $200 million or so it spent on Black Widow, that has to be of interest to Disney distribution executives.
PVOD actually worked in a chaotic time, generating a bunch of money. True, that money isn’t going to be snared in the web of the Black Widow herself. But it’ll help pay for an awful lot of the production costs that helped get that movie onscreen after 15 years of trying.
All of which brings us back to PVOD’s future in a festering pandemic. Newsweek’s cover story discusses a possible “doomsday” variant of COVID-19. Yikes(!), but it’s just speculation for now. The real issue is less about a potential doomsday variant and more about one (or many) variants that never really go away, perhaps with more complications even for the vaccinated. That’s going to leave movie theaters in limbo even as they’re trying desperately to get up and running again.
Disney has no scheduled plan for PVOD after Jungle Cruise. HBO Max ends its day-and-day Warner Bros. releases at year’s end. We haven’t heard much from NBCUniversal since it went Trolling last year, thanks to deals it subsequently cut with some theater chains.
But if the pandemic hangs around into spring, and possibly even gets worse again, tell me this: Is Hollywood really going to ditch one of the best options it has left to make at least a few tens of millions of dollars during the next round of uncertainty? I don’t think so either, no matter what happens to ScarJo’s bank account.
David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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