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Theatrical Movies Head to VOD Early

For decades, On-demand content distributors have been seeking to get theatrical films distributed to homes close to day and date with their theatrical premieres. With the coronavirus outbreak forcing the shutdown of most major cinema chains, the industry is moving closer to that reality.

Studios are now testing earlier on-demand windows to supplement what quickly is becoming a nonexistent box-office business. From Sony’s sci-fi thriller Bloodshot, which will be available for digital purchase on March 24 — a little more than a week after debuting in theaters — to NBCUniversal’s decision to offer first-run films The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma for digital VOD release while the movies are still within their typical 90-day theatrical window, the devastating coronavirus outbreak has altered the dynamics of the on-demand movie category.

NBCUniversal is releasing theatricals like 'Trolls World Tour' on VOD during its theatrical window. 

NBCUniversal is releasing theatricals like 'Trolls World Tour' on VOD during its theatrical window. 

“Since going to movie theaters isn’t an option right now, we are not surprised that some studios have elected to quickly make their titles available to us in the on-demand window,” said Emilio Nunez, senior VP of content acquisition for In Demand. “We’ll continue to quickly respond to our partners and make PPV/VOD an option they can count on in a very fluid marketplace.”

Much like every segment of the U.S. economy, the coronavirus has effectively changed how the theatrical movie industry conducts business. With such movie chains as Regal, AMC, and Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas announcing a temporary shut down to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, movie studios were forced to shelve existing theatrical releases, while postponing the spring launch of high-profile films like Disney’s Marvel Studios film Black Widow and MGM’s latest James Bond entry, No Time To Die, to late summer or fall.

Looking to to reach audiences, studios have turned to the on-demand platform in an effort to entice viewers who are homebound in response to the government efforts to quell the virus.

NBCUniversal on March 13 said it will offer three movies, The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma, for rental at $19.99 — about $10 more than a movie within the VOD window — beginning March 20, well within the movies’ traditional three-month theatrical window.

In addition, NBCU’s animated title Trolls World Tour will now stream day and date with the movie’s April 10 theatrical release.

“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 NBCU CEO Jeff Shell, in a statement.

Warner Bros. moved up VOD windows for its D.C. Comics-based theatrical film Birds of Prey, which will be available for digital purchase on March 24 — about 45 days after its Feb. 7 theatrical release — as well as for its Jamie Foxx-starrer Just Mercy, which moved up its digital release date to March 19 from March 24.

Studios have traditionally been apprehensive about moving to day-and-date distribution for fear it would harm the box-office take. But with no box office to speak of in this era of coronavirus fears, the shortening of theatrical windows comes as more of a necessity than a choice.

“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,” Shell said.

In Demand’s Nunez added that the VOD distributor is prepared to work with studios regarding the distribution of films during this unprecedented situation.

“We’re talking with our owners and our studio partners every day during this evolving situation,” Nunez said. “We’re here to help them provide consumers with options that will benefit everyone during an unprecedented time when so many people are spending the majority of their time at home.”

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.