Theatrical Experience at Home?
Karen Moltenbrey
April 29, 2020

Theatrical Experience at Home?

Life as we knew it changed abruptly in the US several weeks ago, and even sooner in Asia and Europe, as COVID-19 began its deadly march. In mid-March, most US states issued stay-at-home orders in an attempt to keep infection rates at bay. Schools closed. Dine-in restaurants closed. Shops closed. And theaters closed.

As a result, many release dates for spring and summer films were postponed until later in the year, with some kicked further down the road to 2021. These included potential blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, Minions: The Rise of Gru, A Quiet Place Part II, Mulan, F9, No Time to Die, Peter Rabbit 2, and more. 

In a bold move, Disney•Pixar made its animated feature Onward, released in US theaters March 6, available for purchase just two weeks later when the shutdown was in full swing. It was released digitally March 20, and less than 30 days after its theatrical debut, it was available on Disney+. For its short life in the theater at a time when audiences began having serious concerns about the spread of the virus, the feature was able to pull in $103 million worldwide. Then, it began a financial run on the digital market, becoming a top choice on Amazon Prime and the iTunes Store. On May 19, Onward will continue to increase its gross as it is released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Meanwhile, the DreamWorks Animation/Universal Pictures’ highly anticipated animated feature Trolls World Tour was to begin its theatrical world tour April 10, but amid the pandemic crisis, instead became available on home entertainment the same day that it was to debut. In fact, Universal had announced it would make its major movie releases available on home entertainment on the same day the theatrical rollouts were scheduled.

What options did studios have? Reschedule for a later time or find an option that would be suitable for the current situation? Indeed, moving the release date would help fill theaters at a later point, since production on many films scheduled for summer and fall release had been halted in their tracks. However, no one really knows when the quarantine will be lifted once and for all. Some states are “freeing” themselves now, while other states (especially those with high infection rates) contend it is much too early to do so, lest the infection rate grow to uncontrollable levels once again. Moreover, health officials are warning of another possible outbreak in the fall/winter that could be even worse. 

What to do, what to do.

At this point, Universal is not second-guessing its decision, as Trolls World Tour experienced a history-making digital debut to the tune of $95 million in just three weeks. Obviously pleased with the outcome, NBCUniversal’s CEO made a statement that when theaters open again, he expects the studio to continue the trend and release movies on “both formats” – premium video-on-demand and at the box office.

That statement, published and re-published around the world, set off a firestorm as theater owners protested. AMC Theaters, the largest movie theater chain, followed by others, retaliated, essentially blackballing films from Universal Pictures, saying they will no longer screen them in any of their theaters worldwide. Universal tried to temper the situation, reportedly saying it values the theatrical experience and looks forward to having private conversations with its theatrical partners.

It’s wise to examine this situation in reasonable terms. Indeed, the digital and streaming models have greatly impacted how audiences prefer to be entertained. Nevertheless, the theater experience cannot be exactly replicated. Yes, the home setup is better than ever and enables around-the-clock viewing. But, it cannot fully replace the immersive atmosphere of a theater (let alone that buttery popcorn!). 

Moreover, with people stuck inside their homes for weeks now, they are starved for new entertainment, possibly turning to digital and home releases when they otherwise would not. And that, in all likelihood, helped push Trolls World Tour into the record books – a concept iterated in a statement by the National Association of Theater Owners. 

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in this war of words and actions. Studios had their backs against the wall, trying to take advantage of marketing efforts and available avenues at an unprecedented time. Decisions had to be made, and fast. And many more still have to be made. Did Trolls World Tour profit solely due to unprecedented circumstances? Will theaters be able to offer audiences a safe haven in this time of social distancing now and in the months to come? Many questions still must be answered. 

Times are difficult enough for people seeking escape through entertainment, so hopefully the studios and theater owners can figure out a viable solution for all.

Yet, times are a changing, even on a temporary basis. Recognizing these are unprecedented times, the Academy announced some changes pertaining to releases and their eligibility for the 93rd Oscars. In particular, the Academy addressed the issue of non-theatrical release. In part, the Academy stated, “Until further notice, and for the 93rd Awards year only, films that had a previously planned theatrical release but are initially made available on a commercial streaming or VOD service may qualify in the Best Picture, general entry and specialty categories for the 93rd Academy Awards under [certain] provisions.” 

However, there is a strict timeframe on this. “On a date to be determined by the Academy, and when theaters reopen in accordance with federal, state and local specified guidelines and criteria, this rules exemption will no longer apply. All films released thereafter will be expected to comply with the standard Academy theatrical qualifying requirements.”

While many may be looking forward to a 2020 summer blockbuster season, and the second surge of tentpole releases during the holidays, it is anyone’s guess which films will be available for release and in what format. After all, the decision may be out of all our hands.