One of the many beloved pastimes being piledrived by the newfound Mad Max-ness of everyday life is the simple act of going to the movies. Theatres across the world are shutting their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, putting the future of cinema in serious jeopardy.
But since we're all stuck inside, a number of recent releases have hit video-on-demand early. Movies like The Hunt, Onward, and Birds of Prey or Harley Quinn's Fantabulous We're Not Totally Sure How the Rest of this Title Goes are now available to rent at home for around $20. As is the excellent The Invisible Man, for folks who want to spend the rest of their quarantine convinced that a douchey tech bro is lurking in the shadows of their bedroom.
While all of these movies were already in theatres before their run was rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, Universal also announced that the upcoming Trolls: World Tour would be going straight to VOD on its theatrical release date. Thanks to that decision, now a cartoon about sentient antidepressants that co-stars Ozzy Osbourne is the source of much controversy in the industry.
On one hand, releasing Trolls 2 on VOD could be seen as act of mercy for all those parents who are cooped up with their kids actively trying to suppress their murderous hatred of Olaf the talking snowman. But it's a tad concerning because movie studios have been trying to do this type of thing for years, but theatres have blocked them. While theatre chains insist on an exclusive window of time to exhibit popular movies before they hit the home video market, studios want to shrink that window to ease marketing costs and because "as much as 80 percent of premium video-on-demand revenue" goes to the studio itself.
So while this approach makes sense given the current situation, it also gives movie studios exactly what they've been angling for. Kind of like if there was an episode of Friends where Gunther saved Rachel's life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation-- yes, he did the right thing in an emergency, but you just know that bleached blonde creep got exactly what he wanted regardless.
Warner Bros. Television
Back in 2011, Universal tried to make the Ben Stiller comedy Tower Heist available on VOD three weeks after its theatrical premiere for a premium price. Forking over $60 for a Brett Ratner movie may, in retrospect. seem like trading a Rolex for a urine-soaked copy of Maxim magazine, but at the time it was a big deal. The National Association of Theater Owners "refused to play the film at all" if Universal got its way, so the plan was ultimately scrapped.
More recently, Napster's Sean Parker launched a company called "Screening Room" which sought to release new movies at home for $50. The project was backed by cinematic big-wigs Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, and even Steven Spielberg, who famously crapped on Netflix for essentially providing a more affordable version of this exact model. Parker's plan relied on the participation of theatre chains, the prospect of which fell apart when he asked the National Association of Theater Owners to sign an NDA during negotiations.
Studios and theatres were still bickering over this issue like an old married couple in 2019, but now that theatres aren't an option, studios can freely ignore their deal with theatres with zero consequences. Studios claim that this isn't part of some diabolical scheme, but purely a result of a "unique and exceedingly rare circumstance". Even so, theatre owners aren't totally happy. John Fithian, the chief of the National Association of Theatre Owners claimed that Universal's plan to release Trolls: World Tour on VOD, rather than delaying it, "undermined the theatrical model" and pointed out that Universal didn't tell exhibitors about the plan "until approximately 20 minutes before their announcement."
Regardless, we should be rallying around movie theatres right now, because they haven't been in such dire straits since the 2007 outbreak of Norbit. Last weekend the US box office "recorded zero revenue for the first time in history", or roughly the same as the non-pandemic release of a Kevin Spacey movie. Theatres are hoping to get help from a large government stimulus bill (or the extra large bill for just 50 cents more). And it's not like movie studios don't need theatres. The most successful pay-per-view event of all time (the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight) made $400 million-- which is a lot of money for two sweaty dudes hitting each other, but not a great take for, say, an Avengers movie.
So by all means go ahead and rent these new releases, it's better than creating a volleyball sidekick to talk to, or sharing your emotions with loved ones. But if you care about movies, think about donating to, or buying gift cards from your favorite cinemas -- namely independent ones. Yes, it's more convenient (and now absolutely necessary) to watch movies at home, but let's not get used to it as the go-to method for enjoying films. A lot of us movie fans are looking forward to a time when we can return to watching millionaires pretend to be other people in a darkened room full of candy-gobbling strangers.
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