Let’s All Go To The (Streaming) Movies

Coronavirus Is Changing The Way We Watch Movies

We’ve come a long way since the nickelodeon age of cinema.

We’ve also come a long way since “be kind, rewind” VHS tapes from the local Blockbuster.

In the age of the quarantine, as COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, ravages businesses and business models, another shift for the movie industry is underway — signaling the resilience of an art form and a business that traces its roots back to the 19th century.

And, perhaps, as Al Jolson said, as talkies dawned and doomed the age of silent films (in another tectonic shift) in just a bit of paraphrase: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The news came this past week that, as movie theaters go dark in an effort to stem the transmission of the virus, a number of industry stakeholders are shifting the way movies are made available to the public.

In one example, Comcast said it is making several new films available for home/streaming viewing. Comcast owns Universal Pictures through its NBCUniversal subsidiary and said it would unveil “Trolls World Tour” simultaneously in theaters and online. Other, currently-in-theater titles, such as “The Invisible Man” and “Emma,” are being offered through the same conduits.

Call it a case of truly going omnichannel.

Viewers will have to pay up, of course, as many of these films come with a price tag of $19.99 for a 48-hour viewing window.

We may see a sea change in which a movie studio no longer will wait 90 days for movies to go, well, downloadable. The sea change may be necessary because the way it’s been done for decades isn’t going to fly.

By way of example, AMC Theatres said last week that it has closed all locations in the United States for six to 12 weeks. Other firms, such as Regal, have made similar declarations. Regal Cinemas has said that the closure is extant until “further notice.”

The closures come as a rising number of states are banning any gatherings of, say, 10 people or more. CNBC has noted that the initial movies coming to the new, new release structure, at least for Universal, are decidedly lower-budget. For example, “The Invisible Man” has a budget of about $7 million. The implication seems to be, at least for now, that studios will earn a return on those releases via online rentals and purchases even as wider, more traditional in-theater releases must be sidestepped.

Separately, Disney said it has moved up at least some in-home releases for films like “Frozen II” — a bankable property if ever there was one.

The Pivot Underway

The pivot from theaters to home-streaming continued to gain traction, as everyone from Amazon to Sony to Pixar has joined the fray. And, for at least some titles that proved popular during their shortened brick-and-mortar runs, the revenue contributions should proceed apace. Last month, for example, “Sonic the Hedgehog” showed the highest gross for a movie adaptation of a video game. Now, at the end of this month, the film will be available for home viewing, and yet it will not hit digital DVD format until May. In another example, Pixar’s “Onward” will be available for download beginning now, and then making its way to Disney+ next month.

At the same time that current/soon-to-be-released films are being brought to digital platforms earlier than had been seen before, the studios themselves face a problem: postponement of upcoming releases. The James Bond film “No Time to Die” release is being pushed out. So is the latest installment of the “Fast & Furious” series of films.

The shuttering of theaters for weeks on end — as many as 12 weeks for now, in the case of Universal, but the bans could be longer depending on how the pandemic plays out — indicates that studios think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. And the light, they seem to hope, is that we’ll return to the old ways of moviegoing: in crowded theaters with buckets of popcorn in hand.

But there’s always the chance that the shift being made out of necessity becomes a permanent one because it alters the way consumers will want to see movies. Consider the fact that in the PYMNTS report “Navigating The COVID-19 Pandemic,” released last week, surveying more than 2,000 consumers, roughly 61 percent of those surveyed said they “used to” go to the movies before the pandemic, and nearly 37 percent said they were doing it “somewhat or much less” in the wake of the virus’s spread. The data are from March 6, so it’s a fair bet that caution has only increased since that time.

The movies themselves, downloaded and done digitally on the small screen, may also represent an economically attractive option for most families. A single download costs $19.99, where a theater visit by a family of four is of course multiples of that figure.

Escapism is real. Escapism is valuable. In an age where fantasy can trump grim reality — that’s always been the lure of movies in general.

For the studios, there’s no escaping the fact that changing with the times is going to be necessary.