Almost every major 2020 theatrical release still left on the calendar now exists in a state of delayed limbo. Hollywood is currently sitting on a ton of content, with movies scheduled for release now delayed for as much as a year and the next coming months without any big screens to project on.
It’s led to two decidedly different outcomes in the world of big and small screen entertainment. Streaming services are reaching peak use highlighted and almost embodied by the viral sensation of Netflix’s Tiger King, a show I might be the only person in America to not have watched yet. This is just one cherry-picked example of how new streaming content is “valued” in our current climate. New and old content on these services are getting many more eyeballs than usual right now.
On the other end, movie studios are, by and large, taking the opposite approach. Almost every studio has chosen to shelve big upcoming box office films in favor of release dates way off in the future, or just indefinitely held for some later time. But as time wears on, Hollywood is beginning to wake up to the idea that theaters may not come back and they may have to rework their model to cater entirely to streaming.
Sony Pictures Is Ready To Just Stream It
So far most of the movies to skip theaters have been family movies like Scoob! or Trolls World Tour. But that’s about to change when Tom Hanks’ next big budget war movie Greyhound skips theaters in favor of going directly to streaming.
The movie was originally scheduled for a big-budget summer theatrical release on May 8. When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, that release date was bumped to June 12, 2020. Now though, Sony has changed direction and decided to ditch movie theaters entirely. That theatrical release date is cancelled and they’ve sold the right to debut to the film to Apple TV Plus.
Now Greyhound will be available to stream exclusively on Apple’s six-month old streaming service. Now word yet on when they’ll make it available to watch.
Greyhound stars Tom Hanks as a Captain leading a convoy of Allied ships across the Atlantic in the midst of World War II. Halfway across they’re attacked by Nazi submarines and must find a way to make it through.
Disney Makes Its First Move To Abandon Movie Theaters
The dominoes are starting to fall. Disney just announced they’re abandoning a theatrical release for the upcoming Lin-Manuel Miranda big screen version of the musical Hamilton. Instead the movie will be released on streaming.
Going a step further, they’re also releasing it early. Hamilton the movie had been slated for an October 2021 release, but now they’ll be releasing it streaming in homes via Disney Plus on July 3rd, 2020.
Disney CEO Bob Iger made the announcement himself saying, “No other artistic work in the last decade has had the cultural impact of Hamilton—an inspiring and captivating tale told and performed in a powerfully creative way. In light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story about leadership, tenacity, hope, love and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful.We are thrilled to bring this phenomenon to Disney+ on the eve of Independence Day, and we have the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team behind Hamilton to thank for allowing us to do so more than a year before planned.“
In the past Lin-Manuel Miranda has made statements indicating he was committed to releasing Hamilton in theaters, despite the upheaval caused by global pandemic. But the reality of a fading industry means he’s now all in on this…
For Disney, this is their first attempt at dipping their toes in the water of skipping theaters for streaming. It’s what Universal did with Trolls World Tour. If this goes as well for them as it did with Universal, expect to see Disney pull more theatrical releases in favor of streaming release.
How Fans Can Make #JustStreamIt Happen
This isn’t the time for the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach. This is the time to give fans what they want. As a fan, this is the time for you to make yourself heard. Use the links below to tell Hollywood’s movie studios what you want.
- CLICK HERE to tell Marvel to release Black Widow streaming. #FreeBlackWidow
- CLICK HERE to tell Disney to release Mulan streaming.
- CLICK HERE to tell Warner Bros. to release Wonder Woman 1984 streaming.
- CLICK HERE to tell Sony Pictures to release Ghostbusters: Afterlife streaming.
- CLICK HERE to tell Paramount Pictures to release Top Gun: Maverick streaming.
- CLICK HERE to tell Universal Pictures to stick it to AMC and release Fast & Furious 9 streaming right now!
Universal Refuses To Be Intimidated
When Universal Pictures released Trolls World Tour on streaming outlets, instead of waiting for movie theaters to re-open… no one cared. But when it suddenly did really well, making even more money than it would have made in movie theaters, the movie theater industry freaked out and responded by banning Universal Pictures movies from being shown in their theaters… when and if their movie theaters ever re-open.
Rather than go to the theater industry and beg forgiveness, Universal has decided to push ahead and keep making record amounts of money. They’re doing it again and releasing yet another theatrical movie direct to streaming.
The movie in question is called The High Note and it was supposed to be released in movie theaters on May 8th. That obviously won’t happen and so Universal has announced they’ll be releasing the movie on streaming platforms on May 29th.
The announcement first came from one of the movie’s stars, who posted this on Instagram…
The High Note stars Tracee Ellis Ross, Dakota Johnson, Ice Cube, Eddie Izzard, and Bill Pullman among others. Here’s the trailer if you’re wondering what it’s about…
The High Note will cost $19.99 to rent streaming when it’s available on May 29th. You should be able to find it on most pay to rent streaming platforms like Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
If this release goes as well as Trolls World Tour, don’t be surprised to see Universal start dropping some of their bigger movies on streaming too. Especially given that most theaters won’t show them anyway.
AMC And Regal Theaters Ban Universal Pictures Movies
In one of the most insane and self-destructive moves ever made by a national corporation, AMC Theaters announced on April 28, 2020 that they will no longer show movies owned by Universal Pictures. The move comes as a direct response to Universal admitting that by digitally releasing Trolls World Tour instead of waiting until theaters reopen from the Coronavirus pandemic, they made a lot of money.
Regal Cinemas, another of the nation’s big three theater chains, has now joined AMC in their boycott of Universal Pictures movies. That means they won’t be showing movies like Fast & Furious 9 and Jurassic World 3 when they’re finally released.
In their announcement Regal says, “Universal unilaterally chose to break our understanding and did so at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when our business is closed, more than 35,000 employees are at home and when we do not yet have a clear date for the reopening of our cinemas.“
In a letter issued AMC Theatres chair-CEO Adam Aron, they had this to say: “Therefore, effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters in the United States, Europe or the Middle East. This policy affects any and all Universal movies per se, goes into effect today and as our theatres reopen, and is not some hollow or ill-considered threat.“
AMC Theaters is the largest movie theater chain in the United States and owns over 1/3 of the nation’s movie theaters. They are also on the verge of bankruptcy and struggling to survive. Meanwhile, Universal Pictures owns the very last theatrical release that actually made them any amount of money: the surprise early 2020 hit The Invisible Man.
You might think this move is in response to Universal Pictures releasing Trolls World Tour on digital at all… but that happened weeks ago. What changed today is that Universal released the numbers on how much Trolls World Tour made… and the numbers were good. Trolls World Tour made them more then $100 million on digital streaming, which is significantly more than the first Trolls movie made by being theatrically.
Many are trying to defend AMC by saying they were responding to a threat from Universal to start releasing theatrical films on VOD simultaneously, but that’s not what they said. Here’s the full official quote from Universal head Jeff Shell: “The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD… As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”
Snell never said they’d release them simultaneously on both formats, just that they’d release them on both formats. That’s something they’ve always done. Regal and AMC are banning Universal movies because Trolls World Tour was a success on digital, not because Trolls World Tour was released on digital.
The timing of AMC’s move makes this seem like AMC isn’t so much railing against Universal deciding to #JustStreamtIt as they are against Universal admitting that it actually worked out really well for them.
Well Universal, you don’t need them. It’s time to #JustStreamIt. Trolls World Tour has already proven you’ll make more money that way.
Removing Awards Obstacles
One of the big obstacles preventing movie studios from skipping theaters and releasing them on streaming are the rules of various awards committees. Awards like the Golden Globes and the Oscars require movies to have screened in an actual movie theater in order to qualify for their award. That is now changing.
In response to the changes in the industry caused by COVID-19, the Golden Globes have announced that movies won’t actually have to screen in a theater in 2020. You just had to have had a release planned, but you don’t actually have to have shown the film. Basically any movie, regardless of where it premiered, can now qualify for a Golden Globe.
You might think being nominated for an award wouldn’t matter to big movies like Black Widow or No Time To Die anyway. It’s not like they were ever going to win best picture. But those movies do tend to win technical awards, and those awards matter greatly to studio marketing departments looking for excuses to get more people watching their films.
The Oscars have now followed suit and have also relaxed their rules to allow movies to skip theatrical release. The need to pander to awards is no longer a factor and movie studios are free to #JustStreamIt.
American Pickle Abandons Movie Theaters
American Pickle was supposed to be the big comedy theatrical release for the summer of 2020, but instead the Seth Rogen movie is now going straight to streaming on HBO Max. Sony Pictures considered simply delaying its theatrical release but says the movie was specifically designed to be released in 2020. So it’s going to HBO Max.
It’s interesting that Sony felt its only choice was a delay till 2021 or a streaming release. That tells you a lot about how Hollywood is starting to think about the situation and how long they think it will really be until movie theaters return.
American Pickle stars Seth Rogen as an immigrant who comes to America in 1920 and falls into a vat of pickles. There he stays, perfectly preserved by the brine for 100 years, until he awakens in the year 2020. He unites with his modern day descendant (also played by Rogen) and presumably fish out of water hilarity ensues.
Hollywood Beginning To Rethink The Theater Model
Most recently WarnerMedia, the company that owns Warner Bros. studios, announced in an April 22, 2020 earnings call that they are “rethinking our theatrical model”. Elaborating COO John Stankey said of movie theaters, “Don’t expect that’s going to be a snap-back… I think that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to watch, the formation of consumer confidence, not just about going to movies, just in general about being back out in public.”
The upcoming Warner Bros. release Tenet is one of the few big movies still left on the summer 2021 schedule and desperate theater owners have been banking on it as a way to try and bring audiences back, should they be allowed to open. But it’s starting to sound like Tenet may not be available to show, by the time July rolls around. Warner Bros. might be ready by then to #JustStreamIt.
We’ve heard similar rumblings from sources inside Paramount Pictures. The same source which broke our now confirmed scoop about Star Trek: Pike tells us execs there are having similar internal discussions about rethinking the theater model. Specifically they’re wondering if they’d be better off releasing Top Gun: Maverick on streaming services over the summer rather than waiting and hoping audiences come back to theaters by its current December 2020 release date. They aren’t ready to pull the trigger yet, but Paramount may test the waters by releasing The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run direct to streaming in August.
It’s a start, but it’s a small start. It’s time Hollywood started making plans to release their biggest movies on streaming services, rather than delaying them until 2021. For those Hollywood execs trying to make up their minds, here’s why it’s time to #JustStreamIt…
1. Make More Money Streaming
There’s reason for hope that streaming service sales will begin to replicate and exceed box office numbers while also testing the market to see if this strategy will work for other movies. From a mathematical/monetary perspective, it’s an interesting gamble, but one that’s becoming less of a gamble.
Trolls World Tour was the first major theatrical release to abandon theaters and go straight to streaming. In only three weeks Trolls World Tour earned over $100 million in rental sales. The original Trolls movie only made $150 million total in the United States, and it took that movie five months to do it in movie theaters.
It’s also worth noting that Trolls World Tour is a terrible movie. It’s been widely panned by just about everyone and it’s objectively worse than the original. Yet thanks to video on demand, it’s turning a huge profit for Universal Pictures.
Considering, when movies are “rented” to theaters they derive around a 50-55% revenue split on average with the split grossly favoring the movie to start and ramping down over time. But if you consider the average cost of tickets for a family (and Trolls is a family flick) this rough $20 number probably works out in the studio’s favor if the actual viewing (purchasing) numbers replicated the number who’d walk into theaters. That last part is, of course, the big “if”.
It’s a gamble, but as movies like Trolls World Tour test it out and find success, it’s becoming less of one. And at this point, waiting to release your movies is a gamble too (more on that in a minute). Releasing them on streaming might actually be the safer bet, between the two risks.
2. Audience Goodwill
I get that “audience goodwill” is a nebulous term meant to play on the kind hearts of viewers. I recognize that people don’t root for movie studios the same way they might for sports teams or even celebrities who’ve shown acts of generosity during this time. It’s unlikely most viewers even know the studios who bring them movies on a film-to-film basis (outside of maybe a Pixar flick).
So while it’s unlikely the goodwill extends beyond the initial watching, there are big-time press benefits to being first toward an industry shakeup centered around the consumer rather than the almighty dollar. Those benefits will, in particular, go to the first movie studio to actually do it. The race is on to be first to release a major theatrical release on streaming platforms. You don’t want to be the last movie studio to give the audience what they want.
3. Content Starved Audiences Lead To Increased Viewership
As Tiger King has “proven” folks are itching for new things to watch and new content to engage with as streaming services are taxed with big-time growth in time spent on platforms. Adding content now to streaming services, especially anticipated movies like Black Widow, would almost undoubtedly draw many new eyes from those who weren’t necessarily used to getting new releases this way.
Marvel fans have taken to the theaters in droves for more than a decade now and would prefer seeing these films on the big screen. But with that option gone, there’s definitely a market who would just choose to watch it at home because it’s “new”. People are starved for something to watch right now and for a movie like Black Widow or Ghostbusters: Afterlife that could mean an even bigger audience that it might have gotten were it merely released theatrically.
4. Chaos Is A Ladder
Some streaming services are seeing this disruption as an opportunity. HBO has started the #StayHomeBoxOffice movement by offering some of the most popular content on its platform free for the next couple of weeks. SlingTV is giving out multi-week free trials while platforms like Hulu, Netflix and Showtime are also going free for 30 days.
While they are a bit different services than what movie studios would be offering with one-off purchases for movies, or in the case of Black Widow, streaming as part of Disney+, what it does speak to is others in the industry realizing folks are expanding quickly out of their traditional methods of watching content. I suspect it’s in large part because there’s a clear need for more options. Movie studios are literally sitting on these right now.
5. An Overcrowded Release Schedule In Under-Crowded Theaters
Ask yourself a simple question that I’m sure movie studios are asking themselves right now, probably nervously: When is the next time you’ll feel comfortable going to a crowded movie theater? The answer likely ranges somewhere between “A long time from now” and “Never”.
That second piece has to have studios and the theaters themselves really quaking. Pushing a movie release even a year from now in no way guarantees flicks return to previous levels of profitability.
We’ve seen likely a global shakeup that includes nervous ideas around gathering in large crowds. And I don’t think that fear is something that will just dissipate over time. There’s a chance it never totally comes back, at least in how studios project revenues. Which would only double down negatively if the release schedules become packed with almost double the movies because everything was paused. Which leads me to the final piece:
6. Revenue Now Is Better Than None At All
To project a full return to post COVID-19 theater numbers is likely complete and utter folly. There’s simply no real case to be made moviegoers will return in droves to pack theaters even for the most anticipated releases. That could easily lead to a tragedy of the commons scenario for the movie industry across the board.
Even if audiences are willing to start packing movie theaters again, Hollywood is now in a situation where there may literally be no movie theaters left for audiences to go to. As of April 3, 2020 word is that the nation’s biggest theater chain, AMC, is already expected to go into default. With no major releases even scheduled until the fall now, there’s very little chance they’ll have any locations left to open their doors when the big movies finally arrive again.
AMC is likely to be the first movie theater casualty of the Coronavirus, but it won’t be the last. How many movie theaters will actually be left by the time this is over? The answer, increasingly, looks like it’s going to be: not many.
There’s a strong case to be made here to offer movies up now online and either hope to boost an already active streaming service (Disney+ for example) or take the $19.99 where you can get it and call it a day. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but it could be the right approach.
The Argument Against #JustStreamIt
Numerous people have stepped up to argue against the possibility of streaming big Hollywood movies ever happening. The most famous force against it right now is director Kevin Smith. Smith had this to say on his podcast about whether Disney will #FreeBlackWidow…
“I think [releasing Artemis Fowl on Disney+] is a smart play. I don’t think you’ll ever see that happen with a Marvel movie. I don’t think they’re gonna play their big money cards. Think of it as somebody sitting there playing Uno. They just laid down a skip card to buy themselves some time. Artemis Fowl, they’re like, ‘Skip. You can watch that on Disney+.
They’re not gonna stick a Marvel movie on Disney+ because they’ve got some Marvel TV shows coming, and they gotta keep them Marvel movies valuable. Because those movies make fucking money, man, legit fucking money.“
Smith’s argument is the same one that most Hollywood executives are probably making to each other on Zoom right now. And that argument would totally make sense in an environment where people will be going back to movie theaters a month or two from now. But that world does not exist.
People will not be going back to movie theaters a month or two from now. California’s governor for instance, recently indicated that large gatherings may not be permitted until late in 2021. By that time most movie theaters will no longer be in business. It’s April 15th as I write this and AMC, the nation’s largest theater chain, is already about to file for bankruptcy. Anyone who thinks they’ll still be around if they aren’t allowed to start selling tickets until 2021 is kidding themselves.
And even if, by some miracle, these theaters manage to survive this long winter and actually still be in business by the time Hollywood is able to release their movies in them… will people want to go back? It’s going to take a very, very long time before people aren’t afraid to gather in groups again. Even after the Coronavirus is over.
So maybe Hollywood’s blockbusters would make more money in movie theaters… if movie theaters were a thing that was still going to exist. But that was January of 2020 thinking. It’s not January of 2020 anymore. We’re living in a post-COVID world. Everything has changed and it isn’t changing back. They can either change with it and #JustStreamIt, or they can keep pretending everything is going back to normal when it isn’t and die.