Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Why Is Universal Pushing For Shorter Theatrical Releases?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

In the wake of COVID-19 A.K.A. Coronavirus ensuring the closure of movie theaters worldwide, movie studios have gotten inventive in getting their titles out to the general public. A whole slew of features have seen their theatrical releases delayed. Meanwhile, movies like Onward and The Invisible Man that were in the middle of their theatrical releases when this pandemic hit have been sent to video-on-demand streamers. When these announcements began to hit the internet, speculative chatter began to emerge theorizing that this was the beginning of movie studios shrinking the 90-day window between when a movie debuts in theaters and when it can hit home video (that window is 70-80 days when it comes to when a movie can drop on digital retailers like iTunes).

It's a prospect that's long been discussed by movie studios but movie theaters have strictly held firmly against anything that could upset their business. Disney's been one of the few movie studios to constantly say they wouldn't challenge the theatrical release schedule. When they bought up 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight, that actually seemed to be the end of the discussion. Disney would now be releasing the majority of high-profile Hollywood fare, they had all the cards in this discussion. Disney's maintained their commitment to theatrical releases through the whole COVID-19 outbreak and other studios have followed suit.

When announcing that their religious-themed music biopic I Still Believe would be headed to video-on-demand after just five days of theatrical release, Lionsgate and the directors of the movie made sure to put out a statement indicating their continued commitment to theatrical releases. Similar sentiments have been echoed by Warner Bros. and Patty Jenkins upon announcing the delay of Wonder Woman 1984 yesterday. One that's been more willing to push boundaries in the middle of all this chaos is Universal. They're going full-steam ahead on a plan to release Trolls World Tour simultaneously in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms.

That's the kind of release usually reserved for microbudget direct-to-video Bruce Willis action films, not $120+ million budgeted animated kids movies. However, this maneuver isn't out of character for Universal. This studio has constantly showed a hankering for getting theatrical movies to video-on-demand services in a speedy fashion. Back in 2011, Universal announced that the movie Tower Heist would be available as a $59.99 video-on-demand rental exclusively in Atlanta and Portland just three weeks after it debuted in theaters. Movie theater chains subsequently flipped out and threatened to not show Tower Heist. Universal backed down in that instance, but their commitment to challenging traditional theatrical release patterns has clearly never wavered in the last decade.

Why is Universal the one studio super committed to this idea? Well, for starters, their parent company, Comcast, would profit greatly from movies coming to video-on-demand services more quickly. This conglomerate owns all kinds of video-on-demand services ranging from Sky, Xfinity, Xumo and Fandango that would benefit greatly from having prolific theatrical titles available in a timely manner. To boot, Universal typically collaborated with budget-savvy filmmakers & producers who don't tend to be as adamant about their films playing in classical theatrical releases. By contrast, having people who are passionate about theatrical releases like Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins be go-to filmmakers for Warner Bros. ensures that that studio isn't likely to make any big deviations from how theatrical movies have been conventionally released.

Jason Blum, one of Universal's go-to hit-makers thanks to him producing horror movies like Get Out and The Invisible Man, was just making comments this past weekend indicating that he's in tandem with Universal on his flexible approach to how movies get released. As noted by the website Joblo, Blum commented that he felt the film industry wouldn't be the same after the COVID-19 outbreak."I think it’s not realistic to think all the studios are going to wait four months before they put a movie at home. They just can’t compete, they’re going to have to compete with Amazon and Netflix and Apple in a different way. There’s going to be shifts. The consumer is going to be more used to staying at home." With studios like DreamWorks Animation (which produced Trolls World Tour) and producers like Jason Blum giving them the A-OK to challenge theatrical release norms, don't expect Universal's dedication to getting theatrical movies on video-on-demand retailers much more quickly to evaporate anytime soon.

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