The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the film industry. Productions have been slowed down or halted completely, safety protocols have made continuing productions much more expensive, and the theatrical distribution model has been shaken up dramatically. In fact, the window for seeing movies exclusively in theaters has been shortened so dramatically over the past year that Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek isn’t sure that the industry will be able to go back to the old ways.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek recently made an appearance at a virtual investment conference hosted by Morgan Stanley (via Deadline), and he addressed the changing face of theatrical distribution and how it’s impacting audiences. Chapek said:
“The consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before, particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back. But we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”
Universal Pictures was the first to shake up the theatrical distribution model by shortening the exclusive theatrical window for their mid-range releases to just 17 days. They also sent Trolls World Tour straight to VOD at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year. Warner Bros. Pictures then took things to another level by pledging to release their entire theatrical slate on HBO Max, day-and-date with the theatrical release. And most recently, Paramount Pictures landed somewhere in the middle, having just announced that movies like Mission: Impossible 7, A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick would hit the new Paramount+ streaming service 45 days after arriving in theaters. That’s half of the usual 90-day theatrical window.
As for Disney, they’ve tried a variety of release options. Productions like Pixar’s Soul and the recorded version of the Broadway sensation Hamilton went to Disney+ as part of the subscription. The live-action remake of Mulan went to Disney+, but it was a Premier Access option that cost an extra fee. And most recently, this week’s animated release Raya and the Last Dragon will be released as a Premier Access option on Disney+ and also released in theaters. So they’re clearly trying to see what works best for them in the middle of this unprecedented situation.
For their part, Disney has been trying to stay as dedicated to the theatrical experience as possible. Since they made $11.12 billion at the global box office in 2019, that shouldn’t be a surprise. However, what Disney CEO Bob Chapek is recognizing is consumer demand to see some of these movies at home, even after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. That means we could see Disney joining other studios in having a shortened theatrical window for some of their movies.
The big question is how much this dramatic shift will this will end up hurting revenue from theatrical releases, and by association, movie theaters themselves. We won’t have a definitive answer until movie theaters and studios are running at full capacity again, and even then, we’ll be waiting awhile to see how the market responds to these changes.
While I think it’s safe to say that theatrical windows for some movies will be reduced and sent to VOD or streaming sooner, big blockbusters will still be the bread and butter of both studios and movie theaters. It’s just a shame that lower profile movies, such as mid-budget projects and indies, potentially won’t get as much time to flourish in movie theaters. But that might be where the market naturally goes based consume demand, and since this is show business we’re talking about, there may not be any way to stop it.
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