COVID-19 Forces Hollywood to Finally Abandon Pointless Film Release Windows

Hollywood has spent decades resisting a change to the speed at which movies are released to home viewers. It took a major pandemic to finally force adaptation.
March 18, 2020, 12:00pm
Image: Getty Images

For decades, Hollywood has fought tooth and nail against any disruption to the gap between a movie’s release in theaters—and its availability on streaming and DVD. With COVID-19 now making traditional movie theaters a health risk, that resistance is fading fast, and numerous studios are quickly moving to make the entire idea of release windows irrelevant.

Comcast NBC Universal has announced the company will be releasing a number of films still showing in theaters—including The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma—for home rental at $20 a pop.

“Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles in the home that is both accessible and affordable,” NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell said in a statement.

“We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible,” Shell added.

Disney has also announced it will be making Frozen 2 available for streaming on its Disney+ streaming platforms three months earlier than originally scheduled. Warner Brothers films like Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey will also be available for home rental sooner than usual.

Historically, Hollywood imposes what’s usually a 90 day restriction on the amount of time a movie must run in theaters before it’s released on DVD, streaming, or video on demand.

Elsewhere those restrictions are even more severe. In France, a cultural exception law designed to help “protect theaters” mandates a 36-month delay between theatrical release and streaming availability. Such restrictions have grown increasingly pointless in an era when broadband-enabled home theater systems easily rival the “theater experience.”

But when companies like Netflix have tried to disrupt or even shorten these dated restrictions, they’ve been repeatedly punished for it. The company was banned from Cannes competition last year for avoiding traditional theaters. Negotiations with traditional theaters broke down when Netflx recommended reducing the traditional release window to 45 days or less.

Because films must have at least a brief theater run to be eligible for Oscar nomination, Netflix went so far as to rent and buy some theaters to screen Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman. But fearing disruption to their business models, many theater chains boycotted the film anyway.

Historically, opponents of shortening these windows have claimed that doing so would financially harm traditional theaters. In reality, research has suggested that streaming video consumers are actually more likely to see films in theaters than the average U.S. consumer—because they tend to be huge fans of movies in general.

As we’ve seen with subjects like broadband usage caps, COVID-19 has shown a knack for quickly demolishing pointless constructs and the arguments long used to support them.

With theater attendance dropping (or outright prohibited in cities like Seattle and New York), theater revenues have dropped to a 20 year low. Several theater chains, from Regal Cinemas to AMC Cinemas, have announced they’re shuttering their doors until further notice.

“The health and wellbeing of AMC guests and employees, and of all Americans, takes precedence above all else,” AMC CEO and President Adam Aron said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor this situation very closely and look forward to the day we can again delight moviegoers nationwide by reopening AMC movie theatres in accordance with guidance from the CDC and local health authorities.”

In the interim consumers are flocking to home streaming alternatives as they ride out the pandemic. And while this shift will create very real hardships for brick and mortar employees whose livelihoods will be on the line, industry executives could have preemptively mitigated some of the harm by embracing disruption and evolution long before now.