Internet Trolls: What Will the Pandemic Do to the Future of Movie Theaters?
How first-run movies becoming available for home streaming disrupts the film industry
On April 10, Universal released the animated sequel Trolls: World Tour exclusively on Video On Demand. Unexpectedly, it went on to make over $100 million in a single weekend. As a result, NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Shell announced that his company will keep VOD as a first-run option even after theaters reopen, stating that "we expect to release movies on both formats." Upon this news, CEO of AMC Theaters Adam Aron enacted a scorched-earth strategy on the studios, announcing "effective immediately, we will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters." Of course, this could all get resolved in the end, but when the biggest movie distributor in the world tells one of the major studios (responsible for 20 percent of films produced per year) that they will no longer be doing business, it sends a message. That message is that the way we watch films could be very different in the near future.
For the moment, other studios are standing behind theatrical releases, but as VOD becomes more profitable during this pandemic, that could change very fast. As theaters remain closed and big-budget franchises like James Bond and The Fast and the Furious get pushed further and further back, the allure of distributing a film on a streaming platform has never been more tempting.
The situation here isn't entirely unprecedented. In the 1930s and '40s, film studios were vertically integrated monopolies, owning both the studios and the theaters that show their films. Now that studios like Universal and Disney own their own streaming sites, that same structure could threaten to overtake the movie industry yet again.
As usual, it's the independent films that will suffer the most from this situation. As studios and theater chains debate where to go in the future, smaller films have either had their theatrical release cut short (The Assistant), have been sent to VOD without notice (Never Rarely Sometimes Always), or have just vanished entirely (First Cow). If theaters remain shuttered for a significant amount of time, independent distributors like Neon, Bleecker Street, and A24 may suddenly find themselves with a whole lot of films with nowhere to go.
Meanwhile, as all the big films push back their release dates, Christopher Nolan stands alone. His new film Tenet is still set for release on July 17, assuming theaters are open. It's a big risk but Nolan, a passionate supporter of the theatrical experience, has the kind of clout in the industry to take such a risk. If this strategy is successful, he may prove that movie theaters still have a place in this brave new world.
Nobody knows for sure what the film world will look like when all this is over. Whether theaters remain on top, VOD takes over, or it becomes some combination of the two, one thing is certain: an animated film about musical trolls may have changed the way we watch movies forever.
Forest Taylor watches a lot of movies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org