Universal Pictures is releasing its current movies online because of coronavirus

Universal is on the hunt for a new release strategy amid the pandemic.
Universal is on the hunt for a new release strategy amid the pandemic.
Image: Universal Pictures
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America’s oldest film studio is using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to experiment with what many believe is the inevitable future of film distribution.

Universal Pictures will release its current theatrical movies, including The Invisible Man and The Hunt, to audiences online as early as Friday (March 20), the Wall Street Journal reported. The studio will also release the upcoming animated comedy, Trolls World Tour, online at the same time it’s set to hit theaters on April 10—if there are any theaters still open then. The US box office hit a 20-year low this weekend as hundreds of theaters shut their doors, and many others cut capacity in half.

The move, though forced by theater closures around the world, nonetheless blows up the longstanding Hollywood theatrical release window. Usually, films play in theaters for 90 days before they’re made available to stream, rent, or buy online. Studios, which make most of their money on theater ticket sales, have been extremely reluctant to shorten that window, even as streaming competitors like Netflix and Amazon have upended the industry.

The Universal films will be available for audiences to rent on services like iTunes and Amazon for a suggested price of $19.99—slightly more than the average US movie ticket price at a theater. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal’s decision is not a blanket policy for its entire 2020 schedule. It will affect only the films currently in theaters, as well as Trolls World Tour.

“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,” Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, 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.”

Until today, studios were simply postponing the theatrical release dates of important films in reaction to coronavirus, rather than experiment with online releases. Universal rescheduled the release of the Fast & Furious sequel, F9, from April of this year until April of 2021. The potential box office sales of that movie were simply too large to give up.

But for other movies that aren’t expected to be quite as profitable, like Trolls World Tour, the coronavirus-induced theater closures give studios an excuse to test out what the distribution model might look like in the near future.