This weekend of new movie releases looks like it could be a typical summer weekend for Hollywood: a big-budget Disney franchise flick, a Spike Lee drama getting Oscar buzz, and a comedy from Judd Apatow. But for the first (and probably not the last) time, none of these movies will be seen in theaters. On June 12, what would normally be a competitive weekend at the box office will play out entirely in a digital arena.
With theaters shuttered in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, some significant releases have already tested the streaming and on-demand waters. Universal scrapped its theatrical plans for Trolls World Tour and made the film available for digital rental on April 12, angering AMC and other theater chains. Warner Bros. utilized the same strategy for its Scooby-Doo adaptation, Scoob!, about a month later.
But those movies faced virtually no cinematic competition—digitally or otherwise. This weekend is different. It’s the most competitive streaming environment of the pandemic to date, pitting a Disney streaming film directly against a Netflix one, with a major Universal comedy thrown in for good measure.
Disney decided to release its fantasy-adventure film, Artemis Fowl, straight to its streaming service, Disney+, this weekend, rather than postpone the theatrical release as it did for several of its other films, including Black Widow (moved from May to November) and Mulan (pushed from March to August).
While that may signal the studio expected Artemis Fowl to underperform at the box office (reviews have been poor), it’s also an attempt by the Mouse House to keep up with Netflix’s torrid pace of content, and offer its streaming subscribers something new while they’re still mostly confined to their homes.
Universal will enter the fray this weekend with the latest comedy from director Judd Apatow, The King of Staten Island, starring Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson. It’s the first of three straight films Universal will release to digital rental platforms this month as theaters still figure out how to reopen safely.
Netflix, meanwhile, has a big movie of its own coming to streaming subscribers this weekend: Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s film about a group of Black Vietnam veterans returning to the country to dig up the gold they buried there during the war. Da 5 Bloods was always going to be released onto the streaming service with or without a pandemic, but now the context is different. It’s up against two other big movies—one of which is from its biggest rival, Disney.
Usually, a buzzy Netflix release like Da 5 Bloods would have the streaming market to itself. As companies like Disney, Warner Bros., and NBCUniversal elect to put more new movies directly onto their streaming services in lieu of theatrical releases, the weekends in which Netflix could reasonably assume it’d win over streamers’ time due to a lack of online competition can no longer be taken for granted.
Without box office receipts, it’s unclear how the success of these new digital movie weekends will be measured. Universal publicly bragged about the revenue its digital release of Trolls World Tour generated—but we’ll never know how much more or less it would have made with a widespread theatrical release. Netflix’s viewership metrics are notoriously hard to parse on their own, and even harder to compare accurately to benchmarks the industry uses, like ticket sales. Disney has not divulged if, when, or how it will report viewership of the movies it releases directly on its streaming service.
One way to get an idea of how successful these films really are is to log the number of new sign-ups each service gets this quarter. The problem with that, however, is that both Netflix and Disney were already seeing a surge in sign-ups this year due to the pandemic (Quartz member exclusive). The companies surely know which of their movies and TV shows are driving sign-ups, but short of them giving the rest of us that information, it’s up to third-party analytics firms to guess. The studios are likely to give up that data only when the results are impressive.
Further complicating the picture is that digital releases allow entire families to purchase or stream each movie only once, as opposed to having to buy tickets for every attendee when watching at a theater.
So we may not know which company “wins” the June 12 streaming weekend, if there even is a clear winner. But if these kinds of weekends occur more regularly during the pandemic—and long afterward—Hollywood will have to come up with new ways to calculate success to match the new era of online distribution. The July 10th weekend, for instance, will pit a Netflix action film starring Charlize Theron against an Andy Samberg comedy on Hulu.