In A Potential Game-Changing Decision, NBCUniversal Will Make Theatrical Movies Available On Demand Immediately

After years of discussions about the possibility of shrinking the theatrical window, NBCUniversal is going to obliterate it altogether. According to a new report, the company is going to release at least some of Universal Pictures' theatrical offerings on demand at the same time that they hit theaters. When a book is written about this period in history, this may be a crucial turning point in the way the entire industry operates.

An Unprecedented Decision

According to The Hollywood Reporter, NBCUniversal is taking the unprecedented step of making "its current movies from the Universal Pictures stable — including the upcoming event family movie Trolls World Tour — will be made available on-demand at the same time they hit those theaters that remain open during the coronavirus pandemic." Starting as early as Friday, March 20, 2020, theatrical films including Universal's The Hunt and The Invisible Man and Focus Features' Emma. will be available to stream on a variety of on demand platforms. (Trolls World Tour will hit theaters and on demand on April 10, 2020.) The movies will be available for "a 48-hour rental period at a suggested retail price of $19.99 in the U.S. and the price equivalent in international markets."

For the better part of the last decade, there have been conversations in Hollywood about shortening the theatrical window – in other words, minimizing the length of time between a film's theatrical release and when it is available for home viewing. Theaters have been fighting tooth and nail to preserve an extended window, with the fear being that as home entertainment systems continue to improve, people may bypass the theatrical experience altogether if they don't have to wait very long to rent highly-anticipated movies and watch them at home. Companies like Time Warner Cable and Napster founder Sean Parker's The Screening Room tried to introduce options where people could pay as much as $50 to watch recent theatrically-released movies at home, but they never took off. Now, the coronavirus (aka COVID-19) has forced the studios' hand, and NBCUniversal is the first to jump into the deep end and embrace a new way of doing things.

Will This Be Hollywood's New Normal?

THR's piece specifically says that this simultaneous release plan "isn't a blanket policy for the studio's entire 2020 calendar, and that decisions regarding other titles and the duration of the policy haven't been made yet." NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell issued a statement commenting on the policy:

"Given the rapidly evolving and unprecedented changes to consumers' daily lives during this difficult time, the company felt that now was the right time to provide this option in the home as well as in theaters. NBCUniversal will continue to evaluate the environment as conditions evolve and will determine the best distribution strategy in each market when the current unique situation changes.

Universal Pictures has a broad and diverse range of movies with 2020 being no exception. 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. 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 wants people to still go to theaters, but he understands that isn't the best idea right now. Movie theaters have already been closed in New York and Los Angeles, and AMC is limiting its screenings to only 50 people everywhere else in the country. But the stock market is in free-fall, last weekend's box office performance was one of the worst in decades, and as of this morning, AMC Theatres (the largest chain in the country) was reportedly on the path to "a negative $285 million of free cash flow" which "could lead to some liquidity issues." All of that is terrible news for the industry (and obviously the people affected by the virus itself), and it appears that Shell is looking to minimize the loss as much as possible by taking a new approach to distribution.

The big question we have is: once a move like this has been instituted, can studios then rescind it and return to the ways of old? Or is this a Pandora's box situation in which once the new methods are rolled out, it will change the way things work forever?