That’s a Lot That’s Happened In the Last Few Days

The theatrical exhibition world is upside down.

It was just a few days ago that the biggest announcements coming out of Hollywood were a handful of release date changes, with major titles being pushed back by several weeks if not several months.

Since last Friday, though, we have already gone through approximately 762 news cycles, each bringing with it a handful of changes and updates, all of which were more groundbreaking and largely unprecedented than what came before.

Studios have not only punted even more major releases – including Black Widow, which had previously been the sole holdout to Disney’s other changes – but have halted production on projects like The Matrix 4, the Avatar sequels, the third Jurassic World movie and countless others.

The combination of big titles being pulled from the release schedule and guidelines from the CDC as well as many state, county and city agencies to avoid gatherings, practice social distancing, isolate at home if possible and more lead theater owners to make a sequence of decisions. First it was to limit seating at shows. Then it was to shut down some locations in select cities, usually following mayors or governors ordering such measures. Finally, AMC, Regal, Cinemark and most all others have closed all their U.S. theaters.

Also contributing to that incredibly difficult and highly unusual decision is that not only was the Covid-19 coronavirus not showing any signs of slowing down in the U.S. but last weekend’s box-office was the worst such period in 20 years. That’s good news for public health as it eliminates at least one place where people can ignore the recommendations being offered, but it means those theaters aren’t making any money, with the workers there – often among those making somewhere around minimum wage – likely suffering the brunt of the consequences given the lack of social safety net programs.

One movie that hasn’t been rescheduled is Universal’s Trolls: World Tour, which the studio announced will be available via VOD rental platforms for a 48-hour period the same weekend it was meant to hit theaters. Other recent titles like The Hunt and The Invisible Man will also come to digital home video early, following a trend begun by Disney when it released Frozen 2 to Disney+ streaming three months ahead of its planned debut. The Rise of Skywalker is also out on digital now, a few weeks ahead of time, and Warner Bros. says Birds of Prey and other recent titles will follow suit.

frozen 2 pic

That’s good news for people who are exercising common sense and staying home if they’re able to, especially if they have kids home for extended periods because of school closures. For theater owners it may not be quite as sunny a picture.

Commentary over the last few days has included how Disney’s moves could lead to an even further collapsed theatrical release window and how Universal shifting Trolls from theaters to on-demand hints at the kind of business model studios likely prefer, especially given the higher profit margins and reduced costs.

How the theaters themselves will emerge from this is the big question mark hanging over the situation at the moment. Studios do indeed have the flexibility to alter a movie’s release pattern and platforms because they control the product and can choose a different supply chain when one unexpectedly closes.

Theaters are less nimble and rely on the studios to use them as the distribution venue of choice. Box office receipts are already down six percent in 2020 from last year, and now are faced with the combination of no revenue whatsoever for anywhere from six weeks or so to three months or more and massive debt loads that make their financial situation precarious and subject to sharp downward turns given the slightest marketplace hiccup.

Just today, the National Association of Theater Owners finally put out a statement in response to all the developments of the last week, making it clear they see any deviations from the minimum 90 day theatrical release window as an aberration to be at best overlooked and they they are certain people will return to theaters once they reopen.

The question remaining, though, is this: What will they be reopening with? Studios are pushing their entire calendars out, so if things level out and real life commences in June it’s unclear what movies will even be available at that point. And what kind of marketing campaigns will they be supported with? So many movies have already been significant advertising and publicity pushes in support of release dates that are no longer happening or feasible, and new dates will have to keep in mind both overcoming audience hesitancy to come back out into the world and allow for enough time to make the public aware of the new date.

Both those issues are troublesome on their own. Put together they are even more problematic.

One Big Question Still Outstanding For New Streaming Services

History offers a few indications of how Disney and Apple might sell their original streaming content to the public.

Within the next several months we will see the debut of new streaming OTT services from both Apple and Disney. Both have been announcing new series and movies in the last year and are poised to significantly disrupt the market of existing players. Apple has been more focused on TV shows and hasn’t, to my knowledge, branched into feature films, but Disney has a mix of shows and movies planned.

Among the original movies on the schedule are:

  • Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick. The movie was originally slated for theatrical release but was pulled from the calendar in favor of saving it for the eventual streaming service.
  • Lady and the Tramp, a live-action remake of the animated classic that has put together an impressive cast so far including Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Kiersey Clemons and others.
  • The Paper Magician, based on Charlie N. Holmberg’s book of the same name.
  • Togo, about a sled dog in the 1952 run to Nome.
  • The Sword in the Stone, another live-action remake of an animated film.
  • Three Men and a Baby, a remake of the Ted Danson/Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg family comedy.
  • Stargirl, based on the novel by Jerry Spinelli about a ukulele-playing girl who goes to public school for the first time after being homeschooled for years. Grace Vanderwaal has been cast to star and the movie should not be mistaken for the DC Universe streaming series “Stargirl” based on the Geoff Johns-created super hero.
  • Don Quixote, a new version of the story directed by Billy Ray in what is probably an unintentional throwing of shade at Terry Gilliam, who’s still struggling with the adaptation he’s been trying to make for over 15 years.

That’s an impressive slate and, when added to whatever Disney and Fox catalog titles, Star Wars TV shows and more that are also planned, makes a powerful case to give the service a try.

Despite the difference in strategies, the questions raised here by Daniel D’Addario at Variety about Apple’s plans are applicable to Disney’s upcoming service as well. Still, aside from what either service will eventually be named, one big one remains in my head:

How are these movies going to be marketed to the public?

The answer, I’m wagering at the moment, lies in a mix of how Netflix’s marketing for its original films has evolved over the years and some ways Apple has experimented with adding value to its on-demand video store in the past.

First, as I pointed out recently, Netflix has become much more ambitious with its movie marketing tactics recently. Whereas it used to regularly only release a single trailer – sometimes less than a week before the movie was available – and a half-hearted poster, it’s embraced featurettes, cute videos with the casts of high-profile movies and more to build and sustain the conversation. These are the same kinds of videos that have been produced by online media brands like Vice, Vox and others in the past and are meant to appeal to the same young, hip audience.

Second, iTunes regularly adds what it calls “Extras” to some of the high-profile titles available through its storefront. These extras are similar to what’s traditionally been produced as bonus features on DVD and Blu-ray but are unique to the service, encouraging audiences to pay a little more for the supplemental material they’ve enjoyed in the past. Sometimes you can access bonus features early if you order the movie for home viewing months in advance, often while it’s still in theaters.

Apple as a whole is not known for its content marketing efforts. The company has historically run social media accounts that were all but barren, there only so it could use the accounts to run “dark” ads that were inserted into people’s feeds.

It will find, though, that when the goal is to get people’s attention and compete against a slew of other providers on the basis of exclusivity and not convenience, it’s going to have to up its game. That will likely mean not only on-platform promotions such as placing banners in the featured carousel of the iTunes store (similar to what Netflix does with the top of its logged-in homepage) but also going off-platform to YouTube and social networks to meet audiences where they are, hoping to pull them in to download an original film or series. Featurettes, interviews and other material could be a big part of the message put out there, offering something unique to anyone opting to jump in.

Disney won’t have quite such a steep learning curve, of course. It already wholly embraces off-site advertising and marketing for its existing film and television slate. Still, the economics will be somewhat different because it will be working against gravity to draw in new customers and continue communicating the core value propositions. On-platform promotion will be a component of the mix, to be sure, but one that will be small at the outset until a critical mass of users are accumulated.

All of this is speculation since, again, we don’t even have official launch dates or brand names for either offering. But there are precedents that can be looked to as we wonder how big a splash both will make upon arrival.