With box office plummeting and movie theaters closed or closing in many states and entirely shuttered in dozens of overseas markets, NBCUniversal has announced it will become the first Hollywood studio to make wide releases immediately available on demand. The first new release to be released to home video the same day it’s released to theaters will be Trolls World Tour, currently scheduled for April 10, with a suggested rental price of $19.99 for a 48-hour rental. Universal movies already in theaters, including The Invisible Man and The Hunt, could be available as soon as this Friday. Meanwhile, Universal’s subsidiary Focus Features will make Autumn de Wilde’s recently released adaptation of Emma available to rent starting Friday.
“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,” CEO Jeff Shell told Variety 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.”
Virtually every studio movie scheduled for release between now and mid-April has already been pulled from the schedule. The James Bond movie No Time to Die was pushed to Nov. 25, the ninth installment in the Fast & Furious series has been moved to 2021, and Disney’s Mulan and New Mutants have simply been taken off the schedule with no new date set. But with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending a ban on gatherings of 50 or more for at least eight weeks and precious little idea what path the coronavirus epidemic will take in the U.S., it’s hard to predict at this point when the business of gathering strangers together in the dark will go back to normal—and, when it does, what “normal” will mean.
That doesn’t mean theatrical exhibition is doomed, or that Hollywood is giving up on it. There’s no indication that Paramount is going to reverse course on A Quiet Place Part II, whose March 19 release date has been postponed indefinitely, and A24 is opting to withdraw Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow from theaters and relaunch it later rather than pivoting to an on-demand release. But Universal’s move represents a major shift from studios that have resisted any shortening of the window between theatrical and home releases, and another blow to the theaters who have fought it tooth and nail. As with a lot of things, it’s far too soon to tell right now, but we might someday look back on Trolls World Tour as the movie that changed Hollywood forever.