Social distancing promotes online streaming as movie theaters close nationwide

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Aerin Fortes, Contributing Writer

For the first time in the U.S., the box office has recorded zero revenue. COVID-19, social distancing, and the president’s push to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people have caused the box office to plummet to its lowest sales in motion picture history.

This is just one example of how the pandemic is beating the film industry to a pulp. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the complications caused by coronavirus are expected to cost Hollywood $20 billion.

Major movie theater chains including AMC, Cinemark and Regal have shut down in compliance with COVID-19 directives. 

Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that nonessential businesses, including movie theaters, are to be closed in Virginia until April 23.

With virtually all movie theaters closed across the country, studios opted not to report any data to Comscore, the agency responsible for official reports of the box office. 

Audiences worldwide have been looking for an alternative to attending the crowded theaters, urging studios to move their films to streaming platforms accessible to those in self-quarantine. 

Disney has already moved many of its most recent blockbusters to Disney+, including “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker,” “Frozen II” and its latest and less renowned “Onward.” 

Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek said in a statement he hopes the early online home releases of these films will provide comfort in the anxiety-induced environment that the pandemic has left the country in. 

For “Frozen II” specifically, Chapek believes its “powerful themes of perseverance and the importance of family” will be especially useful now more than ever.

“The financial losses the pandemic has hit the film industry with leaves people wondering how movie theaters and studios will recover. If the sales are successful, it might become the norm for theatrical releases to be moved online faster than ever once things go back to normal.” — Aerin Fortes

Universal Studios, a division of NBCUniversal, piggybacked as well, moving their recent theatrical releases “The Invisible Man” and “Emma” online for a 48-hour rental. The company’s statement focused on convenience for its global population. 

“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,” NBCUniversal’s CEO Jeff Shell said in a statement. 

Likely because Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” was not expected to do well, the studio decided to break its traditional theatrical window and move to streaming immediately. 

With the number of individuals at home in response to the pandemic, companies seem motivated to move films to online streaming releases. This period can serve as a test to determine the success of online streaming.

Film distribution across platforms usually runs on a normal cycle of remaining in theaters for three months before physical copies and video on demand, or VOD, become available. That window keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Eventually, the theatrical window might close completely, leaving all film to be distributed online only with just a few local theaters left operating.

The Byrd Theatre’s marketing director, Lisa Rogerson, discussed the demand for at-home releases as well as the drop in box office revenue over email.

“Our patrons watch online streaming, but we offer such a different experience like no other,” Rogerson said. “You can come see a film on a huge screen — we have one of the largest screens in the state — with an auditorium full of people, in a beautiful setting.” 

The Byrd Theatre held an online viewing “Fantastic Fungi” on March 26 followed by a Q&A with the film’s director. Rogerson said 40% of that event’s proceeds were to benefit the Byrd. 

“The Byrd is more than just watching it on your TV, it’s the experience and the community doing it with you,” Rogerson said.

The accelerated shift to online streaming amid the pandemic is just the beginning for the future of online VOD. Every movie listed above costs $19.99 to purchase across the board on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video (with the exception of “Frozen II” on Disney+). 

The financial losses the pandemic has hit the film industry with leaves people wondering how movie theaters and studios will recover. If the sales are successful, it might become the norm for theatrical releases to be moved online faster than ever once things go back to normal. 

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