Universal Studios just made a pretty incredible announcement via The Hollywood Reporter. Starting this Friday, March 20th, movies that are currently playing in theaters will be available for on-demand rental, specifically The Hunt and The Invisible Man. But the deal also extends to the near future, with Trolls: World Tour falling under the same terms when it should be rocking into theaters on April 10th. I say “Should” because movie theaters are completely closed in countries like China, Italy, and France and cities in New York, New Jersey, California, and Pennsylvania have mandated that theaters remain closed or reduce hours during national efforts to flatten the curve of the Coronavirus. It seems inevitable that these closures will spread to the majority of the US quickly.
The price of Universal’s deal also sounds like a good value, with $19.99 granting access to a new movie for 48-hours. This is less expensive than a trip to the theater for most families based on average ticket prices alone, not even looking at concessions. After months of marketing Trolls: World Tour and with merchandise hitting retailers like Target, WalMart, and Amazon, there’s more to lose than gain by not releasing it in some way.
So what could this mean for Disney? They’ve already made some big changes, like adding Frozen 2 to Disney+ almost 3-months ahead of schedule and releasing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker for digital sale a week early. But they’ve also postponed the release of three films theatrically.
Pixar’s newest original animated film, Onward, had a lackluster opening weekend and a 73% drop in its second weekend. It has an A Cinemascore and an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not an issue with the quality of the film. It’s that families are not going to the theater for their own safety and there’s an untapped market of Pixar fans that would love to see it if they could. Not to mention the hundreds of artists at Pixar Animation Studios that spent years working on the film with the end goal being that it reaches audiences, which it’s unable to do given the current climate. If nothing else, it seems like a win-win situation for Disney to test the waters with Onward by making it available on-demand the way Universal is doing.
In the case of Mulan, which was scheduled for a March 27th release, the studio already held the world premiere and started their press tour. Not to mention the fact that movie tie-in books and merchandise are sitting on store shelves without a movie to drive sales. Having seen the film already, it’s a very cinematic experience and an action-adventure worthy of seeing on the big screen. But if that’s not going to be an option, there’s more at stake by significantly delaying the release date than by giving the world an opportunity to experience this version of the story.
I’m sure the executives at Walt Disney Studios are looking at the Universal Studios news and already brainstorming a way to surprise and delight audiences by thinking outside the box and working on a way for audiences to still experience their newest releases without putting all of their plans on hold. Time will tell, but I’m hoping they surprise and delight in the near future.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.