This month, parents around the country are dimming the lights in their living rooms, popping popcorn in the microwave, and streaming the brand new “Trolls World Tour” with their kids. Universal claims the film had the biggest digital debut ever—and with the whole country stuck at home, that makes sense.
At any given moment, viewers can see how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting Hollywood right on their television screens, with entertainers from daytime host Ellen DeGeneres to late-night comedians beaming into our living rooms from at-home sets. Production on new movies and television shows has ground to a halt. (Except, apparently, for “90 Day Fiancé.”) Theaters are closed, forcing movies like “Trolls” to hit streaming services without ever hitting the big screen.
The virus isn’t destroying Hollywood so much as it’s accelerating shifts that were already in motion. Before the lockdown, for instance, we were slowly acclimating to streaming new movies at home, and Hollywood was contemplating the future of theaters.
Now, already struggling theater chains are closed indefinitely, facing, perhaps, an earlier demise than they expected, and consumers are exhibiting a willingness to fork over $20 to rent new releases. To be clear, I don’t think theaters will die, but the industry is taking a huge hit and will likely need to rescale.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday, Warner Bros. reaffirmed its commitment to theatrical releases. Industry leaders seem to have mixed opinions on what will become of theaters when all is said and done. Some think people will flock back to the big screen, eager for collective experiences, and aware that no 80-inch TV with surround sound can match watching a movie in a theater. Others aren’t so sure.
“Trolls” made good money. “Universal has not yet reported ‘Trolls’ revenues, but based on multiple sources it seems possible that its domestic 10-day take could exceed $80 million,” noted IndieWire. “With the studio retaining a far greater share via these platforms than from theatrical, it could recoup much or even all of the $90 million-$100 million production cost.”
“However,” the outlet reported, “it would represent much less profit than a theatrical release followed by home viewing.”
In some ways, it seems like a nationwide lockdown would create near-perfect conditions for an experiment in consumer appetites for new releases on demand. But it’s precisely because the conditions are so unusual that it’s not a helpful experiment at all. Consumer behavior during a pandemic, with everyone forced to stay at home, will not reflect consumer behavior when the pandemic fades.
The decent money “Trolls” seems to have made—even though it’s less than what the film would have made with a theatrical release—won’t be what a new release makes on demand when theaters open their doors again. The price point might have to shift as well. That said, the more new releases we stream in quarantine, the more normal the experience will become. We’re being conditioned to shell out the $20, drink our own wine, and settle for microwave popcorn.
Everybody knows there’s simply no replacement for movie theater popcorn. There’s no way to replicate the experience of making an event out of going to the movies, loading up on concessions, sitting in a dark theater with a massive screen and special speakers, and taking in a new release with a group of strangers who react to the film right along with you.
But sometimes you don’t want to leave your couch on a Friday, and we’re learning now that new releases can be enjoyed just fine at home too. In short, the balance between money spent in theaters and money spent on couches is about to shift.