Amid an unprecedented shutdown of movie theatres and entertainment production, major players are experimenting with new business models as digital platforms ascend and artists take up a DIY ethos: “You have to adapt.”
Huw Samuel had planned to take his girlfriend to see Universal’s The Invisible Man in a theatre near his home south of London. Then the corona-virus crisis changed his plans, as it has for people around the globe in ways both dramatic and mundane.
Like those in America, U.K. cinema chains were forced to close in mid-March, so Samuel, 29, did the next best thing for a date night — he brewed a pot of tea, turned off the lights in his apartment and rented Invisible Man on Amazon Prime for £16, or about $18.
“I thought it was a pretty reasonable price — about what we would have paid for tickets,” says Samuel, an actor and director whose work on a commercial and a feature have been delayed by the pandemic. “It was only corona that put me off going to the cinema … but this has opened my eyes to more streaming possibilities.”
Long before a public health crisis closed exhibitors’ doors, the audience’s retreat from the theatre to home video had driven both anxiety and opportunity at entertainment companies. But COVID-19 represents a watershed moment in the business, one that is accelerating current trends in media consumption and forcing Hollywood to embrace its digital future.
Desperation has driven studios to shrink the once sacrosanct 90-day theatrical window, a move some have been contemplating for more than a decade. At the same time, new streaming video services are drawing heavy investment, and though no company wants to be perceived as profiting from the disaster, streaming usage will be up 60 percent overall during the crisis, according to Nielsen.
Gaming will spike 75 percent, according to Verizon. Internet demand is already so high in Europe that government officials there have asked Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney to reduce the video quality of their streams to lessen the burden on the continent’s networks.
“COVID-19 will expand the gaps between those lagging and leading in the transition to digital distributions and business models,” says venture capitalist Matthew Ball, former head of strategy at Amazon Studios.
“OTT video services will surge, while pay TV loses its most valuable content — sports — and sees an accelerated decline in subscriptions and ad revenue. Parks and movie theatres are ground to a halt, while gaming companies hit new highs in usage.”
The virus disaster, which has shut down production at virtually every entertainment company, also has exposed weaknesses, especially in those that carry a heavy debt burden, like ViacomCBS, Endeavour and theatre chain AMC Entertainment, or those that rely on travel to theme parks and cruise ships, like Disney.
Cowen analyst Doug Creutz has cut his earnings estimates for all the entertainment companies he tracks through 2022, slashing his price target for Disney from $159 to $101 and for ViacomCBS from $25 to $17.
Widespread layoffs are expected in an industry that had expanded to meet the demands of the streaming content bubble, with agencies including Endeavour and Paradigm already cutting staff and with UTA slashing employee salaries.
The question for many in entertainment is how permanent these changes will be — will the industry rebound once the pandemic has passed and come to resemble its former self or will this crisis cement a new normal in Hollywood?
When Universal executives called Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum to discuss plans to make The Invisible Man available for home rental just three weeks into its theatrical run, along with another Blumhouse movie in theatres, The Hunt, “I was supportive of their decision,” Blum says. “It was a very tough decision. In a time of crisis … you have to look forward. You have to adapt.”
Universal had released Invisible Man wide in theatres Feb. 28 and made it available to rent March 20 at a cost of $19.99 in the U.S., narrowing the theatrical window to just 21 days.
The $9 million movie, which had grossed $123.6 million worldwide before theatres closed, was the top movie on Fandango’s VOD service over the weekend of March 20-22. Blum says Universal execs assured him their strategy is a temporary response to the crisis while making it clear that the Comcast-owned studio will be using the unplanned experiment as a way to learn what consumers will tolerate.
“Is the audience going to see it as, instead of going to the theatre and all the costs associated with that, getting there, parking, popcorn, a babysitter if you have kids. … Are they going to say, ‘Wow, this is a real bargain compared to that?’ ” Blum says. “Or are they going to say, ‘What a rip-off. Netflix is $12 a month. I could watch a hundred movies.’ No one knows the answer to that.”
Universal’s groundbreaking decision was followed quickly by Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. making similar moves, albeit offering their films for purchase, rather than rental, and by Paramount sending its April romantic comedy The Lovebirds to Netflix.
Though the shifts were a response to a singular catastrophe, this change may reverberate long after the crisis has passed, as consumers, who can now watch fresh-from-the-theatres releases like Disney’s Onward, Sony’s Bloodshot and Warner Bros.’ The Way Back at home, may come to expect such convenience.
So may audiences who watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Idris Elba about his corona-virus diagnosis via the Apple TV+ app on their iPhones rather than the linear TV sources they used to rely upon for such newsworthy moments. And households that are ditching their $100-plus cable bills without the lure of live sports may not return when the pandemic passes, especially under the financial pressures of a recession.
Some insiders counter that consumer routines are more resilient than any single crisis. “People will still want to go to events, games, concerts, movies,” says billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who sold his stake in the Landmark Theatres chain in 2018 and has been an advocate for shortening theatrical windows for more than a decade. Cuban does not believe the shorter windows will inspire people to stay home when theatres reopen.
“People will forever get cabin fever, and ‘Netflix and chill’ is not a long-term solution for 16-year-olds who are dating, at least not in my house. People will return to their old habits once they trust their environments to be safe. We have had tragedies in entertainment venues before, yet people have returned. I don’t expect this to be different.”
Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman says the eventual end of the pandemic will unleash pent-up demand for entertainment outside the home. “There will be a great surge of emotional appreciation for collective experiences,” Rothman says.
“That’s who we are, as human beings, and that’s who we have always been since telling stories around the fire in prehistoric times, and I think it’s primal. I think it’s going to remind people how much they love what they’ve missed.”