September 18, 2020

Comcast, Disney Embrace Faster Home Video Release Windows In Wake Of COVID-19

There’s a growing list of things that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed as unnecessary nonsense. Broadband usage caps come first to mind, followed quickly by a lingering disdain for telecommuting by a long list of executives. But the outbreak is also shining a light on another dumb practice that has long been a point of contention: Hollywood movie release windows.

For the better part of a decade now, we’ve highlighted Hollywood’s often vicious opposition to disrupting the traditional delay between a film’s theatrical debut, and its release on home video or streaming platforms. Companies like Netflix that have attempted to disrupt this system have traditionally been quickly demonized by the industry. AMC, Regal and Cinemark have all fought tooth and nail to preserve the (usually) 90 day restriction period between a film’s theater release and its availability to home consumers, even if such restrictions no longer make much sense in the broadband era.

Movie patrons, like most other sensible people, are now practicing social distancing in a bid to slow COVID-19’s expansion and ease the looming strain on already maxed out US healthcare systems. In some locations (like here in Seattle), movie theaters are being told to close their doors entirely. In the process, Hollywood is having to suddenly and quickly rethink its longstanding dedication to a release window model that already made no sense in the modern world, and makes even less sense in the wake of a pandemic quarantine.

Disney, for example, is now considering moving big releases more quickly to its Disney+ streaming video platform:

“A senior Disney executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter, said that rerouting “Mulan” to the company’s Disney Plus streaming service was not currently under discussion, in part because of piracy concerns. (Disney Plus is not yet available outside the United States.) Even so, Disney is clearly mindful of the power of its video platform. The company brought “Frozen II” to Disney Plus on Sunday — three months earlier than planned. (The musical was released in theaters on Nov. 22.) Disney described that move as “surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period.”

Comcast NBC Universal announced it would be going one step further, providing online access to many of its film releases long before the traditional window expires:

“Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures said it is making its movies available to watch at home while they are still in theaters, a massive change from Hollywood’s long-established business model that could upend the industry if other studios follow suit.

The decision comes amid widespread closures of movie theaters as the global coronavirus pandemic spreads. Authorities in New York City and Los Angeles on Sunday ordered all movie theaters to close; exhibitors had previously said they would limit attendance in theaters to 50% of their capacity. China, the world’s second-largest market, has kept tens of thousands of theaters closed since late January.”

To be very clear, there will be significant financial hardship for everybody, including brick and mortar theaters, in the months to come. Everybody whose livelihood depends on brick and mortar establishments will need sympathy and every shred of assistance they can get. At the same time, it’s still interesting to watch COVID-19 so quickly dissolve resistance to artificial constructs whose usefulness expired decades ago, but have been propped up by flimsy arguments for just as long. And had the industry been less stubbornly resistant to adaptation and change, this particular shift likely wouldn’t be quite as painful now.
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