NBCUniversal Breaks Theatrical Window, Will Make Movies Available On Demand Immediately

Trolls World Tour - Publicity Still 3 - H 2019
Dreamworks Animation

Insiders say the move isn't a blanket policy for the studio's entire 2020 calendar and that decisions regarding other titles and the duration of the policy haven't been made yet.

NBCUniversal on Monday announced its current movies from the Universal Pictures stable — including the upcoming event family movie Trolls World Tour — will be made available on demand at the same time they hit those theaters that remain open during the coronavirus pandemic.

The new policy collapses the traditional theatrical window as the film industry grapples with unprecedented circumstances. Cinemas are entirely closed in 32 or more markets overseas and partially closed in another 15 territories, while more countries expected to follow suit. Most, if not all, cinemas are likely to go dark this week in the U.S., where theaters have already been ordered to go dark in New York City and Los Angeles. Other locales are also seeing closures, while circuits staying open are starting to limit capacity to 50 people per auditorium per new CDC guidelines.

Movies will be made available on a wide variety of on-demand services for a 48-hour rental period at a suggested retail price of $19.99 in the U.S. and the price equivalent in international markets. The announcement was made by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell. Insiders say it isn't a blanket policy for the studio's entire 2020 calendar and that decisions regarding other titles and the duration of the policy haven't been made yet.

Rather, the studio is hoping to provide options for consumers who cannot or should not go to cinemas.

In addition to DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour, set to open in theaters April 10 in North America, NBCUniversal will also make movies that are currently in theatrical release available on demand starting as early as Friday.

Those titles include Universal's The Hunt and The Invisible Man, as well as Focus Features' Emma.

"Given the rapidly evolving and unprecedented changes to consumers’ daily lives during this difficult time, the company felt that now was the right time to provide this option in the home as well as in theaters. NBCUniversal will continue to evaluate the environment as conditions evolve and will determine the best distribution strategy in each market when the current unique situation changes," read the company's release.

“Universal Pictures has a broad and diverse range of movies with 2020 being no exception. 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,” said Shell in the same statement. “We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible.”

The on-demand release of Trolls World Tour will benefit from the full arsenal of a marketing campaign already underway, including Comcast, NBCUniversal and Sky’s cross-company Symphony support, which will be in full effect, according to the studio. The day-and-date release will be concurrent with Trolls World Tour’s local theatrical release date in each international market where available.

Over the weekend, revenue at the North American box office tumbled to a 20-year low, while the overseas box office is in a free fall in much of the world. Theaters have now been closed in China for weeks, while most European cinemas are closed. On Monday, most theaters in the U.S. announced plans to go dark.

Last week, as the crisis worsened, Universal and other major Hollywood studios delayed the release of their larger tentpoles. Universal pushed back the opening of the Fast & Furious installment F9 from late May to April 2021, while Disney has delayed Mulan (Black Widow remains on the early May calendar for now) and Paramount pushed back A Quiet Place Part II (the sequel had been set to hit theaters May 20). MGM was the first studio to make a major shift when pushing the James Bond movie No Time to Die from late April to November.

The delays suggest that studios are still reluctant to make their biggest tentpoles available immediately in the home via SVOD or on streaming services, but that thinking could change if the pandemic lasts months. At the same time, film companies are cognizant of the enormous pressure facing the the exhibition business.

For years, studios and theater owners have battled over the traditional theatrical window, which currently rests at roughly three months. Many studios, including Universal, have wanted to experiment with premium VOD, but cinema owners have balked and said they wouldn't play any movie that opened day-and-date.

Separately, Disney announced late last week it was shortening the home entertainment window and making Frozen 2 available on Disney+ three months early.

NBCUniversal is a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.

March 16, 12:30 p.m. Updated with additional details regarding U.S. cinema closures.