NEW YORK — The coronavirus pandemic has cracked Hollywood’s traditional theatrical window. With theaters increasingly shuttering nationwide, Universal Pictures on Monday said it will make its current and upcoming films available for on-demand rental, becoming the first major studio to turn directly to home viewing in light of the virus.
The studio said it will put movies currently in theaters — “Invisible Man,” “The Hunt,” “Emma” — up for rental on-demand beginning as early as Friday. It also said that “Trolls World Tour,” one of the only major releases left on the April film release calendar, will open “day-and-date,” debuting in theaters and on-demand services simultaneously. A 48-hour rental will cost $19.99.
The move came as theaters worldwide have closed and many North American cinemas are shuttering. On Sunday, the mayors of New York and Los Angeles ordered their cities’ theaters shut. Theaters in Massachusetts and Quebec have also closed. Overseas, most European cinemas have shut down, as have those in China, India and elsewhere.
Major theater chains in the U.S. have attempted to stay open in areas where they hadn’t been forced to by government officials. AMC Theaters, the largest movie chain in North America, said Monday it will limit attendance at all screenings to 50 people to adhere to the CDC’s latest social distancing guidelines.
Over the weekend, ticket sales plunged to their lowest levels in at least 20 years at the box office for U.S. and Canadian theaters. Not since a quiet September weekend in 2000 has weekend box office revenue been so low, according to data firm Comscore. More people went to the movies the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001.
“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 NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell in a 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 extraordinary move marked what could be seen as either a watershed moment for Hollywood or an aberration due to extremely unusual circumstances. With few exceptions, the major studios have guarded the usual 90-day exclusivity window even as digital newcomers like Netflix and Amazon have challenged it. For the studios, box office still represents the industry’s primary revenue generator. Last week, the Motion Picture Association said worldwide ticket sales reached $42.2 billion last year.
The National Association of Theater Owners, the trade group that represents movie exhibitors, declined to comment.
NBCUniversal is prepping its own streaming service, dubbed Peacock, but it isn’t to launch until July 15. On Sunday, the Walt Disney Co. made “Frozen 2” available on its streaming service, Disney Plus. But that film had already completed its theatrical run. Its digital release didn’t break the traditional 90-day theatrical exclusivity window.
Discussing ticket receipts for titles including “The Hunt” and “Invisible Man” on Sunday, Universal’s distribution chief Jim Orr called the situation a unique time for the industry. “But we’ll get to the other side of it, and the box office will come back very healthy,” said Orr. “It’s just a matter of when that might be.”
Hollywood has postponed most of its upcoming releases. This week’s previously most anticipated movie, “A Quiet Place Part II,” has been removed from the schedule. Other releases, including Disney’s “Mulan” and the James Bond film “Die Another Day” have been put off. Universal earlier pushed its latest “Fast and Furious” movie, “F9,” from late May to April of next year.
That means that even if movie theaters remain open in the coming weeks, they will have little to play. There are almost no major releases planned for the next two months. Other distributors are shuffling plans. The boutique studio A24 said Monday that it will re-release the acclaimed “First Cow” later this year since its recent release has been marred by theater closures.
Much of the entertainment world has shut down. Broadway theaters, major museums and theme parks have closed their doors. Concerts have been called off: Elton John was the latest as Monday he announced dates in North America for his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour from March 26 to May 2 would be postponed: later dates remain unchanged.
Festivals including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York have been canceled or delayed. Most live-action film and TV production has been put on hiatus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
By JAKE COYLE | AP Film Writer
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