The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changed the way we watch movies. Movie theaters were forced to shut down in March, pushing back the theatrical release dates for many movies. Studios had to come up with a solution to compensate for their loss in revenue. They turned to streaming platforms, where they released their titles to rent instead.

Universal was the first studio to do this with their movie Trolls World Tour, which was released to rent for $19.99 on April 10. A few weeks later, the movie made almost $100 million in rentals. For comparison, Trolls World Tour profited more than Trolls did at the domestic box office. Studios and theaters often split the profits 50 percent, so while Trolls made $153.7 million domestically, Universal only kept $77 million. This experiment showed that rentals can be quite profitable, leading to apps like Disney+ gaining more users, posing the question if movie theaters are even needed in the age of streaming services. 

One of the many movies that was released during the pandemic was Hamilton. On July 3, Hamilton was released on Disney+ without a rental fee. Originally, it was supposed to be shown in theaters starting October of 2021, but, due to the pandemic, the release was quickly pushed up. With the closure of Broadway, there was a need for content since people could not go and see live performances. Hamilton took the world by storm and increased the amount of Disney+ downloads by 74 percent. This was compared to the previous four weekends in June, showing Disney’s risky gamble paid off. The response from the public was quite positive, with people sharing their reactions on Twitter and Tiktok, critics applauded the energy the film brought, and Hamilton was considered a major success. 

Mulan with her sword raised superimposed over a picture of Hamilton from the musical of the same name.
Reactions to and profits from Hamilton and Mulan had people speculating what the future of digital non-theatrical releases will look like.
Photo courtesy of CBR

Hamilton’s success may have been what Disney needed to see in order to bring more of their film titles to be released on Disney+. A month after Hamilton’s release, Disney announced that their live-action remake of Mulan would be released on Sept. 4 with a $30 rental fee. This was met with outrage, as users would still have to pay $6.99 to get Disney+ in the first place. “I wouldn’t pay $30 for a movie ticket in the theater,” one Twitter user wrote, others stating that they would not pay to see it if the film did not have any of the elements of the original animated film. Despite the negative comments from the public, Mulan seems to have done well. The release of the film upped the download of Disney+ by 68% and increased in-app spending by 193 percent. While Mulan did not beat Hamilton, it still came pretty close (even following the calls to boycott the film). 

These two films aren’t the determining factor on whether or not streaming releases are going to definitely stay, but this experiment is helping studios determine the performance of streamed releases and will most likely shrink the window between theatrical and digital releases. Market analyst and former head of strategy for Amazon Studios Matthew Ball wrote, “Historically, studios considering such a direct-to-home-video strategy could only speculate as to likely performance or the potential ceiling. Now they will have at least some idea, not to mention experienced sellers.” 

Theaters will eventually reopen (in fact, some theaters are already reopening with new social distancing procedures), and movies will be back to being released onto the big screen, with movies like Tenet already trying to bring people back to the theaters. However, the way movies will be streamlined to home video might look different (with a speedier release process, too) because of the figures to support streaming releases.

Author

  • Kim Tsuyuki is a third-year English major with a minor in Film Studies. This is her first year working for the QC and is currently writing for the Arts & Entertainment section. When she isn’t working, she can be found playing video games, collecting stickers, and watching the same three movies (over and over, like chill out Kim). She’s kinda sad, but mostly hungry.

Kim Tsuyuki is a third-year English major with a minor in Film Studies. This is her first year working for the QC and is currently writing for the Arts & Entertainment section. When she isn’t working, she can be found playing video games, collecting stickers, and watching the same three movies (over and over, like chill out Kim). She’s kinda sad, but mostly hungry.

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