Boris Tsag/Sun Senior Photographer

April 12, 2021

Theaters and Streaming Past the Pandemic

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Since Netflix started offering video streaming in 2007, turning to streaming services to watch films has become increasingly common amongst viewers. With the wide variety of films offered and the convenience of staying at home, streaming platforms have an understandable appeal. When the pandemic forced everyone inside, many became even more reliant on streaming; sometimes watching an entire season of a television show in one sitting was the only way to cope with the stress caused by the pandemic’s danger and uncertainty. While streaming platforms have usually hosted television shows and films previously released in theaters, theater closures due to COVID-19 have resulted in new films being released directly onto streaming platforms, finding a way to reach audiences even with the challenges of the pandemic. 

Despite the widespread movie theater shutdowns beginning in March 2020, Universal Pictures still found a way for audiences to watch their newest film. In April 2020, Trolls World Tour was the first movie to be released directly to streaming, earning almost $100 million without being shown in theaters. Although, to be fair, with most of the world facing heavy restrictions due to the growing prevalence of the coronavirus pandemic, viewers essentially had no options for watching the new film aside from paying to stream it. 

Now, over a year after the first lockdown, many movie theaters have started to reopen, prompting more companies to give their films theatrical releases once more. Still, while some viewers are eager to return to theaters, others still aren’t comfortable doing so. As a result, simultaneous releases of movies to both theaters and streaming platforms have emerged as a seemingly perfect solution. Viewers can watch new films in theaters if they want the theater experience and feel safe leaving their homes, while those who feel safer staying at home can stream new films there. Wonder Woman 1984 and Raya and the Last Dragon have already been released in this manner, with In the Heights and Black Widow releasing later this year. 

The growing popularity of this type of film release raises the question of whether or not this will continue into the future. HBO has already announced that all its films in 2021 will be released to HBO Max, simultaneous to their in-theater releases. But, in the post-pandemic era, will viewers still want the dual-release model to be available? It does have its merits: You can see the latest film from the comfort of your own home, with no need to get dressed or pay for overpriced theater snacks. Besides, streaming previously released films and television shows is already a regular occurrence in our lives, so why not continue consuming new films this way too?

In reality, the performance of films released simultaneously indicates that this model hasn’t gained popularity amongst viewers. Wonder Woman 1984 grossed around $165 million worldwide from its dual-release, which clearly falls short of its predecessor’s box office earnings of over $820 million. And although Raya and the Last Dragon earned over $80 million within a month of its release, these numbers were following the reopening of theaters in many big cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Not to mention, Disney+ didn’t see a significant increase in subscribers following this film’s release, implying that the availability of streaming the film didn’t prompt many viewers to turn to streaming. Both these films’ box office numbers show that viewers aren’t drawn by the prospect of watching new films at home. If dual-release hasn’t attracted large numbers of viewers during the pandemic, when safety is the main factor in keeping people at home, my prediction is that it won’t last very long when that’s no longer an issue. 

Besides, after a year of constantly streaming during quarantine, how many people will actually want to keep watching new films at home when the option of going back to theaters becomes safer and more widely available? The movie theater experience has drawn viewers for years, and will continue to do so after the pandemic subsides. Also, compared to the average movie ticket price of $9.16 in 2019, the $30 premiere access price for new films on Disney+ and $14.99 monthly subscription price for HBO Max likely won’t garner a significant level of demand.

Dual-releases may have become the norm out of necessity during the pandemic. But this model is not destined to last through the post-pandemic era. With more theaters reopening and broader vaccination eligibility, more viewers will emerge from their homes and return to movie theaters to watch new films, leaving the dual-release forgotten in the pandemic era.  

Aditi Hukerikar is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]