Hollywood starts shortening films' theatrical window to benefit the home market
The pandemic effect in full force this year, whether changes stick remains to be seen
Anyone following the changes in the home entertainment market for any length of time has surely been aware of the delicate balance Hollywood has been trying (harder and harder each year) to keep between its partners in the movie theatre business and its own retail and direct-to-consumer-services business. One of the points of contention between these two businesses has always been the duration of the theatrical window of films: the amount of time they remain in theatres after their opening weekends before heading for release in digital stores, for optical disc distribution and eventually for release to subscription services. This window used to be anything between six months to a year, but during the last decade or so it has been reduced to 90 days.
This three-month window had already been widely criticized during the last few years by many, as very few films can actually take advantage of it: "long-tail" movies, capable of filling theatres after four or five or maybe six weeks after their opening weekend, are indeed few and far between. But owners of movie theatre chains refuse to define films' theatrical window on a case-per-case basis as this would probably lead to a slippery slope where only megahits would remain in theatres for 90 days, making their business unsustainable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in the entertainment market, though, that Hollywood studios - one by one - are starting to shorten the film theatrical window to just half of that accepted by the industry last spring. Disney, for instance, confirmed that its upcoming releases Free Guy and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (planned for release on August 13th and September 3rd respectively) will be the company’s first two 2021 films to debut exclusively in theaters... for 45 days. After that, they will be made available to all the retail channels and subscription services all movies eventually head to, including Disney Plus.
Disney is not even the first doing this - it's just the biggest Hollywood studio to adopt this 45-day film theatrical window policy. Warner has already confirmed that when its movies return to theatres in 2022 they will feature the same 45-day window. Paramount has mentioned a while back that many of its 2021 blockbusters, such as Mission Impossible 7 or A Quiet Place Part II, will also be offered in this 45-day window, while smaller movies will have an even shorter one (just 30 days). Universal has already deals in place with major movie theatre chains for theatrical windows ranging from 17 days to 31 days, others are expected to follow.
Truth be told, this makes sense for Hollywood during a global pandemic: since cinemas are still nowhere near to returning to normal operation, the studios can just as well release their big blockbusters theatrically for a month and a half, cash in on the first few opening weekends and then take these movies to digital delivery immediately after that, making the most of the same films while they are still considered just-released. This is especially true for 2021-2022, as most studios are trying to attract consumers to their respective subscription services.
What remains to be seen is whether most movie theatre owners will play along after 2021 - because, let's face it, Hollywood studios would probably like to make the 45-day theatrical window permanent and only extend it for the real blockbusters of any given year. The "abnormal pandemic circumstances" excuse will only work for so long and, by the look of things, the movie industry is heading for a reckoning at some point in 2022 or 2023. What comes after that is anyone's guess but Hollywood has been preparing for a long time for it. All the COVID-19 virus did was bring the inevitable clash forward.