Is Streaming the Future for New Movie Releases?
PUBLISHED: Monday, February 22, 2021

Is Streaming the Future for New Movie Releases?

Movie theaters worldwide (and especially in the United States) are facing a future that’s uncertain at best and bleak at worst. Theaters in the nation’s largest markets—New York City and Los Angeles—are still shuttered by state and local governmental mandates. In response, Warner Brothers has promised dual theatrical and streaming debuts for its entire slate of films in 2021. Disney has indicated that it may continue to release new films on its Disney+ streaming service into 2021, as well.

Film industry analysts tend to agree that until those large markets reopen for business, new releases will continue to either be pushed to later calendar dates or diverted to streaming outlets. But what if the nation’s cinemas are still shuttered or running at low capacity in March or April of 2021? Theater operators that are still in business have been clear that they need to start running at full capacity as soon as possible to recoup their losses, and that they need a steady supply of high-profile, tentpole pictures to support those kinds of sustained sales. But that may not be coming, especially with the markets in New York and Los Angeles having no firm timetable for fully reopening and major studios committing to releasing some (or all) of their new movies via streaming services.

While it’s doubtful that movie theaters will cease to exist entirely, we may be at a real crossroads for the film industry. 2021 could be the year that the scales tip permanently in the direction of direct-to-consumer releases that either compliment or supplant traditional theater release windows. In other words, the simultaneous debut model that Warner is testing this year could well become the new normal for films. There has long been speculation that Hollywood studios would move in that direction, especially now that many of those studios are in (or getting into) the streaming game themselves and can use tentpole films to attract subscribers.

On the other hand, the theater industry is still wildly important to Hollywood and wields influence to match. When NBCUniversal suggested in April of 2020 that it might bypass theaters in the future and offer new releases directly to consumers through premium on-demand outlets, AMC—the nation’s largest theater chain—responded by publicly refusing to screen any new NBCUniversal movies. By July the two had agreed to terms that preserved AMC’s window of exclusivity, but also shortened it from 90 days to 17. We can’t reasonably expect theater owners to let Warner Bros., or any other studio, move forward with their plans without a similar compromise in place.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that streaming debuts aren’t the future for new movies. A number of trends that have been started or accelerated by COVID-19—work from home, an increased prevalence of telemedicine, personal hygiene practices, etc.—are being forecast to stay with us long-term. We should probably add simultaneous debuts for new films to that list.