Courtesy of JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Disney+, and iTunes
Businesses and individuals have faced many unprecedented challenges this summer, but one of the most public changes to life in the wake of COVID-19 was the lack of blockbuster movies in theaters. After all, how could movie studios and theater companies reasonably expect people to group together in indoor rooms, with hundreds of strangers in them, while we deal with an airborne virus that spreads best indoors? As such, before much government action was taken, we saw one movie after another become further and further delayed into this year or into the next. Heavy hitters like the newest James Bond film “No Time to Die,” Marvel’s “Black Widow” and DC’s “Wonder Woman 1984” have all been moved from their spring/summer release dates to the fall and winter.
Movies that were already in theaters when the pandemic hit, like “Onward” or “The Invisible Man,” quickly transitioned to the digital world as rentals and on streaming services, with a theater-to-home release window far smaller than ever seen before. Since then, all movies released have been released at home via digital rentals. Among these movies was “Trolls World Tour,” which was so successful that it led Universal Studios to say they would be exploring the option for digital releases to accompany all future theatrical releases. (This announcement, in turn, led to a boycott of Universal movies by theater companies.) Other movies came out on streaming services, such as “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix, “Palm Springs” on Hulu and “Greyhound” on Apple TV+. However, by and large, the heavy hitters of the movie industry skipped out on this year, leading to absence of the great American tradition of going to the movies over the summer to see the latest blockbuster.
Now, after many months, studios seem to be trying an even wider array of different strategies for releasing their blockbusters. One potential model is the digital rental model through storefronts like the iTunes Store or the Google Play store, which already have infrastructure for releasing movies for purchase or rental. Traditionally, films released on those digital storefronts have already premiered in theaters and are now available on Blu-Ray for home release months later, with rentals usually ranging from $4 to $6. Now, new films are actually being premiered on these platforms for a premium, with rentals around costing $20.
A major recent release to have utilized this model is the recent “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” which was intended to be a theatrical release before it was delayed multiple times until it was finally released on the premium video-on-demand model on Aug. 28. Since that weekend, the long-awaited sequel to the cult classic “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” has become a top rental across platforms and was also the most popular movie of the month of August, despite being released just days before the month ended. However, exactly how much money the film made is hard to tell, so whether this model is successful or not remains to be seen.
An escalation of this model is Disney’s latest live-action remake of an animated classic, “Mulan,” which was originally supposed to be released in March. The film is having no theatrical release in the US at all, which seems like a major sacrifice for the studio, considering that recent remakes like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” made more than a billion dollars each. In its place, “Mulan” was released on Sept. 4 as part of a program that Disney calls “Premier Access,” where the film will be exclusively available for their Disney+ subscribers for an additional premium of $30 on top of the monthly subscription fee of $8, with the film available for viewing as many times as wanted afterwards. The film will also be released on Disney+ for all subscribers in December, so perhaps it might be worth it to just wait three months, unless you think new content is worth the $30 premium.
Although studios are exploring different means to show movies, theaters are a cultural institution and provide an irreplaceable cinematic experience. Given the battering they have faced due being forced to be shut down for so long, director Christopher Nolan has taken it upon himself to save movie theaters with the release of his new film, “Tenet.” A time travel thriller that has been shrouded in mystery throughout its marketing, “Tenet” is being released exclusively in theaters in order to give theaters a major release to sustain themselves on. However, whether it is safe or not to actually go to a theater is still unclear. While theater chains have bragged about their safety features, such as blocking off every other row, requiring masks and sanitizing seats, the facts remain that COVID-19 spreads best indoors and packing people into the same room, in general, is a dubious idea. Again, the worth of a new movie is up to the individual, but seeing movies in a theater currently feels like an irresponsible decision for both moviegoers and the community––especially when theaters are still going to be selling popcorn that you have to take your masks off to eat.
As we–hopefully–start moving towards recovery from the pandemic, more entertainment and movies will continue to release, but for us college students, access to new movies will remain prohibitively expensive, at the least, or dangerous, at the most. Whether movies are worth it or not is up to you.