Universal to offer rentals to moviegoers stuck at home

Universal Pictures became the first major studio to make its new films available for on-demand rental Friday as cinemas worldwide close to support "social distancing." This move could set a new precedent for home entertainment platforms. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
People enter an AMC theater on March 14, 2020, in Los Angeles. Studios are offering in-home rental movies as cinemas across the U.S. begin to close because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. movie theaters nationwide are preparing to shut down after President Donald Trump announced new guidelines urging against gatherings of more than 10 people because of the coronavirus pandemic. With big screens across the country going dark, Hollywood moved to rush some new releases onto home entertainment platforms.

The coronavirus pandemic also cracked Hollywood's traditional theatrical window. Universal Pictures on Monday said it will make its current and upcoming films available for on-demand rental, becoming the first major studio to turn directly to home viewing in light of the virus.

The studio said it will put movies currently in theaters – "Invisible Man," "The Hunt," "Emma" – up for rental beginning as early as Friday. It also said that "Trolls World Tour," one of the only major releases left on the April film release calendar, will debut in theaters and on-demand services simultaneously. A 48-hour rental will cost $19.99. 

The move came as theaters worldwide have closed and many North American cinemas were shuttering. On Sunday, the mayors of New York and Los Angeles ordered their cities' theaters closed. Theaters in Massachusetts and Quebec also shuttered. Overseas, most European cinemas have shut down, as have those in China, India, and elsewhere.

"Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles in the home that is both accessible and affordable," said NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell in a statement. 

"We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible." 

The extraordinary move marked what could be seen as either a watershed moment for Hollywood or an aberration due to extremely unusual circumstances. With few exceptions, the major studios have guarded the usual 90-day exclusivity window even as digital newcomers like Netflix and Amazon have challenged it. For the studios, box office still represents the industry's primary revenue generator. Last week, the Motion Picture Association said worldwide ticket sales reached $42.2 billion last year.

Regal Cinema's the national's second largest theater chain, said on Monday that it would close all cinemas beginning on Tuesday. AMC Theaters, the largest theater circuit, didn't immediately respond to messages. Earlier in the day, AMC said it would limit audiences to less than 50 people for every screening to facilitate social distancing.

Over the weekend, ticket sales plunged to their lowest levels in at least 20 years at the box office for U.S. and Canadian theaters. Not since a quiet September weekend in 2000 has weekend box office revenue been so low, according to data firm Comscore. More people went to the movies the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001. 

The National Association of Theater Owners, the trade group that represents movie exhibitors, declined to comment. 

NBCUniversal is prepping its own streaming service, dubbed Peacock, but it isn't to launch until July 15. On Sunday, the Walt Disney Co. made "Frozen 2" available on its streaming service, Disney Plus. But that film had already completed its theatrical run.

Its digital release didn't break the traditional 90-day theatrical exclusivity window.

Discussing ticket receipts for titles including "The Hunt" and "Invisible Man" on Sunday, Universal's distribution chief Jim Orr called the situation a unique time for the industry. "But we'll get to the other side of it, and the box office will come back very healthy," said Mr. Orr. "It's just a matter of when that might be."

Hollywood has postponed most of its upcoming releases. This week's previously most anticipated movie, "A Quiet Place Part II," has been removed from the schedule. Other releases, including Disney's "Mulan" and the James Bond film "Die Another Day" have been put off. Universal earlier pushed its latest "Fast and Furious" movie, "F9," from late May to April of next year.

Other distributors are also shuffling plans. The boutique studio A24 said Monday that it will re-release the acclaimed "First Cow," which opened in limited release on March 6, later this year since its initial bow has been marred by theater closures.

Most of the entertainment world has shut down. Broadway theaters, major museums, and theme parks have closed their doors.

Concerts have been called off: Elton John was the latest as on Monday he announced dates in North America for his "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" tour from March 26 to May 2 would be postponed: later dates remain unchanged.

Festivals including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York have been canceled or delayed.

Most live-action film and TV production has been put on hiatus.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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