Cinema releases are heading to on demand services a lot quicker at the moment – but is the price right? We’ve been taking a look.

Over the past few weeks, as you more than likely know, we’ve seen four films that were in the midst of their cinema run prematurely find themselves on premium video on demand services. Universal had led the way in responding to the closure of cinemas around the world by debuting Emma, The Invisible Man and The Hunt on such services, with Trolls World Tour getting its premiere next week.

Since then, Lionsgate has followed its lead, releasing Military Wives via the same route. Again, a film that had just opened, that’s been denied a full cinema run.

It’s been a quick, decisive and slightly divisive response to the Coronavirus outbreak, and its impact on cinemas. A move to try and scramble back something from what would have been a full theatrical release.

In these cases, the studios have figured that these are still films that otherwise would be playing in cinemas, and they’ve set the pricing accordingly. Each of the movies mentioned comes with a £15.99 price tag, and for that you get a rental of the movie. They each follow standard video on demand terms, whereby once you’ve paid for your ‘rental’, you have access to the movie for 30 days, or 48 hours from the point of pressing play. Whichever time period is shortest.

The thinking here is that it offers decent value if three or four of you are watching, and that it’s still a saving on the price of a cinema outing. Notwithstanding the fact that you have to provide the equipment to watch the film on, what you’re getting is a home format version of film, a good two or three months before you might otherwise get it. You’re paying, effectively, for the speed of release.

This isn’t actually anything new: in the US, a company has been offering new releases in the home whilst they’re in cinemas already. But as we reported here, said company has been charging $10,000 a time for the privilege. Set against that, £15.99 seems quite reasonable.

But is it?

There’s been some pushback instantly from consumers over the price tag set, arguing that for that kind of amount, they’d expect to be getting a Blu-ray of the film. At the very least, to be able to keep the movie for a longer period of time. That accepting there’s a much shorter gap to the home release, it still feels a lot of money for something you don’t actually ‘own’ (notwithstanding the ongoing debate about how much you ‘own’ a digital download anyway). It’s not as if the audience in the home is much better behaved than the one in the local multiplex either.

Universal and Lionsgate will be only too aware of that (the debate over the price, rather than the audience behaviour issue!), and will be pressing ahead with their plans for a regularly-priced release once the theatrical window has expired for each of the movies concerned. The two studios are treating these as an extra release if anything, that we wouldn’t otherwise get. Hence the price: if you want to see it around cinema release time at home, you have to pay a premium.

It seemed to me to be a pretty decent half-way house. I paid for The Invisible Man the day it came out, and three of us watched it. It’s not something I’d make a habit out of, but I wanted to support the release, and support cinema. Plus, it was cheaper than us all toddling off to the Odeon.

The problem, of course, is at home there’s a lot more competition. If you’re sat browsing on-demand services, you have hundreds and thousands of alternative options for substantively lower prices (as opposed to generally around half a dozen of so choices at a multiplex, where there’s usually one film snaffling several screens). And several people have told me that they went to ‘rent’ one of these premium titles, and talked themselves out of it when they saw something else they wanted to watch for a couple of quid instead.

The real test for this iteration of the premium video on demand model – and it’s one the film industry is watching very closely – will be Trolls World Tour. The $90m sequel is the sole big movie that hasn’t moved its release date in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, and instead is eschewing a cinema release altogether in favour of a premium video on demand approach. This is after the kind of expensive promotional campaign and build up that a cinema release would get too, appreciating that campaign was already in fully swing.

Can, then, the release now deliver anywhere near the revenues for Universal that a cinema release would? And will audiences be more inclined to stump up £15.99 for a blockbuster movie that hasn’t been available anywhere else before?

It’s by Trojan horse become the test for a big release heading to home channels on day of release, and it’s a strategy that’s had to come together very quickly indeed. Should it succeed, the metaphorical cork may well be impossible to put back in the equally metaphorical bottle.

Because after all, the debate has raged in the industry for a while about whether it’s worth releasing films in cinemas and on demand on the same day. That many have felt this is the model cinema will ultimately move towards, and it feels that it’s taken an unplanned stride towards that.

This is already happening with smaller films of course, but outside of the major blockbusters – that can still routinely pull in a cinema audience – might it now be the way forward for mid-sized and non-franchise releases too? The release of Trolls World Tour will be offering some skewed evidence as to whether that might work.

It’s no secret that some in the industry have been pushing for such an approach for some time, but many are also resistant. In fact, some studios are going to great lengths not to pursue this particular avenue.

Warner Bros, in delaying Wonder Woman 84 to August, accompanied the news with a statement from director Patty Jenkins about the importance of a theatrical release. It’s delayed its slate of features, rather than looking for alternative distribution strategies. Paramount, meanwhile, has opted to sidestep the issue by selling one of its upcoming filmsThe Lovebirds – to Netflix.

That said, some studios are still looking at a way to recoup lost cinema revenue, and each has been looking at ways to accelerate home releases in the current climate.

Yet whilst Universal and now Lionsgate have been early outriders, not everyone has followed the same approach. In fact, it seems there’s a little bit of division.

Sony, for instance, went its own way with the release of Bloodshot on demand early. The film had barely been in cinemas for two weeks before they shut, yet Sony has put it on sale to buy and keep for £13.99. Two quid cheaper than the aforementioned titles, and with no time restriction either.

The lack of a collective industry-wide way forward – appreciating there’s been precious little time to knock one together – is telling. If different studios continue to pursue different paths, it’s hard to see the £15.99 premium video on demand price point holding. And customer pushback against that level of cost is not likely to dampen. After all, if everyone sells new release DVDs at £10, and one major company sells them from day one at £7, that tenner suddenly feels out of step and too expensive. The same, surely, applies to on demand movies too.

This is all clearly a completely new situation that the world, and cinema, finds itself in. Ordinarily, decisions that have been taken over the past few weeks would have required endless months of meetings and Powerpoint presentations.

Yet here we are.

Out of the blue, the theatrical window has temporarily dramatically truncated – and in one case been sidelined altogether – as the film industry tries to cope with the loss of one of its main revenue streams. Audiences too are readjusting. And as much as some in the industry – not least cinema owners – aren’t keen on these early releases, as always, it’s ultimately the end viewer that’ll decide. And vote with their credit and debit cards.

The telling statistic may just be how many £15.99 debits are racked up over these coming weeks. And with that in mind, all eyes shift to Trolls, which is now the highest profile guinea pig for this premium video on demand model. How well or otherwise the film now does could well have some notable ramifications for cinema, the price we pay for films, and when we get to see them.

Who’d have thought the critters had so much influence?

Lead image: BigStock

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