In previous blog posts, we’ve explored how streaming services and the media industry have adapted to a world recovering from a global pandemic. One such development was major motion picture studios announcing that blockbuster movies would release simultaneously on streaming services and in theatres, or in some cases, only on SVOD platforms.

This decision has led to a lot of controversy in Hollywood, from vastly underperforming projects like The Many Saints of Newark to legal battles with Black Widow’s Scarlett Johansson. But how did this decision come to be, and how has the general public reacted?

What Is A Simultaneous Release?

The act of releasing a debut movie in multiple formats, most usually in theatres and on home video or streaming platforms, is known as a simultaneous release strategy. While many people may think this started in response to theatres shutting down due to Covid-19, simultaneous releases have been around for a long time, as early as 2005.

Most early instances of simultaneous releases were for award season consideration. To qualify for nomination, the Oscars required films to have a minimum Los Angeles release. Other times, studios had to change their release strategy due to theatres refusing to screen their film. One of the most notable examples of this was 2014’s The Interview, which satirized North Korea’s military regime and was met with threats of terrorism from foreign countries.

Fast-forward to 2020, the year ravaged by coronavirus, and theatres shut down for a major part of the year while most of the population was isolated at home. Theatre attendance was the lowest since 2002, and Hollywood needed to make changes to their release strategies.

The first attempt to salvage the movie industry was to shorten the exclusivity window of theatre premieres. Typically, a film had 70-90 days of theater exclusivity before it was made available on other mediums. With this shortened window, it would now be possible to debut a movie digitally a mere 17 days (or 3 weekends) after its cinema counterpart.

Covid-Era Same-Day Streaming

Late 2020, notably after the high-budget film Tenet flopped, WarnerMedia, the parent company of Warner Bros. and HBO, announced that all of their 2021 releases would come to HBO Max the same day as they hit theatres.

However, this release strategy was not without a catch. Not only did these titles require you to have the premium $14.99/month plan of HBO Max (as opposed to the ad-supported plan), but the titles were removed after a mere 31 days of streaming.

Disney did something similar, with live action movies like Mulan getting the fully digital debut strategy, however it took a steep price point of $30 to stream it. Many consumers scoffed at the thought of shelling this much for a single stream. Other notable releases such as Hamilton moved to streaming exclusivity, while films like Black Widow saw simultaneous release strategies.

The Black Widow Controversy

Speaking of Black Widow, we have to mention the very public lawsuit by Natasha Romanoff’s actress, Scarlett Johansson, as she claimed the simultaneous release strategy cost her millions in promised bonuses based on box office performance. Black Widow was conceived in 2017, 4 years before its 2021 release and 2 years before the launch of Disney+, so her original contract would have said nothing about the streaming service.

Black Widow was also the first ever Marvel movie to get a simultaneous release, further alienating Johansson from her Avengers peers. And while her frustrations may be warranted, a money-hungry lawsuit amidst an era where poverty is at an all-time high and countless Americans are out of work may not have been the best look for Johansson.

Even so, the lawsuit represented a major shift in how Hollywood and actors may have to view big ticket films. Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek defended the corporation’s decision for a simultaneous release, noting that wider accessibility and maximized viewership is a positive. But will high-profile actors accept a reduced rate to get their films out to the masses?

Ending After Just The Beginning?

We might not need to answer that heavy-hitting question just yet, however. Warner Bros. and Disney have both repealed their simultaneous release strategies going into 2022. Warner will finish its 2021 run with the current HBO Max model, while Disney has already forfeited the plans, with its next animated feature, Encanto, coming to Disney+ 31 days after its theatrical debut.

You have films like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to thank for that decision. The Asian-led superhero flick raked in over $90 million on Labor Day weekend, a pandemic-level high. And for high-octane action films, what better way to view them than in a theatre?

No, we’re not advocating for traversing public spaces if you’re not comfortable. However, when weighing the pros and cons of day-and-date releases, consumers and media experts alike agree that the novelty of films is weakened when they do not debut solely in theatres. Something about the entire cinema experience, from the overpriced concessions to the surround sound and towering screen, elevates the viewer’s enjoyment.

Pros and Cons of Simultaneous Release

After a year of day-and-date releases, has the novelty of theatre worn out? Have viewers accepted the limitations of streaming at home and conformed to enjoy the content regardless? 

Turns out that films generally have a longer lifespan in theatres than they do on streaming services like Disney+. Research shows that SVOD-only films lose around 63% of their viewership each day between week one and week two. Instead of steady popularity, these films tend to fizzle out quicker than most.

Not to mention the glaring fact that, for studios, releasing a film directly to a streaming platform is almost always going to net a profit loss. Aside from subscriber costs, there’s no way for these types of releases to make any additional revenue. Economists estimated Warner Bros. lost upwards of $1.2 billion thanks to their simultaneous release strategy on HBO Max. 

It’s possible streaming platforms and Hollywood are eyeing a hybrid solution… A meeting in the middle of sorts. For example, Netflix’s The Unforgivable featuring Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis will spend a few weeks in theatres prior to its December 10th SVOD release. Will this be the way of the future, or will theatres one day reclaim their spot in the entertainment industry?

For now, if you’re still avoiding theatres like the plague, you can use SelectTV’s pay-per-view deal finder to help you out. SelectTV aggregates thousands of on-demand movies and compares their prices to nab you the best deal out there. Never overpay for new releases again!

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Sources:

Alexander, J. (2020). Warner Bros. will release all of its new 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max. The Verge.

Caballero, D. (2021). Cruella: Why The Simultaneous Release Is A Good Idea (& Why It Isn’t). ScreenRant.

Chavez, S. (2021). The ‘Black Widow’ Controversy is About More than Just Money. The Gonzaa Bulletin. 

Clark, T.  Why movie-theater owners are still troubled by hybrid release strategies, even as some major studios commit to an exclusive theatrical window. Insider.

Gartenberg, C. (2020). AMC and Universal agree to let movies go from theaters to digital rentals much sooner. The Verge.

Hayes, D. (2021). Day-And-Date Streaming Is “Winning Strategy”, But Consumer Bond With Movies Is “Greater Now Than It’s Ever Been”, WarnerMedia & Universal Execs Say. Deadline. 

Katz, B. (2021). Every Movie Theater vs. Streaming Release Is Riddled With Pros and Cons. Observer.

Masango, A. (2021). HBO Max Reverses Same-Day Movie Releases: What Does This Mean for You? Make Us Of.

Rubin, R. (2021). Theater Owners Chief John Fithian Doubles Down on Streaming Debate: ‘Simultaneous Release Does Not Work for Anyone’. Variety. 

Steigrad, A. (2021). Disney to release all remaining movies exclusively in theaters this year. New York Post.