It's hard to remember now, but just before the 2010s started— when Avatar redefined the blockbuster, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe's successes fueled Disney's industry-saving box-office renaissance—there were a lot of conversations about what the future of filmgoing might look like, and many believed the "going to the theater" part of it was on its way out.
HDTVs were everywhere, DVD still ruled, Blu-Ray was just dropping, and going to the theater was mostly just a giant pain in the ass, what with the high prices, the poor exhibition quality, and of course, the people—the phone checking, loud-talking, food-spilling people. In the time of COVID, it's hard to imagine anyone would consider the prospect of paying Regal or Cinemark over $10 a pop to spend two hours in a roomful of that as a privilege. It sounds more like the sort of trap the villain of a Saw movie might lay.
All the major theater chains have closed their operations indefinitely as the COVID crisis stretches out. So what are the movie studios doing? Making those 2008 conversations fresh and new again: Universal Pictures will allow customers to spend $14-20 to rent Emma, The Invisible Man, and The Hunt for 48 hours starting Friday, March 20 (click each title to read our reviews!). They're premiering Trolls: World Tour in the same way on Fri, April 10. Warner Bros. is hoping to give Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey a new lease on life after (unfairly) disappointing at the box-office by putting her on VOD Tues, March 24. Sony opened Vin Diesel's Bloodshot last Friday but last Friday basically doesn't count, so most people will get their first real crack at it Tues, March 24 on VOD. Hollywood's 800lb. Gorilla/Tyrannosaur/Unicron-hybrid Disney hasn't announced whether they're getting in on this, but they did make sure to put Frozen II on their Disney+ platform months early, and released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker digitally a couple days ahead of schedule as well.
UPDATE: Disney has, in fact, gotten in on this. Pixar's Onward, which was very much enjoyed by Mercury Film Editor Erik Henriksen (read the full review here) is available now for $19.99, and will come to Disney+ on April 3
This is sort of exciting, in the same awful, uncomfortable, and surreal way almost everything about being caught in a global pandemic that's simultaneously moving at lightspeed while putting the entire planet on pause is "exciting." But conversations about the theatrical experience dying were being taken seriously before YouTube became a content juggernaut, streaming networks essentially replaced cable television altogether, and high-speed internet (which should have been a public utility then and is an absolute fucking necessity for our country to function now) became our primary means of interpersonal communication.
This weekend is the first real test for an entertainment industry that seems willing to consider finishing theatrical exhibition's inevitable transition from "moviegoing experience" to "theme-park ride." Should people feel like dropping $14-20 to watch Harley Quinn or The Invisible Man this weekend (and according to our reviews, they probably should! They're both really good!) other studios are absolutely going to play follow the leader.
And considering almost every major studio has their own streaming platform either already up and running or coming very soon (Universal = Peacock, WB = HBOMax, Disney/Fox = Disney+/Hulu, Paramount = CBS/Viacom All Access), it's probably not going to take much of a nudge for studios to start reserving many of their future releases for debut there, in the hopes it'll goose subscription numbers accordingly.
Theaters may not ever go away entirely, and I truly hope they don't—there's a legitimate magic in beautiful images moving across a giant screen—whether those images are as subtle as the shifts in an actor's micro-reactions during a quiet drama, or they're the Hulk splat-packing a digital Tom Hiddleston like a pug thrashing a chew-toy—but it's possible that COVID-19's impact might finally make them a place solely for seeing superheroes, and space-fights, and Avatar sequels (LOL jk those weird blue fuckers are never coming out), while basically every other form of entertainment goes straight to your screens at home.Harley Quinn, Trolls: World Tour, The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Bloodshot will be available for rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and other digital movie retailers Fri, March 20, and Tues, March 24.