NBCUniversal to rent new movies online early because of coronavirus

Trolls World Tour will be its first movie you can rent digitally the same day as its theatrical release. Birds of Prey from Warner Bros. will also get an early online release.

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Joan E. Solsman
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Trolls World Tour is coming straight to your home.

Dreamworks Animation

NBCUniversal said it will make movies available to rent online in the home the same day as their global theatrical releases, as cinemas worldwide close and attendance drops because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Trolls World Tour, a DreamWorks Animation movie set to open April 10 in the US, will be the first film with what's known as a day-and-date release -- when the theatrical debut and home-viewing release are the same day. 

Movies including The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma that are already in theaters will be available via on-demand services (like iTunes and Amazon Video) as early as Friday. They'll be available for a 48-hour rental period at a suggested retail price of $19.99 in the US or the price equivalent in international markets, the Comcast-owned company said. 

Separately Tuesday, Warner Bros. said its Birds of Prey would be released early for video-on-demand rentals, also for $19.99, on March 24, which is about two weeks early. Over the weekend, Disney moved up its streaming release of Frozen 2 by three months, dropping it onto Disney Plus in the US on Saturday and planning to release it in international Disney Plus markets Tuesday. 

But NBCUniversal's move is the first time a major Hollywood studio has so dramatically collapsed the traditional life cycle of a film release for something that hasn't come out at all yet. Usually movies spend roughly six months exclusively in cinemas before they move to other formats, like digital downloads and rentals, DVDs and, later, TV and streaming. As theaters close and coronavirus preventive measures keep people out cinema seats, studios have mostly decided to postpone the release of new movies like No Time to DieMulanF9 and A Quiet Place Part 2 -- until now. 

"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," Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, said 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."

An important note: None of the latest movies that NBCUniversal is releasing online early is a mega-budget film that studios expect to be an eye-popping global blockbuster. Universal's Fast and Furious franchise often has films with budgets exceeding $200 million, plus millions more spent on huge marketing campaigns. 2017's The Fate of the Furious made $1.2 billion at the global box office. But earlier this month, Universal opted to delay F9's release nearly a year.

Universal's next huge film on its release slate is its Minions sequel in July. 

"The prior installment of the franchise generated over $1.1 billion in global box office back in 2015," LightShed analyst Rich Greenfield said in a note Wednesday. "Our gut instinct is that Universal will delay this film, but who knows." If Trolls World Tour's online sales go well, "it could set the stage for Universal to be even bolder and try to test what happens with a potential blockbuster film such as Minions: The Rise of Gru," he added. 

NBCUniversal said Tuesday it will continue to evaluate its distribution strategies as conditions evolve in each market "when the current unique situation changes."

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