SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 17: The ticket area is empty in a closed AMC movie theater on March 17, 2020 in Santa Monica, California. AMC Theatres is closing all their theaters nationwide in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Kali Sloan, Checkpoint XP 

Last week’s release of Onward on Disney+ was a huge move for the mutli-media company. The film opened in theaters on March 6, just a few weeks before much of the c0untry went on lockdown. While smaller films have been released to stream soon after their theatrical release, or even at the same time, Onward is a Pixar film; it was Pixar’s first in three years. While other recent films have been available to stream sooner than planned due to the coronavirus — including The Invisible Man and Ben Affleck’s The Way Back — this was the first example of a film with a massive budget being available for home viewing so quickly.

Growing up, if a film was released direct-to-home video, it generally meant two things: the movie had a low budget. And also, the movie was probably not good. My first experience with a direct-to-home video release was The Return of Jafar. If you ever get the chance to sit down and check out Aladdin’s first sequel, go ahead: I’ll take a hard pass on seeing that one again.

The movie featured a vastly reduced budget, animation to match, Dan Castellaneta (aka Homer Simpson) voicing the Genie instead of Robin Willams, and a pretty forgettable story. It still had Gilbert Gottfried though! The movie was meant to launch the Aladdin TV series, but even as a kid, I could tell not a lot of effort went into it.

However, I’m here to talk about a different genie than the one granting wishes to Aladdin. While low budget movies frequently skipped the theaters, anything with significant money or a major name behind it went to the big screen. This is just the way things were. There was no concept of a major Hollywood blockbuster not going to the theater. Until now.

NEW MOVIES AVAILABLE TO STREAM – IS ONWARD ONLY THE BEGINNING?
I’m not going to review Onward here, other than to say that I enjoyed it. But Onward will be remembered as an important turning point in cinema not because of the film itself, but for the fact that it went Disney+ so quickly. Disney couldn’t move the release date back – it was already in theaters. According to Box Office Mojo, it made $103 million in its brief time in theaters — not a great amount for a Pixar film. But it will be interesting to see how it performs now that people can watch it at home.

Other major films that hadn’t hit their release date have moved their release dates. Disney’s Mulan was pushed back to July. Marvel/Disney’s long-anticipated Black Widow and Daniel Craig’s final 007 film, No Time To Die have been pushed back to November.

However, not every movie will change their release date. Like Onward, Artemis Fowl is also now scheduled to release in May on Disney+. So, has the genie been let out of the bottle? We’ve always accepted that big movies will be in theaters for 90 days because that’s how it was. I’ve never questioned it because I’ve never known anything else. But these days, so many of us are discovering that we can in fact do our job from home. So with pretty hi-tech home entertainment systems, will we want to go back to the movie theater?

WILL DISNEY BE A TRENDSETTER?
So will new movies being available to stream really shake up the industry? It’s worth noting that Disney won’t necessarily be an indicator of what everyone else will do. Disney+ has been a huge success since its launch just a few months ago; releasing an “event” movie straight to Disney+ will just give people more of a reason to sign up for the service. Also, Disney not only owns Scrooge McDuck, but they own the money vault he swims in. They can take a massive loss on some films while experimenting with direct to streaming platform releases.

But Warner Bros. doesn’t have a streaming platform to match. Paramount doesn’t have a platform to match. Universal, Columbia, all the same story. So it doesn’t make sense to suggest they could just as easily pull of what Disney is doing. Disney+ can claim that they saved Onward and brought it to a huge audience. Warner Brothers can’t release Wonder Woman 1984 to DC Streaming and make the same claim.

THE FUTURE OF THE BIG SCREEN
This won’t be like flipping a light switch, but I believe the genie may well be out of the bottle. If releasing movies direct to their streaming platform nets a big win for Disney, you’d better believe that will become their norm, especially if they see a dip in overall movie theater attendance when movie theaters open again. Variety is reporting that AMC Theaters is likely to go bankrupt; that’s not a good sign for film studios, and it’s not inconceivable that Disney+ could try to come up with an additional pricing tier for brand new films on their platform.

The future of live events – movies, sports, concerts – are in question. Let’s say you go to a movie after the quarantine is over, and someone behind you starts dry-coughing during the previews. You might not want to come back again; you might not even stay for the rest of the movie. While it’s likely that a lot of people want things to go immediately back to normal, there are surely millions who may not feel anxious to be in crowded areas like a packed movie theater, particularly if they suffered from COVID-19, or lost someone to it.

There’s also the economic aspect: why buy an overpriced ticket to sit in theater with potentially rude patrons when you can watch from the comfort of your couch? Why buy obscenely expensive concessions when you can grab a beer from the fridge? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for movie theaters anymore. When the big-time blockbusters come out, there still is no replacement for seeing it on the big screen. At least, that’s surely what the studios are hoping for.

The studios and movie theater chains are going to need to deliver an experience that (a) can’t be replicated at home and (b) will make people feel safe. That’s going to be a tricky path to maneuver, but it’s a journey they absolutely must take. If not, their best hope for survival will be to find a genie of their own and make a wish.