Universal and Apple Offering Same-Day Rentals of Theatrical Films on iTunes

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As theatres and other social gathering places begin to shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, entertainment companies are looking for alternative ways to get their content into the hands of customers, which has undoubtedly led to a recent announcement by Universal Studios that it will be offering several new releases that are still in theatres as rentals on iTunes

This is actually something that Apple has been pushing for since at least 2016, and while we heard sporadic rumours that it was coming a few years ago, nothing every actually materialized, as the studios presumably decided that there was more profit to be made from getting people to flock to theatres than there was in offering rentals of new theatrical releases — even at $50 a pop.

Except now, of course, people can’t flock to theatres any more — or in the very least they shouldn’t be. With Apple having led the way in shutting down retail operations, many theatres are starting to close their doors as well. Regal Cinemas, the second-largest chain the country, told Deadline that all of their 542 theatres across 42 states will be shutting down effective immediately, and while Regal is the first to decide to shutter its doors entirely, other major chains are already significantly limiting attendance, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see more closures in the coming days.

Update: AMC just announced that it is also closing all of its movie theatres in the United States “for at least six to 12 weeks.”

So what’s a Hollywood studio to do when people can’t watch their new movies anymore? Some studios like Disney and MGM have already postponed major film releases like the live-action Mulan and the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, but there’s a world of difference between doing that and pulling those that are already in theatres now.

According to Deadline, the solution that Universal has come up with is to offer those moves on iTunes, starting this Friday, as $20 rentals. While that’s obviously steep compared to the usual $4 rentals on iTunes, it’s actually still quite a bit less than the $50 price tag that Hollywood was considering, and it’s still cheaper than the price of theatre tickets these days, especially since most people rarely go to the movies alone.

New Same-Day Rentals

The movies that will be coming out this week on iTunes include The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma, all of which will be available as the standard 48-hour rentals, and will reportedly be made available in all countries where those movies are playing in theatres (and where Apple offers iTunes movie rentals, of course).

In an even more unprecedented move, Universal and DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour will be released as an on-demand rental on the same day that it’s scheduled to hit theatres — April 10 in the U.S., and April 20 in other countries. However, Deadline notes that the Robert Downey film, Dolittle will not get an early release, likely because it’s still waiting for a theatrical release in China after things start to get back on track in that country.

A Sign of Things to Come?

While we’ve hoped for a long time that the studios would see the light in offering same-day rentals of theatrical releases, it’s important to keep in mind right now that this is an exception by Universal Studios, and not necessarily a sign of things to come. Right now the studio hasn’t made any commitment beyond the release of Trolls World Tour in April, although it will likely continue to make more decisions on a film-by-film basis as things with COVID-19 continue to play out.

Universal Pictures has a broad and diverse range of movies with 2020 being no exception. 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, NBCUniversal

However, this latest decision proves that the studios are more than capable of providing same-day online releases of their films, and in fact they’re already more or less setup to do so. Any holdouts have obviously been for more economic than technical reasons — the big national theatre chains mandate a minimum 90-day exclusive window before videos become available through other channels, so it’s unclear if the chains have made concessions here or if NBCUniversal simply doesn’t care under the current circumstances. In either case, however, hopefully if things go well with this attempt NBCUniversal and other studios may be encouraged to make this sort of thing a more permanent arrangement.

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