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As cinemas go dark, the film industry may go straight to Netflix


This week should have signalled the start of the spring blockbuster season, with the launch of Disney’s live action remake of Mulan first out of the gates. The posters are already plastered on buses and billboards, but with cinemas around the world going dark as the coronavirus spreads, the big-screen release has been postponed.

Mulan had been due to hit the big screen on 27 March, just three days after the world’s biggest entertainment company launches its Netflix rival, Disney+, in the UK and across most of western Europe.

While Mulan will not feature on Disney+ just yet, the Hollywood giant has begun using other films to test the previously reviled Netflix strategy of bypassing cinemas and pushing films straight to fans at home.

The world’s most successful blockbuster maker, which holds propertiers ranging from the Marvel and Star Wars franchises to Toy Story and Lion King, is not quite ready to give up on the enormous revenues cinema exclusivity offers.

Nevertheless, studios have started to query the sacrosanct tradition of cinemas airing films for three months first, ahead of a line of exploitation release “windows”, in a pecking order that includes pay-TV and DVD, designed to maximise the value of every movie.

Disney opted to buck that model, which Netflix has heavily criticised as an anachronism in the on-demand age, by making record-breaking Frozen 2 available on Disney+ three months ahead of schedule. Last week, Universal Pictures, which belongs to Sky’s owner Comcast, followed suit, making The Hunt, Emma, The Invisible Man and DreamWorks animation Trolls World Tour available to rent on platforms from the Sky Store to Amazon Prime Video. And Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot, starring Hollywood heavyweight Vin Diesel, will be available digitally on Tuesday less than two weeks after its cinema premiere, following the US box office hitting a 220-year low prior to a complete coronavirus shutdown.

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“This is Netflix and chill, but for real,” says Jeff Bock, analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Hollywood has long wondered how major releases would perform if they bypassed theatres completely. And now they have a chance for a test run without much ire from cinema owners, since most venues are now shuttered.”

The studios maintain that they remain committed to the traditional theatrical release window, but that coronavirus has made for exceptional circumstances. Analysts at LightShed say the mathematics of giving up on a traditional cinema release only works for mid- and lower-budget films: the cash cows that expect to make $1bn or more globally cannot afford to miss out. “We think it is essentially impossible for studios to do anything beyond delay major movies until theatres re-open and life returns to normal,” says LightShed’s Rich Greenfield.

Cinemas across the UK closed last week as the government warned the public to stay at home. With much of the UK essentially homebound for perhaps many months, Tim Richards, founder and chief executive of cinema chain Vue International, says cabin fever will mean the worst year in cinema history will be followed by a boom.

“Families, couples, individuals are being tied up at home for weeks or months now,” he says. “When it is over there will be a demand to get out like we have never seen in history. There is no scenario after lockdown [where] people will say ‘I’m not going out, I’m staying in to watch Netflix’.”

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