Yesterday I blocked a guy on Twitter for responding with “Oh good, that means I’ll be able to pirate them” to the seismic news that The Hunt and Invisible Man would be hitting VOD this Friday. It was a petty move, if I’m being honest with myself; I was cranky and stressed out, but also fuck that guy. He embodied the selfish, entitled “I’m gonna get mine” attitude that resulted in me paying inflated ticket prices for years and, more to the point, resulted in you not being able to find toilet paper on the shelves this week as you prepare to hunker down for the self-isolation we’ve all been tasked with practicing in response to the coronavirus.
It was a tiny detail in a massive picture around which many of us are still struggling to get our heads: thanks to a reality-changing global pandemic, an industry that you and I spend a whole lot of time and money supporting has been decimated. Movie theaters across the country have closed. Some of them won’t ever open again. Every job that feeds off theatrical exhibition -- box office attendant, projectionist, theater cleaner, popcorn wholesaler, film blogger -- is now in jeopardy. In the midst of this, Universal did the unimaginable: they’ve decided to make their high-profile current releases available on VOD this weekend.
In the comfort of the home to which you’re currently confined, this Friday you can watch legit blockbuster The Invisible Man or coronavirus casualty The Hunt (in theaters for all of four days as of this writing) for $20. (Emma and Trolls World Tour are also going up, but for the purposes of this conversation we’ll keep to the horror titles). $20 to watch a brand new horror movie that you, thanks to the current state of the world, are unable to see in theaters.
To me this price is a no-brainer. Where I live on the East Coast, a non-matinee viewing of a new release costs my wife and I about $24. (To spend less than that, we have to wake up early and hit the multiplex before 11am.) We head to the multiplex, hoping against hope that noisy patrons or cell phone addicts or people with the flu don’t sit near us. We endure substandard projection and sound from muddy speakers, wrung out by one Fast & Furious sequel too many. Now you’re telling us we can see The Hunt on our schedule, in our underwear if we want, and if we love The Hunt we can hit play and watch it again right there. (I haven’t done that with a first-run movie since Empire Strikes Back in 1980.) Add to all this the self-isolation and #StayHome of it all, and how that might make one starved for diversion of any kind, and I think it’s fair to say $20 for The Hunt this weekend is a legitimate bargain. (I keep citing The Hunt; I’ve seen The Invisible Man already and it was fantastic, very much worth your $20.)
Others reacted less optimistically about this turn of events. I’m by no means an industry expert, but friends who follow this stuff believe this development is a genie that will not be put back in the bottle, that “going to the movies” is going to become the new vinyl, a niche experience for hardcore aficionados only. Box office wags are telling me that what the eradication of the theatrical window means for the exhibition industry is nothing less than catastrophic.
Give or take a Drafthouse or a Nitehawk, if the prognosticators are to be believed, multiplexes are done.
Now that Universal has broken the chain, there’s simply no reason to keep buying into this game, to put up with inflated ticket prices, more inflated concession prices, dim projection and a room full of rude strangers who are checking their phones throughout. Universal saw the exhibitors with their fat pink bellies exposed this week, and they struck. More studios are expected to follow suit this week, as theaters are ordered closed for up to eight weeks. Time will tell just how this permanently changes the model, but one thing everyone in the know seems to agree on is that theatrical exhibition will never be the same.
But I keep thinking about that asshole I blocked, the guy who was excited about pirating the movie. One assumes he felt $20 was too much. He was not alone in that opinion; many folks online called the price too steep. Are they not able to amortize the cost with extra household eyeballs? Are the ticket prices that lower in their neck of the woods? Are their expectations for The Hunt just that low?
Because if this trend continues, I can't imagine a price lower than $20 (on opening weekend, at any rate), and in fact it should be pointed out here that The Hunt and Invisible Man are pretty modestly-budgeted affairs, so $20 is very likely the starting point. Your basic Blumhouse jams can probably all do well at that price point, but if No Time To Die is eventually forced to go this route, $20 per household ain’t gonna cut it.
So I wonder: what would you pay? What would I pay? (I’d go $50 for No Time To Die on opening day, but I know I’m not the norm there.) What would that bragging pirate pay? Was there any price he’d have paid, knowing he could just pirate it? How will the motion picture industry retrain its entire customer base -- one used to “waiting for Netflix/HBO/Redbox” -- to pay for streaming content when there’s no longer anywhere else for that industry to screen their product? I can see boutique studios making a go of this new model, whatever it ends up being, but is a monthly Disney+ subscription going to keep the blockbuster machines cranking?
If they re-open, I’ll keep going to the movies. I love going to the movies. When the exhibitor invests in me having a great experience, I’m delighted to spend my money in a theater. And real talk: theatergoing will honestly be improved if the casual, chatty audience members who don’t really give a fuck about the movie in the first place can be convinced to stay home with a decent day-and-date price point. Maybe it needn’t be an either/or prospect. Maybe movie theaters as the new vinyl could work. I have no idea how you make that work as an industry. I hope someone is figuring it out, and I hope that in ten weeks this is all something we have the luxury to be pondering.
Phil Nobile Jr. is the Editor-in-Chief of FANGORIA.