What do the sequels to animated Disney classics, almost every movie released by Jean-Claude Van Damme or Nicolas Cage in the last 10 years and the majority of films released since March 2020 have in common? They were released direct-to-video on-demand. Whether they have been made free for subscribers of the film studios’ respective streaming services, or put on platforms to rent/buy for slightly inflated prices compared to what they would normally cost after a theatrical run, it has become common practice to forgo the typical distribution schedule of movies. Not that there was that much of a choice in the matter. But just as necessity is the mother of invention, so has the film industry adapted and in some ways, evolved to fit the needs of a peculiar year.
Prestige channels like HBO have released TV movies for years that while respected, have still carried with them the stigma of their release format. A film that appears to have been cheaply made or doesn’t seem like it was deemed important enough for release in theaters is often derided as “feeling like a TV movie.” Netflix has made strides in changing that. Efforts on their part to elevate movies released on streaming have slowly broken through long-established ideals of how a movie is supposed to be released, not that they haven’t faced any obstacles, of course. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always remained adamant that a movie must release in theaters to be considered for their top honors. This is what led to films like “The Irishman” (2019), and “Marriage Story” (2019) having short theatrical releases (the length of their runs having more to do with theatrical exclusivity windows with theaters than Netflix’s policies).
Against all odds, 2020 has forced The Academy to, what I assume to be begrudgingly, remove their theatrical release requirement for the first time in history. Most blockbuster movies have been delayed in the hopes that they will be able to be released in theaters next year, while others have done simultaneous releases: a limited theatrical window in markets that have begun to reopen alongside a straight to on-demand approach. For possibly the first time in history, releasing direct-to-video is being viewed as an alternative rather than a downgrade for the studio releasing it. While many are missing the theater experience, thinking less of a movie’s artistic merit because of its home-video release format is increasingly rare. This assertion is somewhat anecdotal, but it is something I’ve noticed when talking to friends, or even when reading the news. What used to be “Have you heard about that new TV movie” has turned into just, “that new movie.” The debate around whether a movie should be delayed to be released in theaters has become more of a financial one rather than one of worrying about the optics of a movie being watched predominantly on televisions. The distinction is subtle, but important.
“Mulan” (2020), Pixar’s “Onward” (2020), “The King of Staten Island” (2020) and many more have been released primarily on streaming services or for on-demand purchase. Universal, after the success of “Trolls World Tour” (2020), even stated its desire to release more movies on-demand, foregoing their theatrical releases, or releasing them on-demand while still in theaters. While this temporarily got the company in trouble with AMC and the actual financial success of the film may have been greatly exaggerated, it is still representative of where the industry could be going. Netflix and other streaming services have primed viewers to be more accepting of this shift over the past few years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been the pressure needed to solidify the trend.