2020 has been an unpredictable and challenging year for movie studios and filmmakers around the globe. Widespread production shutdowns have pushed the release dates of many major films into uncertain territory, and with the global closure of traditional movie theaters, studios and filmmakers have been forced to rethink how they want their films released and seen by audiences around the world. It’s not hard to imagine the questions those studios have been asking themselves these past few months, as many have weighed which of their films they could afford to release straight-to-VOD, and which they couldn't.
The result of all these hard decisions is a summer movie season unlike any that audiences have ever seen before, one that has turned watching movies from the comfort of your couch into an entirely new kind of experience.
The emergence of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon as major film distributors has made traditional release strategies and the value of the theatrical experience a constant point of debate for years now. But COVID-19 has forced many to rethink their previous beliefs, including auteurs like Spike Lee, whose most recent effort, Da 5 Bloods, was released straight to Netflix last month, bypassing awards-season rollout, including a premiere at a major festival.
For all the cinephiles out there not lucky enough to live in Los Angeles or New York, the wait for Oscar hopefuls like Da 5 Bloods is usually a frustrating one. Most studios and distributors typically release their awards contenders in those two cities first, with the rest of the world waiting weeks or months for them to become available in either their local theaters or on major streaming services. That was the case last year for films like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, as well as the most recent Best Picture winner Parasite. The straight-to-Netflix release of Da 5 Bloods likely came as a breath of fresh air to all the audiences out there eager for new film releases.
That has been the case for several other films in recent weeks, from Hulu’s release of the Elisabeth Moss-led Sundance darling Shirley, to the premiere of the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs (also on Hulu) this week. Not only are those films being made available across the country at the exact same time, they’re also being immediately exposed to a much larger audience than if they'd stuck to the traditional theatrical release strategy adopted by most independent film studios.
Hollywood hasn't just been sending just its smaller titles to VOD these past few months, either. Family friendly animated offerings like Trolls: World Tour and Scoob! were among the first major studio films to skip their initial theatrical plans. And, after speeding up the home video launches of both Onward and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to similarly capitalize on the increased levels of at-home viewership provided by the COVID-19 crisis, Disney+ released Artemis Fowl last month, followed by last week's release of a little-known Broadway production named Hamilton. Elsewhere, Netflix skipped any theatrical release for their Chris Hemsworth-led action film, Extraction, and Apple TV+ is doing the same this week with Greyhound, their WWII drama starring Tom Hanks.
None of this is to say that every film is receiving the same at-home release treatment as all the titles mentioned above. Studios are holding off on releasing their major blockbuster titles like Black Widow, No Time to Die, Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan and Tenet until the time comes when they’ll be able to draw in preliminary revenue from worldwide theatrical ticket sales. But, even with those titles off the table for the time being, the number of films being made available immediately is staggering.
Whether you’re in the mood for a movie star-led project like Greyhound or a smaller, critically acclaimed comedy like Palm Springs, there’s a new film available to watch from the comfort of your own home right now. It may not be the summer movie season Hollywood had in mind, but it's likely to be one we'll be remembering years from now.
Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.