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"Sponge on the Run" and "Soul" "Sponge on the Run" and "Soul"

The spread of the coronavirus has thrown film exhibition into disarray. Cinemas around the world are closed, and there’s no knowing when they’ll reopen. China, the first country to shut its theaters, tentatively reopened some of them a few weeks ago — only to close them again without an official reason.

Faced with this uncertainty, distributors are taking radical steps to save their businesses. Many major titles initially scheduled for release in the coming months have been delayed, sometimes indefinitely. Some that were already in theaters have been hastily put online. In an unprecedented experiment, one movie will simultaneously premiere online and in cinemas.

The upshot of all these shifts is that only two tentpole animated features are currently slated to hit theaters this summer: Paramount’s The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run (May 22, Memorial Day Weekend) and Disney’s Soul (June 19). If theaters reopen in time, the films will benefit from a dearth of competition, and an expected boost from being among the first theatrical offerings in months.

But that’s a big “if.” Films originally due to come out later than June have already been pushed back, and the same fate could well befall Spongebob and Soul if the outlook for theaters doesn’t improve fast. Alternatively, Paramount and Disney may opt to explore alternative distribution models. Below, we recap the fates of the tentpole animated titles that have been affected by the crisis.

Delayed films

Warner Bros. has postponed the releases of almost its entire summer slate, including Scoob! (originally scheduled for May 15). The cg franchise revamp has yet to be given a new release date.

Minions: The Rise of Gru, the latest entry in the blockbuster Despicable Me franchise, has also lost its July 3 release date. The Parisian studio Illumination Mac Guff, which is animating the film, shut down as a result of the nationwide lockdown in France, creating production delays that forced the postponement. Universal has not yet announced a new date.

In addition, hybrid sequel Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway has been pushed back, not once but twice. Initially due to come out on April 3, then delayed to August 7, the film is now scheduled for January 15, 2021. Almost all of Sony Pictures’s 2020 titles have been moved to next year. A rare exception is Sony Pictures Animation’s Connected, which is still slated for release on September 18.

Films released early online

All this rescheduling has left the post-summer release schedule looking very crowded. This is the reason, one industry source told The Hollywood Reporter, why Universal is trying something very new with Trolls: World Tour. The film will open on April 10, as planned; but in territories where theaters remain closed, it will debut the same day on VOD (video on demand) platforms. No major Hollywood film has been released this way before.

While no other distributor (for now) is collapsing the 90-day theatrical window entirely, several have fast-tracked films to digital distribution. Disney put Frozen 2 on Disney+ on March 15; it also released Onward on VOD on March 20, and will add it to Disney+ on April 3. Both films were still playing in theaters when the virus hit. The same goes for Paramount’s hybrid Sonic the Hedgehog, which is landing on VOD today.

On the one hand, this makes good business sense. The coronavirus has effectively created a huge captive audience for streaming platforms. Market analyst Nielsen predicts that streaming usage will be up 60% during the crisis. Not only that, surveys show that Americans are especially in the mood for comedies — a label that fits many of these releases. In any case, distributors have few other places to put their films for now.

At the same time, these ad-hoc measures are undermining the conventions of film distribution. If audiences get used to faster digital releases, theaters will begin to lose one of their main assets: exclusivity. Sure enough, cinema owners have reacted with alarm to Universal’s VOD release of Trolls: World Tour.

The VOD route is an untested strategy for big-budget releases. Onward, Sonic, and Trolls are all retailing at $19.99 (for purchase or rental, depending on the film). Distributors are gambling that this price will seem reasonable next to a family outing to the cinema. Yet it may still be too high: a recent survey for The Hollywood Reporter found that American adults generally want to pay $5–$8 for a VOD film.

Thanks to circumstance, we will find out in the coming weeks and months just how viable the strategy is. Distributors will watch closely, and act accordingly.

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