In a move that makes a lot of sense in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, but that could also have a major impact on the film industry long after it’s over, NBCUniversal announced today that it would be making some of its current and upcoming theatrical slate available on demand day-and-date with their releases in theaters.

On Friday, March 20 (that’s this Friday), Universal’s current theatrical releases — including titles like the excellent The Invisible Man and the not-as-excellent-but-still-timely The Hunt — will be available on demand for 48 hours at a price of $19.99. That’s more than the cost of a ticket in almost every theater in America — but you can get an entire (socially distancing) family to watch it together for that one price. Universal will also make their upcoming Trolls World Tour available on April 10 concurrent with its theatrical release (if one even happens at this point.

Here was NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell’s statement on the news (via THR):

Given the rapidly evolving and unprecedented changes to consumers’ daily lives during this difficult time, the company felt that now was the right time to provide this option in the home as well as in theaters. NBCUniversal will continue to evaluate the environment as conditions evolve and will determine the best distribution strategy in each market when the current unique situation changes.

The reason this could mean a lot more than just something to fill the time while people are at home is because for years the major studios have observed at least a 32-day window in movie theaters for all their releases. That’s what keeps people going back to the multiplex instead of watching things at home. Studios have wanted to close those windows for a long time, but haven’t. Now that dam has broken.

Universal doing it under these circumstances makes total sense. But it could spell even worse news for movie theaters down the line if it proves to be a financially viable experiment. Once coronavirus passes, people will probably look forward to getting out of the house and going to the movies. But if you’ve made no distinction between the big movies in theaters and the little or older movies at home, that could have a permanent impact on viewing habits.

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