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After COVID-19, will film fans return to the theatre—or keep watching at home?

Digital options such as PVoD are gaining traction for new film releases

Shashank Srivastava

Consumers are understandably reluctant to return to film theatres. Will the increasing popularity of PVoD and streaming options inspire film studios to reevaluate their distribution and release strategy going forward?

IN March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the motion picture industry at every level, shutting down content production and cancelling theatrical premieres. With theatres closed and viewers stuck at home hungry for new onscreen content, studios quickly began exploring digital alternatives. While some have deferred film releases (especially tentpoles) to 2021, others have sold/released their films via subscription-based streaming platforms. Several have taken a third route: releasing movies via premium video on demand (PVoD).1

Cinemas are reopening, albeit slowly and often with awkward safety measures. But millions of Americans with large TV screens and home theatre setups may prefer to enjoy films from home for the next year or more. Will the increasing popularity of PVoD and streaming options inspire studios to reevaluate their film distribution and release strategy going forward?

Initial trends suggest that going digital has been at least somewhat successful. Deloitte’s latest digital media trends survey (conducted during May, early on in the pandemic) found that 22% of US consumers—including 24% of Gen X and 36% of Millennials—had paid to watch a new release via PVoD.2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the figure rose significantly for consumers with children at home. In fact, 51% of Millennials with children reported renting at least one PVoD film. For Millennials with kids and a paid streaming video service, that number jumped to 56%. Whether or not due to the pressures of having to entertain children during long-term lockdowns, some population segments have adopted PVoD more readily than others. Consumers who opted for PVoD reported enjoying the comfort and convenience of home viewing and the ability to watch with family.3

Recent market data points towards PVoD success as well. Universal released Trolls World Tour on digital platforms in April at a price of $19.99 for a 48-hour rental. The film turned out to be a digital blockbuster, earning more in its first three weeks of digital release than its 2016 predecessor, Trolls, made domestically during five months in theatres.4 The next month, Warner Brothers released Scoob! on VoD platforms and found similar success.5

Subscription-based video streaming platforms are also using new film releases as a hook to acquire and retain customers. In our survey, 45% of US subscribers reported selecting a specific streaming video service to watch new, original content unavailable elsewhere.6

With at least some moviegoers reluctant to join multiplex crowds for Friday-evening premieres, does this digital home-viewing shift sound a death knell for theatres? It’s unlikely: As soon as people again feel comfortable sitting next to unmasked strangers for three hours at a stretch, there will probably be a pent-up demand for going out and being part of a theatrical experience. In fact, our survey suggests that many people will be happy to return to the big screen: More than 60% of Gen Z and Millennial viewers said they were willing to watch a film in a film theatre within the next six months.7

Looking ahead

Of course, no one knows how the coming months will further shift viewers’ actions and preferences. And newly established digital film-viewing trends—and the success stories—have raised new questions around film releases, particularly with studios experimenting with releasing films exclusively to particular direct-to-consumer streaming services. Will PVoD become a viable alternative release method for all or just some cinematic productions? Is there a balance to be struck that supports theatre owners and studios? Will PVoD have long-term consequences for the economics of film production?

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the film industry has challenged the typical notions around theatrical launches. Going forward, studios may have to take a portfolio approach to film distribution rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Technology, Media & Telecommunications

Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) industry practice brings together one of the world’s largest group of specialists respected for helping shape many of the world’s most recognised TMT brands—and helping those brands thrive in a digital world.

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Thanks to Divya Tewari for research support.

Cover image by: Viktor Koen

  1. Premium video on demand (PVoD): movies that are released directly to streaming video, skipping entirely or cutting short their release to film theatres. Viewers can pay a fee to let these movies and watch them at home.

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  2. Kevin Westcott et al., Digital media trends survey, 14th edition, Deloitte Insights, June 23, 2020.

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  3. Ibid.

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  4. Erich Schwartzel, “‘Trolls World Tour’ breaks digital records and charts a new path for Hollywood,” Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020.

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  5. Rebecca Vanacker, “Scoob! tops premium VOD charts faster than Trolls World Tour,” Screen Rant, May 16, 2020.

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  6. Westcott et al., Digital media trends survey, 14th edition.

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  7. Ibid.

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