Will coronavirus lockdowns change the way we watch films?

By Justin Harper
Business reporter

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image source, Getty Images

With millions stuck indoors and cinemas closed, film studios are rethinking the way they launch new releases.

During the peak of the outbreak in China one major movie went straight to an online platform and was seen by more than half a billion viewers.

US film studios are following suit, and are already launching movies online before their planned cinema releases.

The industry is facing losses of up to $15bn (£13bn) this year due to the pandemic, according to one expert.

The US and China are the world's biggest movie-watching markets, based on box office sales. Both countries have seen severe disruptions from the coronavirus with widespread closures of cinemas.

China has around 60,000 movie theatres spread across the country, which closed in early January. The timing hit the film industry hard as it came just before Chinese New Year holidays, which normally see $2bn in sales at the box office.

One big film, Lost in Russia, went directly to a streaming site and clocked up in excess of 600m views, according to Chinese media reports. It was available for free from Chinese tech giant ByteDance via two of its streaming platforms.

So far this year worldwide box office sales are estimated to have fallen by at least $5bn, according to industry analysts, with roughly 50% of that drop in China's market alone. "We will see that global number escalate in the coming weeks as China remains shut down, and we start to see theatres worldwide follow similar closures," said Chris Fenton, author of Feeding the Dragon - Inside the trillion dollar dilemma facing Hollywood, the NBA and American business.

He has estimated the industry will lose $15bn in sales for the year as a whole because of closed cinemas, although this figure could grow depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

image source, Getty Images

In the US, film studio Universal planned to make three cinema releases available on streaming platforms while they were still playing in theatres. But its latest movie Trolls: World Tour was released online on 6 April, ahead of its US cinema debut.

"The virus outbreak is already changing how studios release films with some movies accelerating their home entertainment release plans," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com. "With almost all US theatres closing down for the foreseeable future, they are looking at what ways they can still generate revenue".

Mr Pandya says online-first movie releases suit small and medium-sized films studios "who may want to increase digital releases so they can still reach a global audience".

Some film studios have decided to delay film releases until later in the year, including the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die.

Disney's Mulan, a blockbuster film to appeal to a Chinese audience, was due to be released in March but has now been delayed until July. However, its film adaptation of Artemis Fowl will go straight to its Disney Plus streaming platform, bypassing a cinema release.

Responding to reports Mulan could also premier on the Disney Plus, a spokesman said "We truly believe in the movie going experience".

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