With movie theatres closing or limiting bookings to stay ahead of COVID-19 ‘social distancing’ requirements, desperate entertainment studios are upending industry hierarchies by streaming new-release movies at the same time they’re playing in theatres.

Universal Pictures violated long-established release windows – which control how long movies play in theatres before being offered in other forms – by announcing it would offer in-theatre titles like The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma to US consumers who can stream the films to their lounge rooms for $29.80 ($US20) for a 48-hour period.

Soon-to-be-released Trolls World Tour will be available online on April 10, the same day it is scheduled to open in theatres.

With plummeting theatre attendance causing financial heartache for new releases, the decision to stream Trolls World Tour – a sequel to an original that made over $500m ($US347m) worldwide – could translate to a huge loss for the studio.

But facing annihilation from coronavirus, the industry has few other options.

Studios have brought forward streaming release dates for films like Birds of Prey, Just Mercy and The Gentlemen, while anticipated blockbusters like A Quiet Place Part II, Disney’s live-action Mulan and Bond movie No Time To Die have been pushed back until later in the year.

Universal’s streaming experiment will be closely watched in an industry that could, analysts say, lose $25b ($US17b) if newly announced theatre closures continue through May.

Theatre chains across the United States – including AMC, Cinemark, Regal Cinemas, and others – announced they would shut down for at least 6 weeks as US government bans on gatherings of more than 10 people turn movie theatres no-go zones.

“We are ever so disappointed for our moviegoing guests and for our employee teams that the new CDC guidelines… make it impossible to open our theatres,” AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a statement.

Australian chief medical officer Brandan Murphy said just days ago that going to the movies was still fine – but with newly tightened restrictions on public gatherings banning indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, the pastime is rapidly becoming less tenable.

Hoyts Australia, for one, told Information Age that it had responded by limiting bookings to 100 people per auditorium, had implemented a range of cleaning measures, and had blocked off every other seat “to ensure our guests will have appropriate spacing between them and the next person”.

Canadian giant Cineplex – which also joined Canadian Landmark Cinemas in shuttering its sites in that country – has implemented similar measures here, with its local website advising “there is plenty of room to space yourselves from others”.

Stream like you like it

Movie theatres have traditionally enjoyed a 90-day exclusive window where films aren’t shown anywhere else.

Given that most movies make the lion’s share of their revenues from theatre releases – and that the top 5 ‘tentpole’ movies constitute nearly half of the industry’s annual revenues – the move to stream first-release movies is a significant departure for a major studio.

Netflix has been public enemy number one in this respect, with US theatre operators incensed as big-budget releases like The King, Marriage Story, The Two Popes and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman dropped online just a few weeks after their limited theatre runs.

Australian theatres led a blanket ban on The Irishman, with National Association of Cinema Operators-Australasia chairman David Seargeant saying the organisation was “very concerned that several exhibitors, who are not our members, are taking a short-term view and showing films without an appropriate theatrical season.”

Yet while those unconventional release decisions were made for commercial reasons, the escalating coronavirus pandemic has forced the hand of studios that face extraordinary conditions leading into the traditionally big northern summer movie season.

Streaming could help ease the pain for the industry, which faces pressure from all sides after COVID-19 concerns severely impacted its pipeline of upcoming releases – and created logistical challenges for complex, sequential narratives like Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There is a bright side

Yet streaming of new releases might also inadvertently help reduce the incidence of movie piracy, with high-quality releases of new movies available at the same time as the shaky, blurry camera copies regularly available online.

Recent figures suggested Australian piracy is declining dramatically thanks to wider availability of streaming content, with a 2019 consumer survey finding that 32 per cent of respondents would stop infringing if everything they wanted was available lawfully.

Consumers are quite price-sensitive, however, with just 11 per cent saying they would spend $20 or $25 on a high-quality, newly-released movie from a reputable and reliable service.

Two-thirds of respondents would only be willing to pay $5 for the movie and 37 per cent said they would pay $10 – well below the likely Australian price if Universal’s move were replicated here.

Wider use of streaming could also help studios provide a steady supply of new content as production of movies and TV series is halted until the coronavirus situation stabilises.

The last two series still in production – This Country and The Lost Boys – were stopped this week in the wake of a virtual industry shutdown that has slashed over 120,000 jobs and affected blockbuster productions like Amazon’s $1.49b ($US1b) Lord of the Rings series.