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Report: Did Disney’s Premier Access Remind People of What They Were Missing at Movie Theaters?

David Satin, Matt Tamanini

The COVID-19 pandemic was a shock to the system of the entire entertainment industry. One whole segment of that industry, movie theaters, essentially shut down for months. It forced studios and media companies to completely re-think their release strategies for movies, and many chose to experiment with releasing movies directly to streaming on the same day that they arrived in theaters.

That kind of experimenting was what led Disney to introduce Premier Access. The program brought major Disney films to Disney+ on the same day as (or in lieu of) their theatrical releases, in many cases for as much as $30 apiece. Studios usually only net about 60% of profits from theatrical releases anyway, but releasing via a premium add-on program like Premier Access allowed companies like Disney to keep much more of the revenue and keep the bottom line afloat during the pandemic.

The company saw initial success with Premier Access, but new research from TiVo’s Video Trends Report for Q2 2022 suggests that strategy may have backfired. According to TiVo’s data, interest in returning to the theater to see movies is up 46% over the fourth quarter of 2021. The leading reason? Customers feel that going to a theater is a better deal than paying $30 to watch a movie at home.

The high price point of Disney’s Premier Access clearly was not the only factor in reigniting interest in theatrical releases, but it may have reminded many customers of what they were missing on the streaming side of premium day-and-date releases. Without the benefit of saving money to stream films as part of an existing subscription, many likely found that the at-home experience just didn’t quite measure up to that of the theater in terms of screen or sound quality (and let’s not forget how much better the popcorn is at the movie theater).

Other streamers took different approaches to their film businesses during the pandemic. Having launched HBO Max in May 2020, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar announced that the company would release its entire 2021 theatrical slate on its fledgling streaming service the same day that the films would premiere in theaters.

The move almost certainly helped drive subscribers to the service in its initial quarters, but it also led to numerous battles with artists over back-end deals and creative vision. Since then, Warner Bros. Discovery — HBO Max’s new parent company — has experimented with streaming release dates. Currently, HBO Max is operating on a case-by-case basis with films arriving on the platform anywhere from 45 to 90 days after their initial theatrical debuts, as the company continues to prioritize the cinema experience.

The waning of the pandemic itself is also a clear factor in audiences’ willingness to return to theaters. However, it might not be as big of a factor as it may seem. Nineteen percent of customers indicated that they’d be willing to pay more for the ability to watch a movie at home, an expected decrease from last year. However, the difference from that in 2021 is small; last year 21% of respondents said that they’d pay more to skip theaters, only two percent more than in TiVo’s recent study. This minimal decline seems to indicate that while the easing of the pandemic is causing a return to theaters, that reason alone has not produced a robust increase among customers.

However, as the theatrical business slowly attempts to rebuild after the devastating downturn, audiences’ willingness to return to the cinema will undoubtedly impact how and when studios bring their films to streaming. WBD executives have routinely reiterated their commitment to the theatrical model and Paramount has shown that there are ample amounts of flexibility when it comes to windowing, depending on how well a film does in theaters.

While the company has confirmed that “Top Gun: Maverick” will arrive on Paramount+ before the end of the year, it has already been more than four and a half months since the big screen sequel hit theaters, much longer than the 45 days that studio execs have previously said would be their default window.

While many touted the rise of streaming and the COVID-19 pandemic as the death knell for movie theaters, that assumption now appears to have been oversold. However, there is no doubt that the future of those entertainment industries will likely need to be far more collaborative than ever before to meet the ever-changing needs and demands of an audience with constantly expanding content options.


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