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Holiday movie showdown turns into fight for home audiences

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 3, 2020

By Kelly Gilblom Bloomberg


Like everything in the COVID-19 era, the battle for the holiday movie fan will play out at home this year.

Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures is planning a Dec. 18 online release for its newest animated film “The Croods: A New Age,” a short three weeks after it first opens in theaters. A few days after that, Walt Disney Co. plans to release its own animated picture, “Soul,” for home audiences on the Disney+ streaming service.

The Christmastime face- off would normally be taking place exclusively in theaters. But with the coronavirus still raging, studios aren’t standing by to watch their biggest films play in mostly empty auditoriums. Instead, they’ll spend marketing dollars plugging big films to people who’d rather stay home. The holidays are typically the second-biggest moviegoing time in the U.S., behind the summer .

Universal plans a multimedia campaign that includes promoting online purchases of “The Croods” on the “Today” show and on the Telemundo and Bravo networks, all part of Comcast-owned NBCUniversal. The film is part of a Comcast program called Symphony, in which some Universal movie titles become companywide advertising priorities.

Universal also plans a new “Croods” TV series for its online service Peacock. An existing “Croods” show, along with the original film, are currently available on Netflix Inc.’s rival service.

While some COVID-19-related changes to movie marketing and distribution will fade away when the pandemic eases, Hollywood studios are hoping to gain fresh insights into what works in the online era. “The Croods,” a sequel to the 2013 hit about a Stone Age family, will be the biggest test of a new hybrid-release strategy from Universal, in which films appear first in theaters and then become available for a $20 purchase online shortly thereafter.

Normally, new films play exclusively in cinemas for up to 90 days, but earlier in the year Universal signed an agreement with the world’s largest chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., to compress the “theatrical window” to as little as 17 days. In exchange, AMC gets a cut of Universal’s online sales.

It’s unclear whether two other major U.S. chains, Cineworld Group Plc’s Regal theaters and Cinemark Holdings Inc., which haven’t struck similar agreements with Universal, will show “The Croods.”

Separately, Disney has restructured its film and TV businesses to focus on streaming. Last month, the company combined its TV networks, film studio and direct-to-consumer divisions to better focus on video-streaming opportunities.

Not every studio is banking on a large online audience this holiday season. Warner Bros. pushed back the cinematic release of the DC comics installment “Wonder Woman 1984” to Christmas Day, though executives have suggested they’ll remain flexible on dates as the virus progresses. In a tweet, director Patty Jenkins said she wouldn’t even consider debuting the film online.While “The Croods,” a $65 million movie, is the biggest film Universal plans to release this year under its new video-on-demand model, it won’t be the first. “Freaky,” a horror film hitting theaters Nov. 13, will premiere in theaters and be sold online shortly thereafter.

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