It’s hard to keep up. Just a few weeks ago, first-run movies started shifting into $19.99 premium VOD; “Trolls World Tour” went so far as to choose a VOD premiere. Now, two weeks after Warner Bros. title “Birds of Prey” debuted on PVOD, it’s now available for rental for $5.99 — two months after its theatrical premiere. The company had initially allowed downloads as well as rentals for the premium price, and said it would be a lower rental sometime in April. But unlike some other early releases, they have done it after two weeks.
An aberration, or the the new normal? It might just be one company’s attempt to get a quick cash flow when other revenue is limited. However, it’s also possible that we’re watching the new rules evolve in real time.
Whatever the logic, it worked. At its new price, “Birds” is #1 today at iTunes. That comes after its initial premium release at #2, then placing lower in the top 10 for six more days.
Some context: Though the 90-day theatrical window in advance of home viewing is the rule, the reality is most films in today’s market hit premium VOD after 75 days. That usually includes digital download. That allows carriers and studios to dip into a niche market that’s willing to wait to see new movies. Now, with theaters closed, studios went to $19.99 for most titles . There are some exceptions, with one higher (“Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker”) and several lower (“Call of the Wild,” “The Gentleman,” “Brahms: The Boy Part II,” “Downhill”).
It’s more experiment than strategy, which makes the “Birds” move interesting. The three Universal-owned titles that started the trend — “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt,” “Emma” — all were for download rental only initially. Other films since have had varied policies, including early downloading. But “Birds” is the biggest title so far to switch to lower price rental option this quickly and soon after its initial theatrical release.
Perhaps the test here is older theatrical releases (though still under 90 days) are hitting regular prices more quickly, while more recent ones delay. If so, the studios may be playing with fire.
In the past, not many jumped at the chance to pay the higher VOD price; viewings picked up when they became more affordable. But we are now in a period when many current offerings had truncated theatrical runs, which means maximizing returns is important along with overall cash flow.
And with Universal debuting “Trolls World Tour” (previously expected as a strong mid-April theatrical release), one has to wonder whether people will decide they can wait a couple weeks and get it cheaper. Or will parents, anxious to find ways to entertain their homebound kids, decide it’s worth it? In this case, as a new title, it will only (at least initially) be available for only 48 hours.
Don’t be surprised if prices on other premium titles drop before too long. The next tests will be if more titles go directly to VOD. “Trolls” drops April 10 and everyone will be eager to see its performance and analyze the long-term ramifications.
So far, other ‘A’ titles (“Trolls” likely cost over $100 million) have stuck to their current or revised release dates. If other studios decide to go the same route, they likely need multiple weeks at premium prices to makes it worthwhile. But if the public decides they can wait out the pricing, it will undercut the rationale for VOD premieres. (One alternative: Announce that a film will only be available for a short period and won’t return for weeks.)
Some other gleanings from the iTunes chart, which tends to reflect changes more quickly than its competitors:
• “Little Women,” which didn’t make the top 10 (like most standard-release, premium-VOD titles), is now #5 at $5.99. At the same price, “Dolittle” is #6. That’s higher than its first few days of initial placement two weeks ago.
• “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Bad Boys for Life,” which were nos. #1 and #2, respectively, upon their release last week, have fallen back to nos. #7 and #8.
• Here’s a surprise. “Ip Man 4,” the conclusion of Wilson Yip’s martial arts series, is at #10, and at $12.99 — despite coming out more than three months ago in theaters.
• “Onward,” though free to anyone with Disney + now, is still at #11. It was initially premium priced, placed high on the charts, but still is seeing rentals despite the subscription-streaming alternative.
• There are some surprising bargains. Pedro Almodovar’s great “Pain and Glory” can be rented at iTunes for 99 cents. “Cats,” however, will still set you back $5.99.