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Why Universal Pushed Back ‘The Forever Purge’ and Disney Moved Up ‘Hamilton’

A tale of two choices: why Universal may stick with theaters for its fifth "Purge" movie, while Disney opted to stream its Broadway musical.

“The Forever Purge”

Universal

Finally, the last studio movie set to open ahead of Christopher Nolan’s still-firm “Tenet” (July 17, Warner Bros.) has vacated its July 10 release date. As expected, Universal is pushing back horror sequel “The Forever Purge,” the fifth (and possibly final) entry in the lucrative Blumhouse Productions franchise to a date still to come. The plan right now is for a theatrical release.

At this point, with many changes pending in the upcoming release schedule, Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged” (July 1, Solstice Studios) is set to launch the summer, followed by Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” (July 3, Screen Media).

The bigger surprise was Disney’s decision to move its planned October 2021 theatrical release of “Hamilton” up to July 3 on Disney+ . The company beat out Warner Bros. in a bidding war for the filmed version of the Broadway musical with the original cast, plunking down $75 million for a PG-13 edit of the movie. The studio was waiting for the stage show to play out around the world before putting it into movie theaters. Well, there are no stages open right now.

Disney is sticking for the moment with its July 24 theatrical release of “Mulan,” which already had its premiere in March before pushing back its date, complete with merchandising tie-ins. Beleaguered Disney still stands a better chance of making back the $200-million “Mulan” budget than it would on Disney +, where “Mulan” would function mainly as a lure to subscribers.

There are any number of reasons why July 10 was too early for “The Forever Purge” release. Theaters will still be training staff on revamped ticket-buying and food-ordering technology, showing repertory titles as they get ready for “Tenet.” Reopening some big-city markets could be delayed, from New York to Chicago.

In any case, “The Forever Purge” is moving back. The movie was two weeks into post-production when the lockdown came down, and studios prefer to test screen titles before release. It’s also likely that the series’ anarchic crime-spree premise — which involves many citizens locking themselves in place during mass mayhem — did not seem ideal for one of the first new films to hit theaters.

It makes sense that Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum, having already gone through last fall’s  last-minute postponement of “The Hunt” after a pair of mass shootings, followed by a delayed opening on March 13, the weekend before theaters closed, was gun shy about risking an imperfect release date.

Still unresolved is the question of whether AMC Theaters would even play a Universal title after the studio aggressively pursued early VOD options for such films as “Trolls World Tour” and “The King of Staten Island,” followed by Universal CEO Jeff Shell’s comments about continuing VOD plans. This issue will eventually be resolved, but July 10 was just under two months away. Sticking with theaters would mark a good-faith move for Universal after alienating not only AMC but Regal.

With Blumhouse’s penchant for economy, the movie likely cost under $20 million, about the same as the usual theatrical marketing costs. Going on VOD would some of that expense, and the name brand would attract significant viewer interest. But the four previous titles in the series have grossed a total of almost $300 million domestically, plus more than $200 million foreign. Their grosses have been rising, so it’s hard to see a VOD release match the last installment’s $137 million gross worldwide, much less establishing value for other ancillary markets.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Hamilton."

Hamilton

Joan Marcus

Disney’s “Hamilton” pivot to Disney+ is a logical move. More a filmed stage production (much like National Theatre Live’s filmed theater productions) than a cinematic reinvention — like such traditional film musicals as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s upcoming “In the Heights” or Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” — “Hamilton” was not a guaranteed theatrical success. Disney did pay $75 million for the rights, with eventual streaming play a draw for the Disney+.

But while adding “Hamilton” now is an easy way for the quickly growing service to add subscribers, particularly among adults without children at home, it does feel like a blow to theaters. Why? The reason might not be so obvious.

Even if its theatrical interest might have been limited, Disney is a wide-release company more than any other distributor, dealing mainly with franchise titles. Of all distributors they are the least likely to experiment outside the box.

But for theaters, with top chains already invested in Fathom for weekday special events, including some related to live theater, “Hamilton” held promise for widening what is considered theatrical. If proven Broadway hit “Hamilton” had worked, it might have led to more attempts to provide programming for discerning adults not always attuned to going to the movies.

Disney figured that this older group is also the most reluctant to return. Given the choice, they opted for streaming. At least it wasn’t “Mulan.” For the moment.

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