Apple Studios acquired the 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s prize-winning “CODA” for $25 million, creating an all-time record price for a Sundance buy. The perception: A family drama about the hearing daughter of deaf parents, sold at that price, is an audience-friendly film with strong specialized theatrical potential before it goes broader. The reality: It will go day and date on AppleTV+ and in selected theaters August 13.
By then theaters should be reopened and capacity restrictions reduced, but for Apple — and perhaps for some studios, too — that’s not the primary market driver. Searchlight will follow a similar plan for Questlove’s “Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which broke a Sundance documentary record with its $12 million buy. It goes day and date, in theaters and on Hulu, July 2.
In both case, distributors — or content providers, depending on your point of view — favor their wholly owned platforms. When two films with great potential have no dedicated theatrical window, specialized cinemas face a struggle that can’t be resolved by vaccine. Day-and-date releases used to be the mark of a second-tier film; today, it’s starting to look like high praise.
Some theaters still stand by Netflix as the bad guy. AMC is hosting a Best Picture spotlight ahead of the Oscars (rather than a safety-dubious marathon), but it excludes the two Netflix titles. (Cinemark’s similar event includes Netflix.) At this point, that seems oddly punitive. Netflix was the first streamer to disrupt the norms, but what was once radical now seems theater friendly.
Of the eight Best Picture nominees, Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah” had a same day release. A24’s “Minari” and Amazon’s “The Sound of Metal” had two-week theatrical windows. Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father” went PVOD after its third wide weekend. Netflix titles “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Mank,” as well as Focus Features’ “Promising Young Woman,” each had three weeks in theaters. “Nomadland” had a limited three week run in IMAX and other large format theaters, but not any specialized ones. All was determined by the need to adapt to extraordinary circumstances, but what if we’ve been looking at the new normal all along?
Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features
Focus participates in Universal’s three-week theatrical agreement before films go to PVOD, although the bifurcated approach can’t be easy on studios; it means marketing to two release dates as well as the expense of a theatrical release. The strategy paid off for both labels over the last three months as their titles saw high rankings on the box office and VOD charts. Early home access elevated “Promising Young Woman” to a very lucrative return, not to mention five Oscar nominations.
Universal’s premium movie strategy doesn’t include Peacock for now, but Apple is very much in the streaming business. It wants subscriptions above all. It will give some theaters the opportunity to play, but an Apple spokesperson said details are undecided.
Regardless of Apple’s decision, the priority is home viewing — and somehow, it goes day-and-date without penalty from exhibitors. Netflix grants a three-week window and still gets ignored by AMC. Meanwhile, none of these machinations do specialized theaters any favors. The best they can hope for is less competition if major exhibitors that avoid Netflix also skip “Summer of Soul” and “CODA.”
The dedicated specialized theatrical release still exists; United Artists set Paul Thomas Anderson’s untitled film to platform November 26, followed by wide release on December 25. That would allow for maximized PVOD in mid-January, around the time of Oscar nominations. It is a template for films that believe strong theatrical response will enhance their awards chances. In the meantime, other films will have other priorities. When content providers view the comparative results, it will determine the future of specialized theaters.