On Friday, Universal will release the Jennifer Lopez rom-com “Marry Me” in over 3,600 theaters — and, stream it for free on Peacock. This week, two more movies joined Peacock’s day-and-date ranks: Focus Features’ just-acquired Sundance comedy hit “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” and Universal’s Blumhouse remake “Firestarter.”
Welcome to another version of the new normal in exhibition. Unlike most of 2020 and 2021, when seismic changes in how studios released its features could be a daily occurrence, today it’s all about the incremental shifts. The tweaks aren’t as damaging to theaters, but they inexorably point toward the prioritization of streaming.
The parallel Peacock push suggests a desire to experiment with potentially lucrative lower-cost titles with specific demographic appeal. It also may represent a curious silver lining: Since Peacock lags far behind Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max, exhibitors may be less likely to view its day-and-date play as a threat.
So far, horror audiences don’t appear to threaten streaming subscriptions; that makes the same-day play for “Firestarter” May 13 look like a lower-risk strategy. Similarly, women have lagged behind men at returning to theaters; the Valentines Day release of “Marry Me” also could tie into Peacock’s higher-than-usual female viewership of the Winter Olympics.
Theaters have their own incoming bragging rights with Warner Bros.’ very-much-theatrical-exclusive “The Batman” March 4. On Tuesday, Warners opened the box office for advance March 1 IMAX showings (one at each of 350 theaters) and sold out in 15 minutes. Interest is huge and validates expectations that the latest D.C. Comics films will follow “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as not only a major success but also the best argument that theaters remain viable.
Focus acquired “Honk” in partnership with Peacock and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, with the “Get Out” director now an executive producer. It stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown as married megachurch mainstays trying to rebuild their operation after a scandal. Producers include Oscar-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya, adding heft to the debut feature from writer-director Adamma Ebo and her producer twin Adanne.
Reports put the sale price at $8.5 million, in line for a festival breakout comedy in the streamer-driven market. What’s new for Focus is the decision to elevate Peacock play to day and date. Lacking streaming data, we can only judge economics by action. Even then, the decision is likely informed by the streamer’s longer-term benefit.
Universal was an early leader in staking out streaming strategies with its agreement to guarantee a 17- or 31-day theatrical-exclusive window (depending on opening-weekend gross) before Premium VOD play. Under this plan, films from both Universal (“Sing 2”) and Focus (“Promising Young Woman”) thrived.
Sources privy to Focus’ plans suggest that “Honk” will be a rare exception to the standard release window and PVOD strategy. “Brian and Charles,” a Focus acquisition out of Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, will go that route.
In a time when specialized distribution is under siege, Focus looks particularly strong with at least 14 films scheduled for theatrical release this year. These include “The Northman,” (April 22) “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (May 20), and the Isabelle Huppert-starring “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (now July 15).
Post-Sundance, “Honk” has a 65 score on Metacritic that suggests consensus-positive reviews if not high-level critical response. Acquiring the film also establishes a relationship with the Ebo sisters across the studio’s landscape with Focus, Universal, Peacock, and the talent-nurturing Peele. The same could be said for Jason Blum’s “Firestarter;” it’s his second title to go the day-and-date route.
One thing that these strategies don’t do is capture the lucrative pre-streaming PVOD window. This could be the newest tweak in exhibition: Disney’s announced this week that “West Side Story” will debut March 2 on Hulu and HBO Max (due to Fox’s cable contract commitments), with no word on PVOD beforehand.