Confused About When You Can Watch Movies at Home? Get Used to It

IndieWire surveyed six months of theatrical windows and found that the average is 35 days — unless it's lot less, or a lot more.
"Creed III," "The Whale," and "Avatar: The Way of Water"
"Creed III," "The Whale," and "Avatar: The Way of Water": Three theatrical successes, no theatrical consistency.

Those who believe in longer windows for exclusive theatrical play can claim major victories with “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “The Whale,” which debuted on PVOD in March after 100- and 60-day theater-only releases, respectively.

And then there’s “Creed III,” which has grossed $149 million in domestic theaters and showed up on PVOD March 31, exactly 28 days after release.

Nothing is more important to theaters than the theatrical window, that precious period when audiences must come to them if they want to see a movie. Three years ago, when you couldn’t expect PVOD for at least 70 days, even 45 days was unthinkable. Today, there’s a mean, but there is no norm.

After reviewing all wide studio releases from mid-August 2022 to mid-February 2023, it’s clear: For every “The Way of Water,” there’s a “Halloween Ends,” which opened in theaters while streaming on Peacock. The unscientific assumption is the standard window — how long a film plays theaters before home release — is about 45 days.

However, IndieWire examined the release patterns for all 34 wide-release studio films over a six-month period and found the average is less — around 35 days.

Studios once delayed any TV showing to three years or more after release. When VCRs appeared in the late ’70s, home release meant a delay of at least six months. For premium cable sites like HBO, you had to wait about a year.

Fast forward to 2019. Studios wanted shorter windows, but the standard remained 70-75 days for PVOD (usually $19.99 rentals), 90 days for VOD and retail sales, 120 days for Redbox and other rental outlets, and finally streaming/cable at nine months.

Michael Myers (aka The Shape) in Halloween Ends, co-written, produced and directed by David Gordon Green.
“Halloween Ends”Ryan Green/Universal Pictures

One size fit nearly all —and then, COVID closed theaters and studios got to try all the variations it ever wanted. PVOD could be day-and-date, they could sell off titles to Netflix, or delay release for months or years until theaters were available.

Three years later, theaters and studios have an uneasy truce. Exhibition remains in recovery, but continues to make progress — in large part because the Covid experimentation showed that exclusive theatrical debuts mean greater ancillary revenue.

Of all major studios, only Universal has established a pattern for theatrical exclusivity: three weekends unless the film opens to over $5o million, in which case it’s five. After that the films usually go to PVOD; sometimes the first stop is in-house streamer Peacock.

Of the 34 studio films released in the period we surveyed, the results show a bell-shaped curve. After hitting theaters, 14 films were available in 21 days or less, and 13 were available after 45 days. Only seven titles fell into the range of 22-45 days. Wide variation occurred within each major studio; each had at least one film that spent fewer than 35 days as exclusive to theaters.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, from left: Jamie Lee Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, 2022. ph: Allyson Riggs /© A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
Everything Everywhere All at OnceCourtesy Everett Collection

The studio that stands apart is A24. In the last 12 months, none of its wide-release films had a window of fewer than 39 days.All but one were 45 days or longer, with windows for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Whale” — the winners of all top six Oscar categories — were the far extreme of normal. Correlation or causation? Can’t say, but we’ll see if next year’s major contenders slow-walk toward home release.

The 75-day window is dead; for that matter, so is the idea that exhibitors can dictate its terms to studios. No one seems to have found the ideal solution, but maybe that’s the point. The current market is a more delicate ecosystem that demands constant recalibration — even as it risks constant confusion. Moviegoers can’t be blamed for assuming most films will quickly be seen at home.

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