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Premium VOD here to stay as more studios embrace streaming, analysts say

Theater operators have long fought against studio efforts to release new films online in tandem with their theatrical debuts. Now, box office analysts say the coronavirus pandemic has weakened theaters' position enough so that early on-demand releases may be here to stay.

With theaters across the country shuttered for months due to the outbreak, major studios such as Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures and AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros. have forgone the traditional 90-day exclusive theatrical window, releasing titles as premium video-on-demand offerings instead. Even as theater operators have threatened to boycott pictures from those at the forefront of the movement, more studios are jumping on the bandwagon. Given executive comments thus far and studios' desire to populate their direct-to-consumers streaming services with fresh content, analysts say premium VOD is not going away anytime soon.

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This is the second installment of a two-part series reviewing the outlook for the summer box office. The first part, focused on theater reopenings, can be found here.

"In a post COVID-19 pandemic world, the growing importance of a studio's self-owned streaming service like [The Walt Disney Co.'s] Disney+ or [AT&T's] HBO Max has put additional pressure on the balance of power between studios and exhibitors," MoffettNathanson Research analyst Robert Fishman said in a recent note on the future of the film industry.

"Before the shutdowns, these tests would have been met with strenuous push backs and likely blackouts by exhibitors. Now, even after the theaters reopen, we expect studios will push to dramatically accelerate the windowing strategies that they were contemplating previously," Fishman added.

ViacomCBS Inc. became the latest studio owner to embrace premium VOD, with Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon deciding to skip the theatrical debut of "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run." After a premium VOD release, the cult cartoon franchise film will become exclusively available on the CBS All Access streaming platform, according to a July 22 Variety report. That represents a major pivot for ViacomCBS, which had planned to release "Sponge on the Run" in theaters on Aug. 7.

Notably, an August opening would be well after the reopening of most theaters nationwide. AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Cinemark Holdings Inc. and Cineworld Group PLC's Regal Cinemas all intend to open doors in July in time for Disney's July 24 release of the live-action reboot of "Mulan."

The ViacomCBS decision also comes after AMC, Cinemark and Regal threatened to boycott Universal films over the issue. Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh recently called the premium VOD window part of Universal Pictures' long-term strategy after the "constructive" experiment with recent titles, including "Trolls: World Tour." The studio collected over $100 million in the first three weeks of the "Trolls" debut.

With digital releases, studios keep about 80% of premium VOD revenue versus about 50% of theatrical box office receipts, according to Kagan analyst Wade Holden. Kagan is a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

AMC CEO Adam Aron told CNN Business in a June 18 interview that the theater chain remains committed to not showing Universal films — including major 2021 releases like "F9," "Jurassic World: Dominion" and "Minions: The Rise of Gru" — if the two companies cannot resolve their differences.

"If they take movies to the home and theaters at the same time, they're the ones who are changing the status quo and they would make it unprofitable for us to play Universal movies in our theaters," Aron said, adding that the two companies continue to have active discussions.

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Box office analysts note that even with theaters open, studios may be concerned consumers will opt to stay out of the multiplex as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in some states.

"PVOD will be interesting, especially if theaters don't approach normal attendance rates anytime soon. PVOD may then be released simultaneously for awhile, or within a couple weeks of theatrical. This will help studios get a better idea of how the marketplace is responding," Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at research firm Exhibitor Relations Co., said in an interview.

Bock added that theatrical windowing strategies were already "destined to change."

However, some analysts are less confident that the big screen will yield too much in the time it takes for business to return.

"PVOD streaming likely isn't going away, but its impact on box office remains negligible at best for now considering the very few titles that have gone that route haven't faced an active theatrical market," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Pro, said in an interview.

Theater owners are understandably nervous about losing any further revenue given the economic hit they have already suffered from the pandemic. Theater businesses ranging from AMC and Cinemark to IMAX Corp. and National CineMedia Inc. all saw their revenues and net profits plummet in the first quarter on just one month of closures. Theater owners will see essentially zero revenue in the second quarter as their locations were closed.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.