This week is the Television Critics’ Association winter press tour, when television networks set up in front of the press and lay out their programming schedules for the upcoming season. Yesterday, ViacomCBS held their press confab and made some announcements regarding their new streaming service, Paramount+. They’re rebranding the existing CBS All Access and expanding it with the Paramount film catalog, a not inconsiderable library given that Paramount is one of the last legacy studios in Hollywood. But they’re also the home of Tom Cruise and his Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick. Tom Cruise is one of the last big-name holdouts of the exclusive theatrical experience for films, a self-appointed savior of cinema, but apparently, in a COVID-ravaged industry where theatrical box office is still a flat line and might not fully rebound for another year, that means less and less every day. Paramount is tempting Tom Cruise’s wrath by pushing Mission: Impossible 7 and Top Gun: Maverick, among others, to on demand rental after only 45 days in theaters.
Pre-pandemic, the industry standard was that films ran for 90 days in theaters before becoming eligible for home video/on demand. One year into the pandemic, that window is completely dead, and while Warner Brothers fired the first shot, Paramount cements that the 90-day window shall never return. Mission: Impossible 7, A Quiet Place Part II, Top Gun: Maverick, and Paw Patrol: The Movie will all go to Paramount+ 45 days after opening in theaters, while non-tentpole titles will have only 30 days in theaters. This is at least a more theater-friendly deal than Warner Brothers’ day-and-date plan, but it is undoubtedly another blow to theatrical distribution. People like going to the movies, but even pre-pandemic, it was becoming an occasional treat, not a regular activity. Post-pandemic that will likely only intensify, between new audience habits—we’ve spent a year getting used to watching everything at home—and the likelihood of a slower economic recovery that will have people asking if a trip to the movies is really worth it. At least Paramount is giving their films a chance to play exclusively in theaters, but you KNOW Tom Cruise can’t be happy about this. At home on your couch is not how intends you to see his movies.
It’s just inevitable at this point, though, and I don’t think there is anyone “big enough” left to fight it. Even Christopher Nolan can’t stand against what is clearly a fait accompli, by the time he releases his next movie, the cinema landscape will be entirely different. Movies will still open in theaters, but there will be fewer “theater” movies and fewer theaters, period. Quick-access plans like Paramount’s, which would see even hit films sent to home rental within six weeks, will be common. And right now, a plan like Paramount’s allows a studio to stick with existing release dates as industry uncertainty continues. Theaters are reopening in New York City, one of the largest markets in the US, but only at 25% capacity, which is not really profitable. Studios aren’t going to risk their biggest films until they are sure they can make money, but Paramount’s plan at least lets them hedge their bets. I won’t be surprised, especially if more theaters open across North America, if Disney ends up pursuing a similar strategy with Black Widow and the Marvel movies. At least this way they wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle and cost of moving everything again.