Disney Is Doing the Weird Hybrid Movie Release Thing Now, Too

Illustration for article titled Disney Is Doing the Weird Hybrid Movie Release Thing Now, Too
Image: Searchlight Pictures

Well, well, well. Look who else is jumping on the “hybrid” release bandwagon.

According to several outlets, Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures has announced it will release its upcoming film Nomadland on Hulu the same day as its wide theatrical release on Feb. 19, a few weeks after the film debuts first in IMAX on Jan. 29. That means yet another studio is taking the controversial HBO Max approach of toeing the line between giving cinemas movies at a time when nobody is going to theaters and simply releasing those films on a streaming service to help reel in subscribers.

The Chloé Zhao-directed Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, has already drummed up significant critical acclaim and managed to pick up several prominent awards during its festival run. It centers on a character named Fern who, following an economic crisis in a rural region of Nevada, explores the life of a nomad in the American West.

While Disney has insisted that its Disney+ platform isn’t just a service for kids, Hulu remains the logical home for indie releases and adult dramas. And it’s not necessarily a surprise that Disney has decided to release a film previously slated for a theatrical release on one of its services—it’s done that a handful of times already with films like Mulan on Disney+. But using a hybrid release model for such a critical darling seems like a strange move from a seasoned studio like Disney, particularly because the fallout from HBO Max’s decision to employ a two-for-one rollout for all of its 2021 films was swift.

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The problem with this specific kind of middle-ground release is that it’s not an especially great deal for theaters, which rely on—or relied on, rather, in the before times—exclusive release windows to get paying customers into seats in their auditoriums. It’s not a great outcome for filmmakers, who likely intended their movies to be experienced in theaters. And it’s not a fantastic prospect for maintaining great relationships with talent, who of course studios rely upon for, you know, doing the movies.

It is, however, great for consumers who’d rather pay nothing for immediate access to a movie through a service they’re already subscribed to. It’s also not a bad deal for people who’d rather sign up for a new service in order to stream a film at home than be in a public space like a cinema during a pandemic. Plus, who wants to pay per-head ticket fees when the whole family can stream a movie from the comfort of their own living room?

But it very much feels like studios are establishing a new normal at a time when theaters aren’t in a good position to make demands. And if we’re going to have cinemas to return to in a post-pandemic world, they’ll need to be able to keep the lights on until then.

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DISCUSSION

I’ve talked an awful lot of shit about this release plan when WB announced it... but I doubt that this movie was ever, in any year, going to do gangbusters at the theater. And hey, if it’s coming out in IMAX I guess that’s an argument to see it on the silver screen vs your phone.