Some streaming platforms are extending services to viewers stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a March 17, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Streaming platforms boost offers, studios release movies at home in response to COVID-19

TORONTO — Streaming platforms are joining Hollywood in throwing away the rule book in hopes to attract viewers stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was already a shakeup in how audiences consumed film and TV entertainment before the outbreak, driven by the growing number of streaming platforms and a slowdown in movie ticket sales.

But as the entertainment industry scrambles to keep up with COVID-19 developments, films are being pushed off the theatrical release slate and onto video-on-demand platforms at an unprecedented pace.

That means Netflix, Apple TV Plus and Amazon’s Prime Video may be put in a position to respond with their own surprise releases, discount deals or other offers to stand out from the pack.

Already, a few smaller streaming platforms are trying to leave their mark in the COVID-19 era, as health agencies encourage people to avoid social contact and stay at home to slow the spread of the virus.

Both Acorn TV, a hub of British and international television, and Sundance Now, which stocks independent films, say they’re lengthening their seven-day free trials to 30 days for customers with a special code. Once they’re hooked on the service, the companies hope they’ll stick around as paying subscribers.

It’s an extended trial offer both platforms have made occasionally to new subscribers in the past, though Sundance Now recognized the latest deal was timed for people “stuck at home and social distancing.”

Disney Plus gave Canadian parents a sense of relief on Tuesday by adding the animated film “Frozen 2” to its library of content three months early. The company said it hoped the move would offer “some fun and joy during this challenging period,” which coincided with more parents staying at home with their kids during the work day.

Brahm Eiley, president of Victoria-based Convergence Research Group, which studies the evolving streaming and cable business, said it could be part of a larger ramp up in how streaming services look to attract new subscribers in the months ahead.

“We’ll probably see some retention deals as well,” Eiley added.

“On every level I think we’ll see an extension that way, especially if this is going to take longer than expected.”

Movie theatre chains are practically out of the entertainment equation for the near future with nationwide chain Cineplex saying late Monday it would shutter all 165 locations until at least early April.

Film and TV distributors will look for other ways to sweeten the at-home viewing experience in the meantime, in hopes to keep revenues from plummeting through the floor.

Universal Pictures announced plans Monday to release “Trolls World Tour” through video-on-demand services on April 10, the date it was originally scheduled to open in cinemas.

In the United States, it will cost US$19.99 for a 48-hour rental of the movie. A representative for the studio was unable to confirm the Canadian pricing, which typically can be a few dollars more.

Among the other titles making a leap to home entertainment: Canadian distributor Mongrel Media said it was pulling the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, from its theatrical release slate. The film arrives on Apple’s digital store on March 27, priced at $5.99 to rent and $14.99 for a high-definition purchase.

Warner Bros. announced it would make “Birds of Prey,” a spinoff of its DC Comics film “Suicide Squad,” available for digital purchase in the U.S. on March 24.

A representative for Cineplex, which also operates an on-demand platform called Cineplex Store, confirmed several other titles that were playing in theatres before the closures would arrive at home earlier than planned in Canada.

Among them are “Invisible Man,” “The Hunt,” “Emma,” (all due for rental “as early as” March 20); “The Gentlemen” (March 24) and “Bad Boys for Life” (March 31).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020.

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