How higher rental fees could have changed the post-pandemic movie world

More theaters are open to everyone, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to the theater.
More theaters are open to everyone, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to the theater. (Image credit: Tom Cooper/Getty Images)

As much as I enjoy the theater experience, I’ve long wanted the ability to pay a little more to be able to watch some films at home — even when they’re still in theaters. 

With much of the world shut down, movie studios have had to adapt and release some things to an entirely digital audience. The latest comes Sept. 4 when Mulan lands on Disney+ Premier Access. But instead of taking the opportunity to create something new to address the challenges consumers face, the film industry took what it already had and tried to force it to work.

As a result, we’ve got movies hitting the rental section for $20 or more. While I’m actually fine with that price, in some cases this “rent” button is sitting right next to a similarly priced “buy” button and causes me to make a choice I don’t want to make. 

In the Before Times, I’d go see a movie, and if it stuck with me I’d buy it when it came out later that year. With everything digital and at home, I can now rent and buy at the same time during the theatrical release. If I don’t feel safe going to a theater or there are no theaters open around me, I only have these digital choices available to me.

Even if I rent the film for $20 and deeply enjoy it, I’m not super likely to spend another $25-30 right after to "own" it. And because of that increased price, if it’s not something I’m totally sold on I may just wait until the cost of that rental goes down. Either way, the film industry is making far less money from me, which isn’t great when applied to millions of other people. 

How does this get solved? The film industry needs to adapt to this new environment and make the rental experience part of owning the movie. If I spend $20 on a theatrical run and deeply enjoy that movie, but then after the credits am told I can own that movie if I pay the extra $10, I would happily do so. And I doubt I’m alone, with so many people unable, unwilling, or uninterested in sitting in a theater right now it’s important for this theatrical release rental system to either include a more compatible path to owning a copy of the movie.

This could be done from any app currently selling movies with relative ease, at least from a technical perspective. I suspect the real challenge is adjusting contracts between the film industry and distribution platforms. And it could be that folks in film have no interest in creating long-term solutions involving new purchase pipelines for a new type of film consumer.

But if the goal is to continue to release movies digitally alongside a theatrical release, or even within a few weeks of a theatrical release, a better solution for the path to ownership needs to be included in those plans.