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For ‘The King of Staten Island,’ Going Straight to VOD Is No Laughing Matter (Column)

'The King of Staten Island' on
Universal Pictures/SXSW

Is watching a movie in a theater a different experience from watching it at home? There are two answers to that, and both of them are correct. The answers are: 1) Yes, of course it is! and 2) It’s sort of different, but not really.

It’s a different experience for all the reasons you know in your heart it is. I won’t bother to list each of them (the grandeur of the big screen, the primal sensation of sharing a story, a moment, an emotion with a large audience). But I will say that every time I’ve ever been asked this question, which I have for decades before the streaming wars existed, I have always led my “Yes, of course!” with the same quintessential example: that there is no movie on Earth you would rather see with an audience, and that benefits more from a theater setting, than a Hollywood comedy.

Laughter, by definition, is an infectious thing (sorry, don’t mean to be making a bad coronavirus pun). So when I think of watching a movie like “The King of Staten Island,” the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy starring Pete Davidson as — hold your breath, you’ll never buy this — an obnoxious tattooed twentysomething pothead burnout bro who still lives with his mom on Staten Island, I envision myself in a sea of other people, all chortling in kinetic sync to Davidson’s scruffy rebel derelict ‘tude, which can be hilarious. And now we know that that’s never going to happen, because the film is going straight to video-on-demand, where it’s likely to be one the biggest movie events that video-on-demand has ever seen.

“The King of Staten Island,” originally scheduled for release on June 19, was set to be one of the few major summer comedies. It’s a genre that has struggled in recent years, marked by high-profile box-office duds like “Stuber” and “Long Shot” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Nevertheless, the Apatow name is still a blue-chip brand, and given the high percentage of upcoming films whose studios have pledged to release them theatrically, “The King of Staten Island” stands as a surprise exception. That it will now premiere on VOD, and only because we’ve been hit by the extraordinary circumstances of a deadly pandemic, makes it a kind of experiment: for moviegoers, for the film’s distributor, Universal Pictures, and for the industry executives who will be watching its performance like hawks.

Yet here’s where it’s not so exotic. On June 12, when the movie premieres on VOD, a great many people will be sitting in their living rooms getting the novel experience of taking in a major new Hollywood film on television. And that’s where the “Sort of, but not really” comes in. For we’ve more or less been doing the same thing since 1981. If this were 1981, and I hadn’t gone to see Bill Murray in “Stripes” in a movie theater, I might be watching it, for the first time, on VHS. I might be doing the same thing in 1992 with “My Cousin Vinny,” or in 1999 with DVDs of “American Pie” or “Election” or “Office Space” or “The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

There’s no mystique to home viewing. For 40 years, people have been discovering movies, for the very first time, at home, and home viewing has long been baked into the business plan. If they started to release major Hollywood films like “The King of Staten Island” on a home platform, it would certainly seem exotic for a while, but then, after a while (I’m guessing not too long), it would cease to be exotic, and the experience of consuming a film at home would slide into becoming the very routine new normal.

Sure, you would now be seeing new movies — but when you catch a film at home for the first time, even if it came out eight months ago, it is new (at least, to you). What feels second-hand about it is that audiences have already shared it; you’re late to the party. But so what? If you claim that that matters, what you’re really saying is that audiences matter. And the whole premise of the “Streaming rocks!” theaters-are-last-century’s-model sentiment that’s floating around out there right now is that audiences don’t matter. Not really. Good riddance to them. And so forth.

So do they matter or not? For a while, of course, we won’t be able to have audiences — at least, not in the way we did. And as movie theaters gradually re-open, and we’re offered a version of “the theater experience” that’s a shadow of its former self (you thought you didn’t like pesky glowing cell phones and overpriced popcorn? Try temperature tests, spaced-out seating, and having to consume your popcorn through a surgical mask), the essential lure of movies may seem more tamped down than ever before.

Yet since we’re on the subject of things that don’t measure up to what they once were, I wonder how it’s going to feel two months from now, at home, when I’m watching “The King of Staten Island” on my TV screen. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s the comedy we want it to be — that Apatow, who at his best (“Trainwreck,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) is a brilliant director, is able to find the sweet spot of Pete Davidson, to coax this slovenly rock star of loserdom into being a real actor. Let’s assume that the two of them knock it out of the park and make a memorably funny movie about the new Middle America of stoned manners and crashed hopes and frazzled dreams. I know that I’ll feel like I’m missing something: sharing that movie — literally — with my fellow frazzled Americans.

So will it work? Universal, the studio that’s releasing “The King of Staten Island,” is also the studio that released “Trolls World Tour,” on April 10, on VOD only, a decision I saw at the time as relatively inconsequential. Yet the stakes have now been ratcheted up. Universal has claimed that it had the biggest debut ever for a digital release, though it declined to provide statistics to support what that means. And the success the studio has had with “Trolls World Tour” likely influenced its decision to release “The King of Staten Island” on VOD. “Trolls World Tour” has now grossed $100 million in digital rentals, which suggests that “The King of Staten Island,” though it doesn’t have that built-in family audience, could also prove successful. This is a chain of tremors leading to an earthquake, which is why the theater chain AMC responded with a tremor of its own: the retaliatory decision, in response to the opening of “Trolls” on VOD (and to NBCUniversal’s CEO Jeff Shell suggestion that Universal, in addition to opening “The King of Staten Island” on VOD, might start to simultaneously release some movies in theaters and on-demand), not to play Universal films.

No doubt about it: This is war. Yet it’s worth remembering that these films, right now, are reaping the benefit of being anomalies. Due to the pandemic, they’ve got a captive audience, at home, that they won’t have later on. And as the only major Hollywood movie to premiere in April, “Trolls World Tour” was competing with…nothing else. The same will be true of “The King of Staten Island”: It will have the home audience to itself. (Imagine that there were six other big new releases premiering on VOD or streaming services that day.) Because of that highly idiosyncratic and almost freakish situation, it could wind up being seen by more eyeballs, and making more money, than it would have in theaters.

But is this a business model for the future, or a stopgap? Some would say it’s a stopgap that could become the business model for the future. “The King of Staten Island” will test-drive that possibility, and maybe rattle the struggling movie-theater industry, like no movie before it. But is getting to see a film like this one at home truly an advance — a case of value added? It may, in fact, be a seductive but temporary convenience that, in the long run, will only prove to be value subtracted.