Coronavirus could change movie distribution model, film executive warns

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The novel coronavirus has sent many industries into the tank while others are drumming up creative ways to stay above water.

While the television industry has long pushed the limit on content distribution and increased the number of ways consumers can consume its content, but the film world has seemingly struggled to find its footing as the fans’ viewing habits change.

Now, with a large percentage of the world’s population practicing social distancing in a concerted effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, filmmakers and studios are striking up innovative ways to get their projects to the millions of folks who might otherwise visit a theater to take in a movie.

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Still, while great for the long-term viability of the entertainment industry, there is great concern that a new distribution model could shake up the theater industry as we know it.

A movie theatre is closed Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Phoenix. The city of Phoenix issued a state of emergency on Tuesday ordering all bars, gyms and other indoor facilities to close immediately and restaurants to offer to-go service only in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt York)

A movie theatre is closed Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Phoenix. The city of Phoenix issued a state of emergency on Tuesday ordering all bars, gyms and other indoor facilities to close immediately and restaurants to offer to-go service only in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The suspension of live audiences from daytime and late-night talk shows was one of the first trickle-down effects of the global pandemic in the entertainment industry. Last week, CBS’ “Survivor,” the Fast and Furious sequel, “F9,” and “A Quiet Place Part II” were all added to an already growing list of programs forced to either halt filming or postpone releases.

"I'll tell you this – everything's on the table right now," Erik Lokkesmoe, president of marketing and distribution at Aspiration Entertainment, told Fox News via phone on Friday. "I mean, we're hearing about and getting calls about people attempting things they never would have thought of three weeks ago in terms of technology, delivery, partnerships, theaters.

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“I still believe that there's going to always be the need and desire for a theatrical experience, big screen," he continued. "But I think theatrical after this -- especially, it's been having its way for a while -- it'll be fans and friends together.

"So, brave like-minded people in theaters -- which is the idea of strangers in a dark room is a bit uneasy now. I mean it has been going that way, but now, it's really uneasy. So theatrical will be more of a rally and events. But beyond the three big chains are all these mom-and-pop art houses that are always on the verge of struggling," Lokkesmoe noted.

Aspiration is one of the entities quickly working to bring content into the homes of viewers, through partnerships with movie theaters that allows consumers to purchase “virtual tickets” through the theater and have the film sent to them via a direct screener link that allows them to watch from the creature comforts of their own locale.

Lokkesmoe said Aspiration is hoping to launch its “eventized home experience” with the streaming title “Phoenix, Oregon,” a mid-life crisis comedy starring James Le Gros. The executive believes that fully eliminating a theater distribution model would prove detrimental to those local art houses that showcase lesser-known projects.

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“They're always going through hard times. And my fear is that if you take away those theaters, you lose the independent filmmakers possibly, you lose theaters that are at the epicenter of communities that have a very direct relationship with their audiences,” he lamented. “I mean, if you've visited an art house, there's something special about people saying, 'I'm going to the theater because it has great films that you don't see in the big theaters, but it's also because I know the owner and they have great programming and they have a great spot in our community.'”

He continued: “But, I still think we're going to have that small independent theater and independent filmmaker that needs to have a way of being supported and even through this  -- what we're doing is basically, we're working with theaters on all of these things to say, 'Still buy a ticket, a virtual ticket, the theater's promoting it, they're closed but if you buy a ticket, we'll deliver the film to you at home and we'll share the 'box office.' We'll share that revenue with the theater.”

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Lokkesmoe said he fears the moment when the filmmakers and studios stop sharing their projects with theaters altogether and simply opt for digital releases, which ultimately benefits only a small subset of people.

“We like the disruption, we want the disruption, but we want to do [it] in a way that is positive for the filmmaker, the theater, and the audience.”

Additionally, while still trying to save theaters from potential doom, Lokkesmoe explained that he could certainly see a world where the theater footprint is at least greatly minimized due to the increase in public gun violence seen throughout the country over the past six to eight years.

Lokkesmoe also added that with the combination of concerns centered on coronavirus coupled with mass shootings, more movie fans might opt to take in their favorite movie release from their couches instead, while still avoiding the intense “fear of missing out” that could come from being on the outside looking in.

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"I am hopeful that conversation is happening in a lot of places,” he said. “I don't know because the traditional industry has dragged its feet until someone proves it and then it raises the bar up and catches up, as you know – but I hope that that's happening and hopefully that's gonna be the case for sure."