COVID-19 Has Studios Sending Movies to Streaming Early. We Rank Them.

Theaters are closed. Hollywood production has ground to a standstill. Many (across many industries) are unfortunately out of work. And it is a good idea to just stay inside. With this turbulent current state of affairs, Hollywood studios are trying to recoup losses on their theatrical released films by placing them on digital VOD early.

In one respect, this is a generous offering, as it represents an essentially unprecedented choice by studios to ignore traditional windowing practices in order to give consumers access to new products. On the other hand, these releases come with lofty price tags. Given that streaming services offer plenty of feature film fare at much lower prices, it is hard to recommend anyone pay full price for the current slate of “early access” films. Some of these services are even free with ad support—Tubi, Vudu, and Crackle are perhaps the most readily available—and, with some digging, one can find a few gems.

However, for those looking for something new to watch, we have ranked the current (as of March 27) early access offerings.


The Unknown

The Call of the Wild ($15 purchase)

I have not seen The Call of the Wild, but I wouldn’t want my worst enemy shelling out $15 for a middling late-career Harrison Ford vehicle co-starring a CG-animated dog. Spoiler: there is a better family film later in the list which is more worth your money.


I Still Believe ($20 rental)

A spiritual (no pun intended) successor to I Can Only Imagine, the smash hit faith-based film from 2018, I Still Believe takes its name from a song by Jeremy Camp, whose story is the basis of the film. Another film I did not get a chance to see before theaters closed, this is a film which has a built in audience. This spiritual audience likely does not need a recommendation from a film criticism website to make its decision to rent.

For everyone else, I have a sneaking suspicion that you do not need to rush out to spend $20 to rent this thing for 48 hours. If you are genuinely curious, give it two months, when the price will likely stabilize to the traditional $3.99-$6.99 range.


The Bottom

7. The Hunt ($20 rental)

There is an audience for The Hunt, the Most Dangerous Game variant which had its initial theatrical release canceled after a Tweet from United States President Donald Trump. Basically functioning as a high concept thriller-satire, The Hunt pits caricature Liberals against caricature Conservatives in a bloody game of cat and mouse.

The Hunt is not particularly subtle, and its humor often falls flat. The film’s marketing heralds a battlecry of controversy, but in practice the story is not controversial at all. It is bloody in its genre fair; it is bloodless in its political grayness. Again, the film has an audience, most likely a younger audience of horror-thriller fans. But I do not recommend this audience pay $20 for a rental (you may be sensing a theme here). Give it a few months, and it will likely find itself on Hulu or Netflix.


6. Bloodshot ($20 purchase)

I did not enjoy Bloodshot. It reads prototypical of a science fiction action film with weak, boilerplate characters and stale action set pieces. If anything, what this film had going for it was the video gamey spectacle of these action sequences, which at least have some flair on the big screen. Without that, I can only recommend this to Vin Diesel completionists (who have likely already seen it).

At least this one is a purchase, so if you really know this movie is your speed then you can rest easy knowing it will be in your library until the internet goes dark forever.


5. The Way Back ($20 purchase)

I got very little out of The Way Back, the Ben Affleck redemption vehicle that plays as both a conventional sports drama and a conventional addiction narrative. Put those two together, and you have just as flat an experience as having the two separately. Affleck’s performance is noteworthy, and fans of these narratives will likely be able to look past the done-before plot beats. But I would never buy this for $20. By comparison: Hoosiers can be bought on digital for $15, White Men Can’t Jump for $17, Hoop Dreams and Love and Basketball for $13, Blue Chips for $10, and He Got Game for $8. Also, Space Jam is on Netflix. So…you have choices.


The Middle

4. Birds of Prey ($20 purchase)

Of every film on this list, Birds of Prey is the one where I can see people both appreciating the early access option and not minding the high price tag. It was not my favorite movie of the first quarter of 2020, but there is some fun to be had. Compared to Bloodshot, if nothing else, the action sequences of Birds of Prey are great.

Given that the first wave of a DC streaming release is not much cheaper than $20 for purchasing, this is not that bad of a deal. If you enjoy the DC films (particularly the recent ones) and/or Harley Quinn as a character, then this might be for you. My blanket recommendation would be to wait until the film is available for rent at the $3.99 price point, but that is just one person’s opinion.


3. Onward ($20 purchase)

Before moving forward, it should be noted that Onward will be available to Disney+ subscribers on April 3, so if that applies to you then don’t purchase Onward for $20.

Pixar’s latest is not their best. It has a couple of emotional highs and a fair deal of high-jinks (too much, if that is possible), but it is less charming and engrossing than most Pixar films. It is likely worth it at the $20 price point for the biggest Pixar fans (ask yourself: would you pay $20 for Brave? Or Cars?). Otherwise, this is a wait to see (like most of these films).


The Top

2. The Invisible Man ($20 rental)

The Invisible Man is probably the best horror movie of the year so far. It is well-directed and well-acted. There is substance to it, as well, beyond being merely a loose plot around a bunch of scares. There are some third act problems, but by and large this is a very interesting watch.

Again, and I know I keep repeating myself, this is not worth $20 for a 48-hour rental. As much as I liked it, I can’t recommend it at that price.


1. Emma. ($20 rental)

Emma. is far and away my favorite of this slate of films. However, I would not rent it at the $20 level. It is a delightful, ornate, extravagant adaptation of the famed Jane Austen story, and it is one I was glad to see in a theater. But it is not the type of film one has to rush out for. This film will certainly pivot to a more traditional streaming release at some point later in the year. Even fans of the Emma story (who have an HBO account) could revisit the Gwyneth Paltrow 1996 version for free instead of coughing up a Jackson.


At this point, the bottom line of this article is probably already evident: if you’re reading this because you are on the fence about spending money, do not spend $20+ on a single film. None of these are truly worth it at that price point.

Depending on how long theaters will be closed (and it could be a while), perhaps the higher price will start making more sense as time goes on. This slate of films were already in theaters for at least one weekend. Moving forward, studios opting to put new films on streaming will be presumably doing so in lieu of any theatrical release. Paying $20 will be the equivalent of purchasing a ticket at the cinema (which, depending on where you live, could seem reasonable).

If you are into a more art-house film scene, then there is another alternative to new theatrical releases. Kino Lorber is partnering with a handful of exhibitors to provide virtual theaters screening new independent films. Kino Marquee is slightly confusing, in that you have to find the films through your local art-house theaters (if they are a partner), but the prices are generally reasonable ($12 is the price I’ve encountered). Also, it is a great way to support independent theaters while they remain closed.


As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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