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Universal to make theatrical films available on demand for $20 amid the coronavirus pandemic

As movie theaters close around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, at least one studio will let you watch its newest releases at home months early.

NBCUniversal announced Monday it will make Universal Pictures films that are playing in theaters right now, including The Invisible Man and The Hunt, available to rent at home for $19.99 beginning this Friday, per The Hollywood Reporter. The rental period will last 48 hours. This is a game-changer for theatrical moviegoing, as major studio films typically play in theaters exclusively for about three months before being made available for home viewing. The Hunt hit theaters just three days ago.

But movie theaters in major cities are closing as health officials caution against large gatherings to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the box office just suffered its worst weekend in about 20 years. Studios have delayed films like A Quiet Place Part II and Mulan, and Universal itself previously pushed the newest Fast & Furious sequel to 2021.

Universal's new policy will also apply to at least one upcoming movie: Trolls World Tour, which is set to be made available digitally on the same day it's released in theaters — at least, the theaters that are still open. The policy isn't expected to apply to all of Universal's upcoming movies, the Reporter says.

"We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible," NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said.

Analysts had wondered whether some studios might break the theatrical window amid this crisis, but some feared such a move could be the nail in the coffin for theatrical moviegoing, which has already experienced declining attendance amid the rise of streaming. Writer Sonny Bunch tweeted Monday, "If movie theaters were in trouble before this, they're just about finished now."