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Hulu deal to ensure it won't be 'Hello, Goodbye' for Beatles

Fans of the Fab Four, rejoice! September is a big month for Beatles fans.

On Friday a remixed and remastered version of a long-out-of-print 1977 album, "The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl," is being released on CD. And on September 16 "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week," a new documentary about the group's years as a touring act, will be released at the box office.

The Beatles in 1964. Left to right: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.
Evening Standard | Getty Images
The Beatles in 1964. Left to right: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.

One would assume that these releases would be automatic moneymakers for the Beatles, who have sold more than 600 million albums worldwide and held the top five spots on the Billboard 100 in April 1964. Yet in today's digital age, where many millennials are unable to name even one of the throwback pop sensations, how can the legacy of this iconic band continue its momentum?

"The Beatles' original audience is aging and starting to die off," said Robert Rodriguez, co-host of the podcast "Something About the Beatles" and author of five books about the group. "No matter how great the Beatles' music and legacy, new releases will never compete with Adele or Beyoncé in sales," he said. "But that doesn't mean the keepers of the estate should be discouraged from addressing the Beatles' legacy with great care and sensitivity for their aging original audience and the generations to come."

On Christmas Eve last year, the Beatles officially joined the online music streaming world when London-based Apple Corps, which holds the licensing rights for the Beatles' brand and music, gave the go-ahead to stream the band's full catalog of music on services including Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Tidal and Amazon's Prime Music. Apple Corps is owned by former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and by the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. Two days later the band set the record on Spotify for the most simultaneous streams in the service's history — at 250 million times and counting.

Who were the listeners? Surprisingly, not the baby boomers. Seventy-nine percent weren't even born yet when the band called it quits in 1970.

Now the film's producers are hoping they can do the same: One day after the theatrical premiere of "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week," the Ron Howard documentary will become available on Hulu.

So why open the film in theaters when anyone can simply stream it at home?

"The very brief theatrical run indicates the filmmakers don't think the movie has huge mass-market appeal but that streaming will capitalize on the worldwide Beatles fan base and ensure its longevity within that realm," said Richard Buskin, New York Times bestselling author and the Rodriguez's co-host for the "Something About The Beatles" podcast.

According to a June 8 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment and Media Outlook, online streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu now have overtaken box-office sales, with streaming services taking in $11.2 billion and box offices taking in $10.3 billion in 2015, a full two years earlier than originally projected by the same report one year ago.

Releasing a new movie in theaters and on-demand either same day or shortly thereafter is not unheard of, even in cases where the new movie is a sequel to a well-known and financially successful film. The Academy Award-winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" took in $128 million at the U.S. box office after opening in limited release in 2000 and staying in theaters for 32 weeks.

Its 2016 sequel, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny," was released directly to Netflix in the United States in February, along with a handful of North American IMAX theaters. Box Office Mojo, which tracks box-office revenue, did not provide a figure for the sequel's U.S. box-office take, but ranked it the 185th highest-grossing IMAX film of all time, just behind "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," which grossed $170,276.

'A brilliant approach'

Chris Formant, president of Verizon Enterprise and author of the upcoming rock-and-roll murder mystery book "Bright Midnight," said he believes the brief window in which it will be possible to see the movie theatrically will actually work in its favor.

"In the theater is a destination and an event, and the limited viewing window will create a 'while supplies last' kind of demand," he said. "Hulu streaming will extend the audience, the viewing window and allows viewing when you wish and how much you wish. I think it's a brilliant approach."

Rodriguez added that the movie would also prove useful when the holidays roll around.

"Plenty of opportunity exists for an expanded edition on Blu-Ray to be issued in time for holiday gift-giving by years' end," he said. "Even in the download era, a DVD package makes a nice stocking stuffer, especially for less computer-savvy, older fans."

As far as the reissued "The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl" album, how much revenue should it be expected to generate?

The aforementioned baby boomers who make up the largest segment of the group's audience still like to buy such physical media as compact discs, but sales of such media have declined year after year in the face of streaming services and digital downloads. Look no further than Sony's precipitous drop in operating income in the past year, attributable in part to the steady decline of physical media sales.

Eric Knight, founder of the artist-management company Persistent Management, said that even in the Spotify era, he expects sales to be brisk, but mainly among the group's most hard-core fans. This release is a boutique item, as opposed to a mainstream release, and expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

"No matter how great the Beatles' music and legacy, new releases will never compete with Adele or Beyoncé in sales. But that doesn't mean the keepers of the estate should be discouraged from addressing the Beatles' legacy with great care." -Robert Rodriguez, co-host of the "Something About the Beatles" podcast

"This is not some new collection of unearthed Beatles songs, like they did with their 'Anthology' box set years ago," he said. "It's a reissued and remixed live album, so I see it not being a huge seller, but one that will be strong among their core audience."

Knight said that with the ongoing sales decline of physical media, it's difficult to predict how much money the release will make with any precision. Still, he gave it the old college try: "I would say anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million," he estimated.

That depends, of course, on the marketing. Buskin said that even with a group as iconic as The Beatles, you can't expect fans to buy a product that they don't know exists, and he cited the underwhelming sales of last year's "1" CD/DVD package as evidence that even a greatest-hits compilation needs a little push.

"Evidently, there was an assumption that the Beatles brand doesn't require much promotion, but this is only true in terms of the fans, not the general public," he said. "Expectations should be modest unless there's a concerted effort to spike sales via heavy publicity."

By Daniel Bukszpan, special to CNBC.com

Disclosure: Comcast, which owns CNBC parent NBCUniversal, is a co-owner of Hulu.