A new era for the film industry: Why cutting down cinemas' exclusivity windows isn't all bad

Theatres now have little choice but to accept shorter 45-day screening deals with studios

Last year, AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain, signed a deal agreeing to Universal releasing a film online 17 days after its theatrical debut. Getty Images
Last year, AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain, signed a deal agreeing to Universal releasing a film online 17 days after its theatrical debut. Getty Images

When Disney became the latest major Hollywood studio to detail its post-Covid-19 release plans last week, there was a distinct sense that the final nail had been hammered into the coffin of the long-standing 90-day theatrical release window.

Its forthcoming films, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (September 3) and the Ryan Reynolds comedy Free Guy (August 13) will release exclusively in cinemas for 45 days before heading to Disney+.

The plan brings an end to the traditional 90-day limit that has existed since the arrival of VHS first challenged the exclusivity of cinemas back in the early 1980s.

The announcement follows similar ones by most of Disney’s rivals, and marks the end of an era for film exhibitors, who have clung on to their exclusivity despite years of opposition from producers.

The studios have long felt that the 90-day limit is too long, even more so in a world where all the majors except Sony have their own in-house streaming service, eager to entice new subscribers by bringing the latest releases into homes as soon as possible.

New movies make the bulk of their box office earnings on opening, with 50 per cent week-on-week drops fairly standard across the industry, so why wait almost three months to allow them in homes, goes the studios’ logic.

The first high-profile, and unilateral, attempt to shorten the theatrical window came in 2011, when Universal announced its intention to bring the action comedy Tower Heist to premium video on demand only three weeks after its cinema release. Exhibitors were mortified and threatened to boycott. Faced with only being able to release the film in a handful of cinemas, Universal was forced to back down.

The battle lines were drawn, however, and after a decade of simmering tension between studios and exhibitors, it eventually took not a big statement online movie release, but a global pandemic, to seemingly bring the argument to a close.

Initially,they were only films that had their cinema releases cut short by Covid lockdowns that were moved to VoD early, and the theatre chains could offer little resistance in the circumstances.

Universal was again a front runner in shaking things up when, amid continuing closures and restrictions, it released Trolls World Tour simultaneously online and in cinemas, where possible, last April.

The gloves were off once again, and the boycott threats returned, but with so few cinemas open, the chains had little in their armoury to fight this time around.

When AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain and one of the most vocal opponents of Universal’s plans, announced last July that it had come to an agreement that would allow Universal to release on VoD only 17 days after cinema openings, it looked like change was afoot.

Camilla Cabello stars in CINDERELLA. Courtesy Amazon Studios
Camilla Cabello stars in the upcoming live-action remake of 'Cinderella'. Amazon Studios

Other studios quickly followed suit. Warner Bros announced it would release all of its 2021 slate simultaneously in cinemas and on its HBO Max platform in response to the pandemic, and stated that moving forward it would be observing a 45-day window.

Paramount, too, has adopted a 45-day model, which also includes films from MGM, before it will release to its Paramount+ platform. Sony has so far made no official decision, but the studio has been largely foregoing cinema releases altogether throughout the pandemic.

Instead, in the absence of its own platform, it has been selling its biggest titles to the full range of streaming platforms. Most recent was Cinderella, which was due for a July cinema release, to Amazon. That’s not the sort of strategy that suggests Sony will be riding to the defence of theatrical exclusivity any time soon. With Disney now joining the 45-day club, it looks like this is one long-running feud that exhibitors have lost.

In fact, the one studio that cinemas could take some solace from is perhaps the one we would least expect – Netflix. The streaming giant has traditionally been the mortal enemy of cinemas and the Hollywood establishment alike, a rare figure of shared animosity in an often-fractured relationship. However, last weekend, Cinemark, the third largest US chain, released Army of the Dead in theatres a week before its global streaming debut.

Pre-pandemic, Netflix was largely shunned by the chains due to its refusal to observe the 90-day window – the platform even went so far as to purchase Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre to ensure it could achieve Oscar-qualifying releases for its biggest films.

As recently as September 2019, Cinemark chief executive Mark Zoradi told investors: “We can’t have a different deal for Netflix than we have for all the other major studios.”

Now, however, Cinemark has confirmed that it expects the Army of the Dead deal to be the first of many with Netflix, particularly as industry insiders predict there could be a shortage of new releases for up to three years due to production shutdowns in the past year.

So the 90-day window is long behind us, as the industry ushers in the 45-day window, or seven if you’re Netflix. For all the exhibitors’ dire warnings of the death of cinema if the exclusivity time frame is abandoned, this seems far-fetched.

Already, some of the deals that have been done involve a higher cut of ticket sales for cinemas if movies head to online sooner and, of course, if a film is still performing well at the box office, no one is going to force the streaming platforms to release on VoD early.

Despite its high-tech wizardry and liberal credentials, the movie industry has historically proven resistant to change. We’ve been variously warned that VHS, DVD, digitalisation, and now streaming will kill cinemas, but so far, even after a terrible year, it remains alive and well.

The new normal may be a little different from the old normal, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – without change we’d still be watching our movies silently in black and white, and something tells me that The Avengers wouldn’t be quite the same experience.

Published: May 21, 2021 07:21 AM

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