Studios divided over release strategy, as Cineworld and Warner Bros agree deal

Published on: 25th March 2021

Cineworld announces deal with Warner Bros to show films in theatres before they are streamed, while Disney chooses hybrid release strategy for selected titles.

The Cineworld chain has announced the signing of a multi year deal with Warner Bros to show newly released films in cinemas for a 45-day exclusive window before they are streamed. The arrangement will start in 2022.

The partnership comes after Warner Bros announced in December that all 17 of its 2021 movies would be available to stream in the US on HBO at the same time as theatres, at no extra cost. Executives said at the time this was a one-year plan to push new releases out to market while most cinema screens remained closed due to the pandemic, a move which was considered potentially damaging to the already struggling cinema industry.

The deal shows renewed confidence in live cinema, with Warner Bros films having a period of exclusivity in cinemas before being made more widely available. Last year, Cineworld and rival AMC, which owns the Odeon Cinemas chain, criticised Universal Pictures last year for releasing Trolls: World Tour online while theatres were forced to close because of the coronavirus. Both organisations threatened not to show some Universal Pictures films until the dispute was resolved, however, AMC later reached an agreement with Universal where films would first show in theatres for a period before becoming available to rent online.

From next year Cineworld can exclusively show Warner Bros films for 45 days. In the UK, the period will be 31 days, although that can be extended to 45 days for movies “that open to an agreed upon box-office threshold”.

The gap from cinema to home has increasingly dwindled in recent years with the growing dominance of streaming services. The 45-day window is about half of that which cinemas enjoyed before the pandemic. Only a decade ago, a six-month period of exclusive access was the norm, but this had fallen to three to four months over recent years.

“This agreement shows the studio’s commitment to the theatrical business and we see it as an important milestone in our 100-year relationship with Warner Bros,” commented Cineworld chief executive Mooky Greidinger.

Meanwhile, Disney has announced that Black Widow and Cruella will both debut on streaming service Disney+ at the same time as in cinemas.

Both films had been intended for traditional theatrical releases but the studio has made the decision for a hybrid release. “Today’s announcement reflects our focus on providing consumer choice and serving the evolving preferences of audiences,” said Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney’s media and entertainment distribution.

Both films will be part of the platform’s premier access service, which requires users to pay an additional rental fee, the same model used for Mulan and, most recently, Raya and the Last Dragon, which some US cinemas refused to show because of the simultaneous release. Disney has also announced that Pixar’s summer film Luca will be headed straight to the platform for no additional cost.

The cinema industry has been badly hit during the pandemic with global box office takings in 2020 down by more than 70% from the previous year, as major releases have been delayed a number of times because of Covid.

Cineworld has just reported worse than expected annual losses of just over £2.2b and revealed new funding to help navigate future coronavirus-related uncertainty. The company said it had reserves to see it through this year and beyond, but cautioned that uncertainty remains around its ability to continue as a going concern.


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