Universal’s decision to premiere films online has not gone down well with cinema owners.
The largest US cinema chain, AMC, has said that its cinemas will no longer show movies from Universal Pictures, arguing that the studio is breaking the business model that has sustained both companies for decades. In an open letter to Universal Studios, the chain said that it would not “meekly accept a reshaped view of how studios and exhibitors should interact.”
AMC owns Odeon cinemas in the UK, and it is thought the ban would also extend to UK venues.
Trolls World Tour was released on home video after cinemas closed worldwide because of the pandemic and is reported to have performed as well for the studio in the US as similar movies released exclusively in theatres, matching the performance of the original Trolls movie. Jeff Shell, head of Universal Pictures parent NBCUniversal, told the Wall Street Journal: “As soon as theatres reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”
Cinemas have traditionally depended on two to three months of exclusive rights to new movies, and The National Association of Theatre Owners claims the sales figures are the result of quarantines and heavy marketing, rather than changing audience preferences. “Universal does not have reason to use unusual circumstances in an unprecedented environment as a springboard to bypass true theatrical releases,” John Fithian, the association’s CEO, said in a statement. “Theatres provide a beloved immersive, shared experience that cannot be replicated.”
Universal has responded to AMC with clarification of its stance. “Our desire has always been to efficiently deliver entertainment to as wide an audience as possible,” reads a statement. “We absolutely believe in the theatrical experience and have made no statement to the contrary.”
AMC has said it is willing to sit down with Universal to discuss different theatrical window strategies and economic models, but has cautioned that, without an acceptable agreement being reached, the business partnership between the two organisations is under threat.
During the shutdown , other studios have also changed their release strategy; Disney has taken advantage of its Disney+ streaming service to release new content, and John Stankey, the incoming CEO of Warner Bros.’ parent, AT&T Inc., has said he is rethinking the theatrical relationship because of coronavirus. Warner Bros. has already announced plans to release “Scoob!” for on-demand home viewing.
It has been announced that movies that do not receive a full cinema release will be able to compete at the 2021 Oscars. However, once cinemas have reopened, the exemption will no longer apply. Films released after a date yet to be determined will have to comply with the Academy’s usual rules, which state that a film must be shown in a commercial cinema in Los Angeles for at least seven consecutive days, with screenings at least three times daily. To make it easier for films to meet the requirements, qualifying cinemas will now include New York, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area.