Regal Cinemas owner Cineworld has warned Universal that it will not show films that “fail to respect” the theatrical window after the studio decided to move Trolls World Tour from a theatrical release to a digital exclusive.
The warning comes after Universal touted the success of Trolls World Tour’s straight-to-digital release. Yesterday, AMC Theaters went further, deciding to bar Universal movies because of comments made by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, arguing that Universal didn’t take theater chains into consideration when it made the decision to go direct to consumer. The ban extends to Odeon Cinemas, which is an AMC company, in the United Kingdom.
Typically, movies headed to theaters must play for at least 90 days before they can move to a streaming or digital window. NBCUniversal bypassed that by releasing Trolls World Tour directly on VOD platforms, despite it being intended for a theatrical release originally. Cineworld’s new warning doesn’t deviate from theaters’ normal policies, but it shows how much they’re concerned with studios’ attempts to bypass them.
Other studios “called us in timely manner and told us that in the current situation they want to shorten window for movies that were already released as cinemas are closing,” Mooky Greidinger, Cineworld’s CEO, said in a press release obtained by The Wrap. “Most importantly, they all reassured us that there will be no change to their window policy once the cinema business returned.”
Universal has responded to the complaints by reiterating its commitment to the theatrical model, noting the company’s executives were “disappointed by this seemingly coordinated attempt” by theater chains and the National Association of Theater Owners to blackball Universal. Going forward, Universal plans to use both theatrical release and direct-to-consumer distribution models depending on what makes more sense for the company and audiences.
“Based on the enthusiastic response to the film, we believe we made the right move,” the company said in a press release sent out last night. “We absolutely believe in the theatrical experience and have made no statement to the contrary.”
Despite Cineworld and AMC’s focus on Universal, it’s not the only studio to bypass the theatrical model for a direct-to-consumer release. Warner Bros. is moving its animated movie, Scoob, to a video on demand release before moving it over to its upcoming streaming service, HBO Max. Disney has moved Artemis Fowl from a theatrical release to a Disney Plus exclusive.
AMC’s decision to not carry Universal movies, and Regal’s move to not carry films that “fail to respect theatrical windows” come as theater chains are dealing with financial uncertainty. Both Cineworld and AMC Theaters are struggling with declining attendance and will need the ticket sales from upcoming blockbusters.
Blockbuster movies still stand to make huge sums at the box office, and it’s unlikely theaters will want to miss out once their doors are open again. One of 2021’s biggest movies is likely to be F9, the ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, followed by the third installment of the Jurassic World franchise, due out in 2022. They’re both Universal films and are likely to amass around $1 billion in box-office revenue, making it extremely unlikely that major theater chains wouldn’t carry them. And while Disney is moving Artemis Fowl to Disney Plus, theaters are delaying bigger films like Wonder Woman 1984 and Mulan so they can have a theatrical run.
It almost feels like a game of chicken: the theater chains want to take a stand against the direct-to-consumer shift they’re seeing play out — one that will only get bigger as more streaming services from studios launch in the coming months — and the studios want to lessen the restraints that come with a typical theatrical window.
Correction May 29th, 2:42PM ET: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted the original statement from Cineworld. The chain hasn’t banned Universal movies, but will refuse to carry movies that “fail to respect theatrical windows,” like Trolls World Tour. The story and headline have been updated to reflect these changes. The Verge regrets the error.