The recent announcement of the agreement between AMC Theatres and Universal Pictures to shorten the traditional theatrical window of exclusivity for Universal properties is the sort of movie news that doesn’t come around every day. This is nothing less than the first step in dismantling the currently existing system of theatrical distribution for new movies, and doing so in a big way, with Universal films now free to head to premium VOD after only three weekends of 17 days, rather than the usual 90 days. For consumers, it will mean big new movies being available to rent or stream at home much sooner, and for AMC it means a new revenue stream, as Universal has agreed to share some portion of PVOD revenue, although no numbers have yet been reported.
For other theater chains, though, the prospect of a huge studio like Universal making deals exclusively with AMC is potentially bad news of the highest order. After all, if movies from Universal are suddenly available in VOD markets after three weeks, it stands to cut into attendance at Regal or Cinemark theaters where those films are still playing—not to mention the fact that audience members may choose not to attend theaters at all, if they have to wait less time for a PVOD experience. Nor will Regal or Cinemark be cut in on any of the PVOD profit sharing, unless they come up with their own deals with Universal. And then there’s all the other major studios as well, who surely must be interested in at least exploring the possibility of similar deals. The coronavirus pandemic has effectively launched us into an entirely new era of theatrical distribution.
It’s not surprising, then, that the CEO of Cinemark has more than a few reservations about the AMC-Universal plan. In a statement Tuesday, CEO Mark Zoradi said the following:
“We have publicly stated we’re willing to have conversations with our studio partners to evolve with them. But an aggressive shortened theatrical window could have an adverse impact on the mid-to tail-end of a film’s life. We will be very careful and methodical about how we approach any change to the theatrical window. We will endeavor to ensure any modifications are in the best interests of the overall industry, our company and our shareholders.”
Note that Zoradi is by no means willing to state that Cinemark would explore such a deal with Universal or other studios, but he’s clear about the company’s fear of what an “aggressive shortened theatrical window” could entail. He also mentioned the company being in “open and active discussions” with studios, but it’s impossible to say where those talks might lead. It certainly sounds like he believes that a merely 17-day theatrical window is too short, however.
NBCUniversal, meanwhile, is unsurprisingly pretty happy with their advantageous new way of life, with CEO Jeff Shell referring to the AMC deal as “groundbreaking,” calling it a “complement rather than a replacement for a robust theatrical release.” Be that as it may, it seems increasingly likely that when the pandemic is finally finished, we’ll be returning to a film industry that looks radically different in terms of both production and distribution.