When future generations look back upon the halcyon days of 2020, one of the many things they will turn over and dissect will be the impact of a global pandemic on popular culture, specifically as it pertains to the tradition of folks from around the globe lining up to pay their hard earned sawbucks to catch the newest James Bond or Fast and Furious film. The model that we all know well and have engaged in so many times over the years has remained fairly consistent: We plunk down our money to watch a film with original content that is many months out from a Blu-Ray and streaming release. For the price of one magic ticket we are treated to wall to wall surround sound, floor to ceiling movie screens and state of the art projection technology, enabling us to see our film of choice in a style and manner that is nearly impossible with our own home entertainment center. Throw in a few more George Washington’s for soda and popcorn and we have a special movie night that is an exclusively fun event.
Part of the thing that has always made movie-going a communal and exclusive thing has just gotten turned upside down as the covid-19 debacle effectively continues its Bristol Stomp across the great, wide world: AMC Theaters – a leading U.S. exhibitioner of motion pictures, with over 1,000 cinemas globally – in the cinematic equivalent of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston and “shocking the world” announced yesterday that they had struck an industry-altering agreement with Universal that paves the way for the studio to make their films available to their premium video-on-demand base a mere seventeen days after premiering in theaters, the two behemoths jointly announced.
This is huge news in that it fundamentally dismantles what has long been considered the traditional window for cinemas in playing films for up to three months before couch potatoes can finally get their grubby little mitts on the latest celluloid goodies courtesy of Blu-Ray, 4K, DVD and streaming.
This is a huge role reversal on AMC’s part: Back in April the mega-chain had announced an effective ban on all Universal films in its theaters ‘round the world due to Universal doing an end-around on AMC and releasing their hit film Trolls World Tour digitally rather than going the traditional theatrical release first. Of course a big part of Universal’s thought process had to do with the pandemic which was raging out of control at the time. With money tied up in Trolls, the venerable film studio took a gamble and eschewed the traditional release in lieu of rolling it out on streaming. Bolstering Universal’s rationale was the simple fact that many theaters were shuttered because of the virus and with money tied up in advertising they opted for a strictly digital platform. “Based on the enthusiastic response to the film, we believe we made the right move. In fact, given the choice of not releasing Trolls: World Tour, which would not only have prevented consumers from experiencing the movie but also negatively impacted our partners and employees,” Universal explained in a statement at that time. The studio’s gamble paid off and Trolls World Tour hit and hit huge on digital. Other films quickly followed Universal’s step, to varying degrees of success.
So why the mending of fences in a year when rancor and strife seem to be the rule rather than the exception? Chalk it up to good old fashioned economics: AMC is expected to share the revenue with Universal on their PVOD. This is a win for both AMC and Universal; the movie studio for years has pushed for shorter theatrical windows. The pandemic has hastened what may have already been coming down the pike, making it a win for some but perhaps continuing the lessening of the hallowed movie theater going experience for movie aficionados who still thrill at cinema screens 30 feet tall and 65 feet wide with limitless room for the imagination to roam freely, something not as easily translated when staring at a computer monitor or an iPhone screen.
In a statement from Universal, Donna Langley who is chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group said that “the theatrical experience continues to be the cornerstone of our business. The partnership we’ve forged with AMC is driven by our collective desire to ensure a thriving future for the film distribution ecosystem and to meet consumer demand with flexibility and optionality.”