Fox punished for breaking window

LONDON — The battle over windows has moved across the Pond.

Major Brit cinema circuits have pulled the plug on “Night at the Museum” in protest of Fox’s decision to release the Ben Stiller laffer on DVD just 97 days after its theatrical release — breaking the widely accepted four-month window.

Brit exhib chains Cineworld, Odeon, Vue and Showcase have decided not to play “Museum” in their theaters as of today. It bowed theatrically in the U.K. Dec. 26; Fox plans to release “Museum” on DVD on April 2.

The exhib revolt comes hot on the heels of a similar spat in Germany last weekend. “Museum” grosses nosedived 76% there after leading multiplex operators Cinestar, CinemaxX, Kinopolis, UCI and Cineplex pulled all Fox pics to protest distrib’s plan to release “Eragon” inside the established window.

“This is a one-off decision based on seasonality,” said Christian Grass, executive VP of Fox, Europe, Middle East and Africa. “We believe in retaining healthy windows, and our track record speaks for itself. Our average window from theatrical release to homevideo release is over five months. The window between the theatrical and homevideo release of ‘Ice Age 2′ was over six months.”

Describing the disagreement as “a tempest in a teapot in terms of distributor/exhibitor relations,” Grass continued, “it is a knee-jerk reaction to pull ‘Night at the Museum’ from cinemas. It denies the audience the choice to see this crowd-pleaser on the bigscreen.”

Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopoulos echoed Grass’ comments, saying the decision was based on the early arrival of Easter this year. The holiday is a major retail season and Fox wants the “Museum” DVD launch to benefit from the uptick of shoppers. Similar thinking was behind Fox’s decision to delay the DVD release of “Ice Age 2″ until the Christmas holidays.

“Easter fell early, so the (DVD) release is early,” Gianopoulos said. “It just coincidentally worked out that way. It’s not a big change of strategy. It’s not a huge to-do. It’s a very simple matter of unique circumstances.”

Gianopoulos said Fox was not considering changing the DVD release date of “Museum” in response to the fracas.

With Fox testing the nerve of Euro bookers, other distribs will be watching closely to see who blinks first. In Germany, it was Fox who flinched, pushing back the “Eragon” DVD bow, which halted the boycott.

Choosing to keep “Museum” on this weekend in the U.K. are Empire, Apollo and some indie exhibs. But that does not mean they’re not perturbed.

“It does concern me that 20th Century Fox is releasing the film on DVD ahead of the established window, but we have made a commercial decision to play the film this weekend,” Ian Johnston, Apollo’s director of film booking, told Daily Variety.

“We are certainly not happy,” said Derek Cownty, Empire’s director of film booking. “The decision to keep playing ‘Night at the Museum’ was taken in the interests of Empire’s customers, but our decision does not set any precedent as to what we might do in the future when distributors break the window.”

The family-friendly comedy has done boffo biz internationally, grossing $193.7 million as of Monday and finishing as the top earner overseas for five consecutive weekends. “Museum’s” perf in Blighty has been particularly strong, accounting for 20% of its overseas trade. Last weekend — its fifth frame — it slipped just 18% to take $2.3 million at 458 in the U.K., for a running cume of $39.4 million.

And the well isn’t dry yet. As one booker points out, “Last weekend it did over £1 million ($1.95 million) and was the fourth best performer in the territory, despite the arrival of high-profile Academy Awards contender ‘Blood Diamond’ and good holds from ‘Babel’ and ‘The Last King of Scotland.’ ‘Night at the Museum’ has gas left in the tank.”

The most likely beneficiary of “Museum” being frozen out of U.K. theaters could be this weekend’s opener “Arthur and the Invisibles,” which get a 390-screen saturation release from Momentum Pictures.

Other family-oriented pics already on release, such as Fox’s “Eragon” and Paramount’s “Flushed Away,” might also get a spike in the absence of “Museum.”

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