Exhibs irked by Disney's collapsing release windows

Walt Disney Studios may be about to get thrown down the rabbit hole. U.K. exhibs are squaring up for a fight with the studio over its plans to shorten the window between the theatrical and DVD release of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” with some of the country’s most powerful exhibs threatening not to show the film at all. Disney wants to shorten the window from the traditional 17 weeks to just over 12 weeks.

Both Odeon and Vue have pulled marketing materials from their theaters for the film, stopped playing its trailer or taking advanced bookings. They’ve also removed any mention of it from their websites. The film bows March 5.

The standoff could see “Alice,” which stars Johnny Depp and was expected to perform well in the U.K., being dropped by up to 90% of U.K. theater chains. Some independent theaters are still planning to show the film, and they may well benefit from the multiplex embargo, particularly given the higher ticket prices that auds were expected to pay for “Alice’s” 3D experience.

“Disney has acted in an absolutely mercenary fashion,” said one U.K. exhib. “There is no compromise, no discussion being offered. It’s very frustrating. Our business model is under attack even though we’ve enjoyed three straight years of huge box office. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”

Disney’s reasoning for the shortened window with “Alice” is to avoid the World Cup soccer tournament, which kicks off in June in South Africa, and to take advantage of school half-terms in May.

Shortening windows has, however, been a long-term strategy of Disney chairman Robert Iger.

In 2005, he gave a speech highlighting the need for greater window integration.

Ever since then, Disney execs have been testing the waters.

Last year, Disney tried to shorten the window for Pixar’s “Up.” The studio backed down at the last minute after exhibitors revealed an email from a Disney official committing to a 17-week window.

This time, however, Disney appears ready to stick with its plan. New Disney topper Rich Ross came from the TV side of the business and is known to be a great fan of window integration.

“I would be most surprised if Disney backed down again, because they won’t be taken seriously anymore,” said one U.K. distrib. “This raises all sorts of issues, including the question of the British exhibition cartel.”

The Cinema Exhibitors Assn., the U.K. trade body, declined to comment specifically on the “Alice” row but did state that it found unilateral moves to change windows “unwelcome” and was in favor of “clear and distinct windows.”

In France, for example, the four-month window between theatrical and home entertainment releases is legally enshrined. But in the U.K., the gentleman’s agreement is not a legally binding requirement.

Disney execs are also believed to have communicated to Italian exhibs that future windows will be shortened to 12 weeks.

“Part of the problem is that Disney has fired a lot of the guys that we used to have relationships with and replaced them with people from the TV and home entertainment side of their business,” said one U.K. exhib. “I don’t think that Disney has fully thought through the repercussions.”

While Disney is still attempting to broker an agreement, the studio appears unwilling to back down on either the proposed window for “Alice” or its release date.

The decline in DVD sales and emergence of online and digital distribution, as well as on-demand technology, has seen studios exploring new ways to exploit the long-standing theatrical and home entertainment models.

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