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Disney Re-Affirms Commitment to Traditional Theatrical Releases, but for How Much Longer?

Fourteen years ago, when I was a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote a story about how theater owners were up in arms over comments made by Walt Disney Co.’s new chief executive, Bob Iger, suggesting that the health of the movie business may require the simultaneous release of movies in multiplexes and at home on DVDs.

On a quarterly earnings call with analysts in 2005, Iger said, “I don’t think it’s out of the question that a DVD could be released in fact in the same window as a theatrical release, although I’m sure we’ll get a fair amount of pushback there from the industry.” He added, “I think that all the old rules should be called into question because the rules in terms of consumption have changed so dramatically.”

John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, went absolutely ballistic, arguing that telling consumers that “they can have it all everywhere, at the same time,” would mean “there would be no viable theater industry in the world.”

Iger’s remarks about changing consumer demand would prove prescient as the traditional theatrical window for movies has continued to shrink. So, cut to where we are now, when theater owners are excruciatingly concerned about protecting their business given the onslaught of in-home streaming services available with offerings from Disney Plus, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max and, soon, many others.

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Earlier this week, at Variety’s Business Managers Elite Breakfast, I asked Disney Studios co-chairman Alan Horn what Disney’s current position is on windowing, considering the studio’s recent launch of its own direct-to-consumer platform. “We all know it’s a sensitive subject, and the exhibition community is staunchly holding onto its business model,” he told me. “For us, our position has been clear and constant. We are committed to the theatrical window for our theatrical releases. We haven’t changed that.”

I agree with those who predict that 2020 will see a further shrinking of the exclusive theatrical window. Iger’s suggestion that someday we may see the simultaneous release of major studio movies at home might not be as far off as we think — though I, for one, hope he’s wrong.

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