Two days before cinemas were supposed to premiere “The King of Staten Island,” a new comedic drama from Judd Apatow and Pete Davidson, movie theaters around the country were abruptly informed they were not able to show the film.
The semi-autobiographical look at Davidson’s upbringing in the titular New York City borough was originally intended to debut in a limited number of theaters — mostly drive-ins — that were able to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, while also launching simultaneously across premium video-on-demand platforms.
The news has created consternation, and even outrage, in the close-knit community of drive-in operators, many of whom have been promoting showtimes and selling tickets for “The King of Staten Island.”
Now, they’ve had to offer refunds and scramble to find new content to show under short notice. Universal didn’t give exhibitors any reasoning behind the hasty decision.
“There was no explanation. They changed their mind,” lamented one independent theater owner under the condition of anonymity.
Adds another cinema operator, “This caused a considerable amount of ill will with customers who bought tickets online showing up for the Thursday 7 p.m. show.”
Insiders at Universal chalked it up to an internal misunderstanding, saying “The King of Staten Island” was always intended to premiere exclusively on-demand, however some executives unintentionally booked the film in about 100 theaters. When they realized the mistake, the studio went back to theaters and asked them not to play it.
Apatow addressed the miscommunication on Twitter, saying “THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND IS ONLY OPENING ON VOD FRIDAY. IT IS NOT OPENING IN THEATERS.” When a user on Twitter pointed out a local theater was showing the film, Apatow clarified, “It won’t be playing there. It is a mistake. It is only on VOD.”
Universal, among all major Hollywood studios, has had the most contentious relationship with the exhibition community. The studio’s decision in April to forgo a traditional theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour” and debut the animated family film directly on-demand was roundly criticized by John Fithian, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the exhibition industry’s main lobbyist. The studio’s participation in a puff-piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which CEO Jeff Shell declared “Trolls World Tour” to have grossed $100 million in three weeks, rubbed more salt in the wound. In response, AMC Theatres, the nation’s largest cinema chain, threatened to stop showing Universal movies. However on a recent earnings call, AMC CEO Adam Aron downplayed the acrimony, saying, “Relations are warm with Universal. Relations with Universal have always been warm. There is nothing personal about this issue with Universal … this is just an issue about money.”
On Thursday, theaters such as the Warwick Drive-In in New York and the Rustic Tri View Drive-In in Rhode Island, began posting news about “The King of Staten Island” cancellation and refund policies on Facebook. Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre in upstate New York announced it will showcase a double screening of “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” instead of the Davidson comedy.
Even before Universal abruptly rescinded permission to screen “The King of Staten Island,” the studio had already alienated some theater owners by insisting on profit share terms that were considered onerous. Universal wanted to split ticket sales with theater owners, which is traditionally done with major releases. However, theater owners thought those terms were overly generous since “The King of Staten Island” will be widely available to rent online.
“They wanted 2019 terms in 2020 conditions,” the independent theater owner said. “This is a new landscape.”