How Will Universal and AMC’s Feud Over Theatrical Windows End? (Column)

Jeff Shell NBC Universal Adam Aron
Shell: NBCUniversal; Aron: Meg Baggott/AMC

I didn’t pay to see “Trolls World Tour” at home, nor would I have run to watch it at my local cinema in a pre-pandemic world since it’s not my thing. But what I am watching from the edge of my seat is what happens next in the cliffhanger drama that’s pitting the world’s largest theater circuit against one of Hollywood’s biggest studios.

Given theater closures, it’s hardly surprising that Universal Pictures opted to make its animated sequel available as a digital rental rather than pushing back the film’s release and blowing all the marketing dollars it had already spent. Similarly, we get why Warner Bros. offered its planned theatrical kids movie “Scoob!” for digital rentals and sales, and Disney redirected “Artemis Fowl” to Disney Plus in June.

But what was shocking and arguably misguided was NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell’s bombshell reveal in a Wall Street Journal interview that his studio plans to simultaneously release ALL of its forthcoming movies for home viewing and in theaters even after they reopen. Naturally, that proclamation inflamed AMC CEO Adam Aron, who shot back that his circuit would consequently refuse to play any of Universal’s films in its theaters.

Several studio executives I’ve spoken with concur that Shell went a bridge too far in blindsiding theater operators with a strategy that may not be financially prudent. There’s no existing model that ensures profitability of big-budget movies without an initial global theatrical release. Universal crowed that “Trolls World Tour” at its $19.99 rental price point generated $100 million in its first three weeks. While that’s a nice chunk of change, ultimately the film would have presumably made a whole lot more had it also been released theatrically worldwide.

In 2019, box office revenue topped $11 billion domestically and a record $30 billion internationally. That’s a lot of money to risk leaving on the table, not to mention potentially lucrative pay-TV sales, which are calculated based on a percentage of ticket sales.

A total collapse of release windows would likely be disastrous for both distributors and exhibitors. That said, there’s zero chance in the post-pandemic world that theaters will still get movies for the traditional exclusive 75- to 90-day period. Those days are over.