Universal-Cineplex Deal Is Latest Sign Cinema Pain Won’t End Soon

Yinchen Niu/VIP

As the days left in 2020 decrease, so does the optimism among movie theaters that their businesses will soon return to normal. 

Exhibit A: Universal on Friday unveiled its new multi-year deal with Cineplex, Canada’s largest movie theater chain, to shorten the theatrical window of its films to as little as 17 days. Typically, theaters demand an exclusive window of 75-90 days.

Exhibit B: Universal earlier last week struck a similar deal with Cinemark to shorten the theatrical windows of its films to 17 days for films that open to less than $50 million and 31 days for films that open higher. 

These two deals, which had the road paved for them thanks to this summer’s Universal-AMC pactwould probably have been laughed at if proposed years prior. Just look back as recently as April, when theater chains like Cineworld boycotted Universal after Jeff Shell suggested some Universal films would bypass theaters.  

But that was when our sense of COVID-19’s coming toll was less certain. At the end of April, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases was about 29,000, according to the New York Times. On November 19, that figure was about 166,000.

It was also before Warner Bros. optimistically (naively?) unleashed “Tenet” to ring in COVID-19 era moviegoing, which didn’t exactly pan out. That film may reportedly lose up to $50 million, while other spooked studios have delayed tentpole theatrical releases. 

It’s not that moviegoing revenue in the coronavirus era is impossible — as the CEO of IMAX would happily point out to you — but that many U.S. consumers have suggested movie theaters’ COVID-19 precautions don’t do much to assuage virus fears.

A little over a week ago, 23% of U.S. adults surveyed by Morning Consult indicated some level of comfortability with moviegoing, which was nearly flat with the percentage from the end of May.  

Data also indicates people will wait some time until after a vaccine, on which Pfizer and Moderna have recently announced positive results, to return to the movies.  

52% of respondents said they would feel “not at all” or “not very” safe returning to the movies even if it was verified that everyone was vaccinated, an October survey by The Harris Poll found.

So it makes sense why we’re now seeing exhibitors make concessions that the large studios have long been pushing for, as it has been reported that exhibitors will get a cut of PVOD revenues in the new windowing deals, for example.  

It also helps explain why “Wonder Woman” last week was finally moved to a hybrid theatrical-HBO Max release model. 

The good news is that the daily death toll has thankfully gone down since March and the recent vaccine progress suggests an endpoint to the pandemic. 

But while these new truncated-window deals may help exhibitors make it through the winter, the deals also maalso inadvertently lead some consumers to have a greater expectation of new studio films quickly becoming available for home viewing.  

That could contribute to some consumers feeling even less urgency to attend cinemas once the virus relents.