AMC Theatres, the world’s largest movie theater chain, has vowed to no longer carry films from Universal Pictures following a public fall out over the future of the theatrical window, spurred by the digital release of Trolls: World Tour.
Universal executive Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, provided a quote to the Wall Street Journal, celebrating the earnings of Trolls: World Tour on PVOD and indicating the studio would move to a simultaneous release model once theaters reopen following the COVID-19 crisis.
The article caused a rebuke by the National Association of Theatre Owners, which released a statement in support of a theatrical exclusivity window. “Universal does not have reason to use unusual circumstances in an unprecedented environment as a springboard to bypass true theatrical releases,” said NATO president and CEO John Fithian. “Theaters provide a beloved immersive, shared experience that cannot be replicated – an experience that many of the VOD viewers of this film would have participated in had the world not been sequestered at home, desperate for something new to watch with their families. We are confident that when theaters reopen, studios will continue to benefit from the global theatrical box office, followed by traditional home release.”
The fall out from Jeff Shell’s quote intensified when AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron responded with a strongly-worded open letter addressed to Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures.
In the letter, Aron voices his vehement disagreement with Universal’s position to roll-out releases on theatrical and PVOD simultaneously, informing the studio that none of AMC Theatres locations worldwide will carry Universal titles moving forward. Aron’s full letter is printed below:
At this time of national emergency and the coronavirus wreaking havoc on the entire world, I hope that you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. I worry – and I wish the best for – the health of all of our industry colleagues. Never in our lifetimes has there been a more challenging time.
Amidst a global pandemic as a backdrop, I wish we were spared from also having to address a different issue that arises from Universal actions currently underway.
For 100 years, AMC Theatres has served as a strategically critical and highly profitable distribution platform for movie makers, and for all that time the exclusivity of the theatrical release has been fundamental. When a movie is “Only in Theaters,” consumers perceive it to be higher quality entertainment. Countless filmmakers and moviegoers believe that their creative works are best enjoyed by consumers on the big screen. And we all know that those theatrical releases indeed boost publicity, positive word-of-mouth, critical acclaim and downstream revenues.
For much of the past four and a half years, I have been in direct dialogue with Jeff Shell and Peter Levinsohn of Universal about the importance of a robust theatrical window to the viability of the motion picture exhibition industry. Throughout that time, AMC has expressed a willingness to consider alternatives to the current windowing strategy common in our industry, where the aim of such alternatives is to improve both studio profitability and theater operator profitability.
Universal stated it only pursued a direct-to-home entertainment release for “Trolls World Tour” because theaters were closed and Universal was committed to a lucrative toy licensing deal. We had our doubts that this was wholly Universal’s motivations, as it has been a longstanding desire by Universal to go to the home day and date. Nonetheless, we accepted this action as an exception to our longstanding business practices in these unprecedented times.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jeff Shell is quoted as saying that:
“The results for ‘Trolls World Tour’ have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD,” Mr. Shell said. “As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”
This radical change by Universal to the business model that currently exists between our two companies represents nothing but downside for us and is categorically unacceptable to AMC Entertainment, the worlds largest collection of movie theatres.
Going forward, AMC will not license any Universal movies in any of our 1,000 theatres globally on these terms.
Accordingly, we want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no ambiguity of any kind. AMC believes that with this proposed action to go to the home and theatres simultaneously, Universal is breaking the business model and dealings between our two companies. It assumes that we will meekly accept a reshaped view of how studios and exhibitors should interact, with zero concern on Universal’s part as to how its actions affect us. It also presumes that Universal in fact can have its cake and eat it too, that Universal film product can be released to the home and theatres at the same time, without modification to the current economic arrangements between us.
It is disappointing to us, but Jeff’s comments as to Universal’s unilateral actions and intentions have left us with no choice. Therefore, effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theatres in the United States, Europe or the Middle East. This policy affects any and all Universal movies per se, goes into effect today and as our theatres reopen, and is not some hollow or ill-considered threat. Incidentally, this policy is not aimed solely at Universal out of pique or to be punitive in any way, it also extends to any movie maker who unilaterally abandons current windowing practices absent good faith negotiations between us, so that they as distributor and we as exhibitor both benefit and neither are hurt from such changes. Currently, with the press comment today, Universal is the only studio contemplating a wholesale change to the status quo. Hence, this immediate communication in response.
AMC has invested significant time and energy with Universal executives over the past few years trying to figure out a new windows model that would be beneficial both for your studio and for our theatre operations. While Universal’s unilateral pronouncements on this issue are unpalatable to us, as has always been the case, AMC is willing to sit down with Universal to discuss different windows strategies and different economic models between your company and ours. However, in the absence of such discussions, and an acceptable conclusion thereto, our decades of incredibly successful business activity together has sadly come to an end.
In response to AMC’s decision, Universal issued a statement (attributed to “a spokesperson”) walking back Jeff Shell’s original quote to the Wall Street Journal by reaffirming the studio’s commitment to theatrical and noting it would explore PVOD “when that distribution outlet makes sense.” Universal’s complete response is printed below:
“Our goal in releasing Trolls: World Tour on PVOD was to deliver entertainment to people who are sheltering at home, while movie theatres and other forms of outside entertainment are unavailable. Based on the enthusiastic response to the film, we believe we made the right move. In fact, given the choice of not releasing Trolls: World Tour, which would not only have prevented consumers from experiencing the movie but also negatively impacted our partners and employees, the decision was clear. Our desire has always been to efficiently deliver entertainment to as wide an audience as possible. We absolutely believe in the theatrical experience and have made no statement to the contrary. As we stated earlier, going forward, we expect to release future films directly to theatres, as well as on PVOD when that distribution outlet makes sense. We look forward to having additional private conversations with our exhibition partners but are disappointed by this seemingly coordinated attempt from AMC and NATO to confuse our position and our actions.”
In the statement, Universal accused AMC of coordinating its decision to no longer carry the studio’s titles with the National Association of Theatre Owners. The studio provided no evidence of such an effort in its accusation.
The National Association of Theatre Owners rejected that it had been involved with AMC’s response, responding to Universal’s accusation with a statement of their own:
Earlier today NATO issued a statement regarding Universal Studios’ public comments in the Wall Street Journal regarding that studios’ evaluation of the results of releasing the movie Trolls World Tour directly to the home without a theatrical release, and specifically that Universal would release future movies both theatrically and to the home.
Also today, according to various public press reports, AMC released a letter that company sent to Universal stating AMC’s individual company reaction to Universal’s public statement earlier in the day in the Wall Street Journal. NATO and AMC did not coordinate those statements in any way. Indeed, AMC had no comment on NATO’s draft statement when sent to NATO’s Board of Directors, nor did AMC participate in the Board deliberations regarding that statement. Regarding AMC’s reported letter to Universal, NATO had no involvement with nor knowledge of that letter before reading about it in the press.
Without any knowledge of the facts, or the common courtesy to inquire about those facts, Universal nonetheless made the reckless charge this evening that the company is “disappointed by this seemingly coordinated attempt from AMC and NATO to confuse our position and our actions.” Unfortunately Universal has a destructive tendency to both announce decisions affecting their exhibitor partners without actually consulting with those partners, and now of making unfounded accusations without consulting with their partners.
In a follow-up statement, UNIC, the European cinema trade body, released its own reaction to Universal’s plans for simultaneous day-and-date releases:
The performance of Trolls Word Tour should be viewed – and only viewed – in the context of the exceptional circumstances surrounding its release and the unprecedented times we are living through. When a third of the global population is currently on some form of a Coronavirus lockdown and only 4 percent of cinema screens around the World are open, it is hardly surprising that many have turned to VOD and similar other services.
The results for this title also undoubtedly owe a great deal to its marketing as – what was then planned to be – a theatrical release. The sequel was also one of the very few children’s films to hit the market at this time, making it – even at a premium price – appealing to many families confined indoors.
This combination of unusual circumstances should not be used as a reference to re-design a longstanding and proven release business model, which remains crucial in ensuring the ongoing availability of films to the benefit of audiences. Those who will depend on the success of the film industry should refrain from hastily altering key practices for short-term gains and should instead commit to create the best conditions for the whole sector to recover as soon as possible.
Everyone has had to make adjustments in their daily lives and this includes film fans. This should, however, not be seen as a sign of changing preferences from an audience standpoint – it is after all worth recalling that 2019 was a record-breaking year for cinemas worldwide.
We remain confident that when audiences are able safely to return to their local cinema, they will soon rediscover the unforgettable, immersive experience that only the Big Screen can deliver and that cinemas will continue to play the role they always have as the most popular and affordable form of entertainment available outside the home.
Update: As of Tuesday afternoon, Cineworld has also chimed in via statement, calling Universal’s release of Trolls World Tour “completely inappropriate” and vowing not to show “movies that fail to respect the windows as it does not make any economic sense for us.” This marks a difference from AMC, which said in its own statement that it is enacting a blanket ban on “any and all Universal movies per se.”
Cineworld’s full statement, via Deadline, is below:
Cineworld’s policy with respect to the window is clear, well known in the industry and is part of our commercial deal with our movie suppliers. We invest heavily in our cinemas across the globe and this allows the movie studios to provide customers all around the world to watch the movies in the best experience. There is no argument that the big screen is the best way to watch a movie.
Universal unilaterally chose to break our understanding and did so at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when our business is closed, more than 35,000 employees are at home and when we do not yet have a clear date for the reopening of our cinemas.
Universal’s move is completely inappropriate and certainly has nothing to do with good faith business practice, partnership and transparency.
Mooky Greidinger, Cineworld’s CEO approached Brian Roberts, the Chairman of Comcast, back in 19th of March (after Universal announced that Trolls 2 would be released in breach of the window) and told him among other things that:
“Nice words from your team are worthless if we cannot trust you as a partner. The message that the media has portrayed is: “Hollywood breaks the window” – well, this is not true! All our partners called us in timely manner and told us that in the current situation they want to shorten window for movies that were already released as cinemas are closing, most importantly, they all reassured us that there will be no change to their window policy once the cinema business returned. Unfortunately I missed similar message in Universal’s announcement… not only did Universal provide no commitment for the future window – but Universal was the only studio that tried to take advantage of the current crisis and provide a ‘day-and-date’ release of a movie that was not yet released”.
Cineworld’s roots go back 90 years in the industry and it was always open to showing any movie as long as the rules were kept and not changed by one sided moves. Today we make it clear again that we will not be showing movies that fail to respect the windows as it does not make any economic sense for us.
We have full confidence in the industry’s current business model. No one should forget that the theatrical side of this industry generated an all-time record income of $42 billion last year and the movie distributors’ share of this was about $20 billion.