Universal Ups Year-End Theatrical Slate; Studying Release-Window Data

Universal Pictures is doubling the number of movies it plans to release in theaters before the end of the year. The studio made waves earlier this year putting erstwhile theatrical release Trolls World Tour into homes via premium VOD in April. That was followed by a 17-day theatrical window/revenue-sharing PVOD agreement with AMC Theatres — Universal’s way of throwing the ailing exhibitor business a lifeline.

While the studio, like most majors, has pushed back numerous tentpole titles to 2021, including most-recently the next “Fast & Furious” installment, F9, to Memorial Day 2021, Universal will release at least seven movies at the box office through the end of the year — more than any other major studio.

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Upcoming theatrical releases include Let Him Go (Nov. 6),  Freaky (Nov. 13), The Croods: A New Age (Nov. 25), All My Life and Half Brothers (Dec. 4), and News of the World and Promising Young Woman (Dec. 25). Freaky and The Croods will also be available on PVOD 21 days and 28 days, respectively, after their box office debut.

“They need us; we need them,” Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, remarked about exhibitors in a media statement. “Everyone is looking for solutions during the pandemic for the short term and long term.”

Studio Bosses ‘Rooting’ For Theatrical Turnaround

With the nation’s movie exhibitors either shut down and or hamstrung by COVID-19 safety protocols, the industry is eyeing fiscal ruin as studios push back major releases until next year and wary moviegoers stay home.

Speaking Oct. 15 on a virtual panel at the 2020 Milken Global Conference, Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, and Ann Sarnoff, CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, were asked if the studios would consider acquiring financially distressed theaters after a federal court in August struck down the 1948 Paramount Decrees abolishing studio ownership of movie theaters.

“We have no plans to do that currently,” Langley said, sharing a sentiment echoed by Sarnoff, who said “We have no plans either.”

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The executives’ unanimous responses underscore just how far exhibitors such as AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas have fallen. It was just a year ago that the theater industry generated $11 billion in revenue — a tally that is projected to plunge 80% in 2020. Now, Regal has re-shuttered all North American and U.K. screens indefinitely, and AMC Theatres parent AMC Entertainment announced it would run out of cash by the end of the year without more borrowing.

“I’m kind of an armchair sociologist and I believe people want to have communal experiences and especially with certain genres,” Sarnoff said in a nod to select tentpole titles such as Wonder Woman 1984, which is still slated to release in theaters on Christmas Day — and multiple delays.

“We’re big fans of the exhibitors,” Sarnoff said. “They’ve been good partners of ours for many decades. We’re rooting for them. I know it’s tough sledding right now. I’m hoping they come out on the other side, probably even stronger.”

Langley said Universal also remains committed to theaters despite Universal Pictures more proactively embracing premium VOD and transactional VOD than any other studio. Indeed, Universal this summer succeeded in getting AMC Theatres to agree to a 17-day theatrical window in exchange for sharing PVOD revenue.

“It took Covid-19 to demonstrate that it is not cannibalistic but it is, in fact, additive,” Langley said of PVOD. “It will enable us to continue to make movies and put them in theaters.”

Sarnoff said Warner Bros. has grappled with the concept of early release PVOD and digital retail, saying that doing so might seem an easy option, when in reality it is messing with tradition.

“It’s not so easy as it’s happening, because oftentimes these are new moves that you’re making so you have to think about all of the constituents,” Sarnoff said. “You have to think about your fans and what they want, and predict what the results are going to be without any market data.”

AMC Theatres CEO Doubles Down Banning Universal Movies

AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron remains adamant the nation’s largest theatrical chain will not screen Universal Pictures movies when it re-opens — following the coronavirus pandemic shutdown — in select locations on July 15.

The chain and studio have been embroiled in a dispute after NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said Universal theatrical releases going forward would also entertain direct-to-consumer distribution on launch day — thus upending the traditional exclusive 90-day theatrical window. That move came after scuttled theatrical release Trolls World Tour generated $100 million from premium VOD in the home in just three weeks.

In an June 18 interview with CNN Business, Aron was asked if pending Universal sequels such as Fast & Furious 9, Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru would be banned from AMC.

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“Yes, assuming we can’t have discussions with Universal that solve our concerns,” Aron said. “Remember, AMC has been showing Universal movies happily and profitably for decades. We didn’t change the status quo, and we didn’t actually have any protest about Trolls at all. We understood that our theaters were shut, that they have a business to run, and that they felt they needed to take Trolls to the home rather than waiting.”

Aron says his concern revolves around Universal’s decision to ignore the theatrical window and screen movies in theaters and via home entertainment concurrently.

“If they take movies to the home and theaters at the same time, they’re the ones who are changing the status quo and they would make it unprofitable for us to play Universal movies in our theaters,” Aron said.

The executive said his April letter to Universal Pictures  Chairwoman Donna Langley underscored the fact the studio — not AMC — had broken the business relationship between the two companies, and would force the exhibitor to “come up” with a new business relationship.

“We’re in active dialog with Universal now,” Aron said. “We’ll see where that leads, but it is our current plan not to show Universal movies if we can’t do so profitably.”

Langley in April said the studio “absolutely believe[s]” in the theatrical “experience” and made no statement to the contrary.

“As we stated earlier, going forward, we expect to release future films directly to theaters, as well as on PVOD when that distribution outlet makes sense,” she said. “We look forward to having additional private conversations with our exhibition partners, but are disappointed by this seemingly coordinated attempt from AMC and [National Association of Theatre Owners] to confuse our position and our actions.”