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Lockdown online movie launches sounds alarm for cinemas

For film lovers around the globe the past seven weeks have been a very strange time. Right around the world the projectors are not rolling and the cinemas are in darkness. Mind you it has been even stranger for cinema owners and distributors as well.

By David Griffiths

Sunday 10 May 2020, 01:00PM

The normalisation of people viewing major films launched online already may have a deep impact on future cinema attendance. Photo: Karen Zhao / Unsplash

The normalisation of people viewing major films launched online already may have a deep impact on future cinema attendance. Photo: Karen Zhao / Unsplash

While blockbuster films like Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 had their release dates pushed back until later this year it was Universal Pictures that decided to take some of the biggest gambles while their products couldn’t be screened in cinemas. While they chose to reschedule the release dates of the brand-new James Bond film and their latest instalment into the Fast & Furious franchise, they decided to roll the dice and make new Leigh Whannell horror The Invisible Fan and eagerly anticipated family film Trolls: World Tour available online.

Despite many critics of the surprise move, putting the films online became a huge success. Trolls: World Tour took in more than US$100 million in the first three weeks online and the result was NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell telling the Wall Street Journal, “The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD. As soon as theatres reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”

Many dismissed Shell’s comments as a victory lap speech, a comment made before all of the factors surrounding the release of the film were taken into account. Some other people, though, did not; they took the words as a serious declaration of war in the ever-growing debate of cinema versus online cinema releases.

One of the people to take offense to the comment was the CEO of one of America’s largest cinema chains – AMC CEO and President Adam Aron. In a letter to Universal Aron said, “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. 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 theaters simultaneously, Universal is breaking the business model and dealings between our two companies.”

He then went on to announce that AMC would not screen any of Universal’s releases from here on. So where does that leave cinema-goers? Does that mean that for some cinema fans the days of locking ourselves in a dark room with a tub of popcorn on our knees are over?

The simple answer is no. First, there is no way that Universal can make such a big decision on the back of the release of just one film during a time that we have never seen on Earth before. Yes Trolls: World War did better than its predecessor, but two things need to be taken into account. 


The first film in the franchise picked up a legion of new fans once it was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, so World Tour may easily have outclassed the first film at the cinema as well. Secondly, World Tour was released online at a time when people were stuck at home and had no other options. Many people may have simply watched the film with their family because there was nothing else to do at the time, while others who would have happily seen it at a theatre watched it online simply because the cinema option was taken out of the equation by the lockdown.

A spokesperson for Universal also pointed out in a statement that Shell’s comments were taken out of context saying, “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.” They also highlighted the fact that it was the studio’s plan to make films available both online and in cinemas at the same time and it would be a strategy they would look at “from film to film”.

Of course having a film online at the same time that it is screening in cinemas can have some benefits. It means people who  are housebound due to disabilities or illness can watch the film at the same time as their friends or family, but it is also easy to understand why cinema owners are so angry that they might be about to lose their 90-day exclusivity deal at a time when many will be suffering a huge financial loss due to their businesses being closed for so long.

The big question now is: Will cinemas return to normal when their doors open once again, or will other chains follow the lead of AMC and take the fight to Universal? That’s an answer we will only find out once our world and the cinematic world returns to some form of normality.

David Griffiths has been working as a film and music reviewer for over 20 years. That time has seen him work in radio, television and in print. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/subcultureentertainmentaus


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