Odeon and Cineworld split over films that stream too soon

Britain’s two biggest cinema chains appear to be at loggerheads over how to respond to major studios trying to reduce the length of time between a theatrical release of their films and making them available to viewers at home.

Trolls World Tour was the only major studio release to go straight to video on-demand during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, while other major studios were delaying the releases of blockbusters such as the next James Bond film, Universal broke with convention and decided to launch its Trolls sequel, Trolls World Tour, directly on pay-per-view services online, rather than waiting for cinemas to reopen.

Touting the success of its experiment, Universal later said it would continue to put titles straight online, even after the end of the lockdown, prompting a chorus of anger from cinema chains, with AMC – the American owner of Odeon – leading the way in threatening to boycott Universal’s titles.

Exhibitors rely on people visiting cinemas and buying their food and drink and it’s the high-profile new releases that draw in the bulk of the fans, so the prospect of giving people the option of staying at home to watch a new film with friends, for the cost of just one download, gave cinema chains concerns for their own future viability.

But AMC and Universal have now signed a deal that will give cinemas a seventeen day head start, after which the studio will be able to make its new titles available online.

But not all exhibitors are on board with the agreement. Cineworld has been quoted by Deadline as saying that it does “not see sense in this business model” and will not change its policy with regards to showing only movies that respect the theatrical window. Raising the prospect that a deal could be reached, the chain went on to say it would continue to analyse the situation, but there’s no pressure, because Universal’s next big theatrical release isn’t due for another six months.

The wider industry will be similarly analysing the situation, because if Cineworld rejects the model agreed by AMC/Odeon and Universal and tries to reach its own arrangement, the film business could be thrown into confusion, with different studios and different cinema chains operating under their own agreements, unless the AMC/Universal deal ends up being rewritten to take account of other decisions from their competitors.

Taking the pressure off further, the US is still experiencing high numbers of Covid infections, so there’s no prospect of cinemas being opened in the major markets of California and New York anytime soon anyway, prompting a number of studios to postpone major releases into next year, among them Christopher Nolan’s eagerly awaited Tenet. The longer the world – and the film business – is paralysed by the coronavirus crisis, the longer the studios and exhibitors will have to agree on a coherent new normal.