A serious fight between film studios and theater owners may be shaping up for 2019. A major point of contention in recent years has been the window between theatrical release and home video release. Some major studios want a shorter window, in order to combat piracy and capitalize on a film’s “buzz” from its theatrical release. Theaters assert that if studios put their films out on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD too soon after the theatrical release, audiences will skip the theater altogether.
As it stands now, there’s a pretty standard 90-day minimum window between when a film opens in movie theaters and when it hits home video, but Variety reports that Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures are gearing up to begin talks with theater chains about shortening this window in 2019. This won’t be the first time these talks have taken place. Back in 2017, there were some major conversations in the works. A deal came close to happening that would have seen the window shortened considerably for VOD releases, with theater chains in return taking home a cut of the profits from films rented or sold during this VOD period, until the physical copy release began at the traditional 90-day window.
This deal ended up not happening when negotiations stalled due to Disney engaging talks with 21st Century Fox to buy the bulk of that studio. Seeing as Disney is one of the biggest studios around, a major bargaining tool for the studio side of the table was removed.
Now it sounds like Warner Bros. and Universal are eager to start these talks once more, but it’s unclear if Disney is willing to team up with the rival studios. For one, it doesn’t have to. Disney consistently churns out massive blockbuster films that rake in box office receipts and then still do huge business on Blu-ray and DVD 90 days later. Moreover, in late 2019 Disney will launch its own streaming service made up of original films made specifically for that streaming service, bypassing the theatrical release entirely. They get to have their cake and eat it too.
And that there’s the rub, and the real reason why studios want to decrease this window. Netflix is, of course, the elephant in the room. Everyone’s scared to death of Netflix putting them out of business, and Netflix’s entire business model is, “You don’t even have to put on real clothes to watch our movies and TV shows.” Studios seem to think that if they can offer, say, Crazy Rich Asians on iTunes two weeks after the movie hits theaters, they can make more money. And they’re probably right.
Honestly, as long as this doesn’t mean that fewer films actually get theatrical releases, I’m mostly fine with it. But there’s a fine line there and it makes me a bit wary. We’re already losing filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Martin Scorsese whose Netflix films won’t be available in theaters to the majority of audiences. But, if the other more traditional studios successfully convince theater owners to shorten their window, that could change.
Indeed, the main reason why you can’t see Netflix movies in theaters is because theaters flat-out refuse to exhibit the streaming service’s films. For years, Netflix maintained that its subscribers would be angry if they put their films in theaters before they hit the streaming service (which was a lie—you don’t see legions of people dropping their Amazon subscriptions because they have to wait a few months to see Manchester by the Sea on Amazon Prime). Netflix refused to give their films an exclusive theatrical window in keeping with theater standards (90 days), and theaters declined to exhibit Netflix movies when their films would already be available for streaming. Why waste the theater space when few people would actually come?
But Netflix recently broke its own rule for Cuarón’s ROMA, which is getting a three-week theatrical run before it hits the streaming service. Likewise, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs also got its own (much shorter) exclusive theatrical run. They now finally seem willing to bend their own dumb rule to appease these esteemed filmmakers, so if Warner Bros. or Universal is successful in getting theater owners to narrow their window to, say, 60 days, that opens the door for us to maybe see Scorsese’s The Irishman get a wide theatrical release before it hits Netflix next year.
But that also opens the door to box office numbers potentially plummeting, and the collapse of the industry as we know it. Fun times!
Nothing is guaranteed and these will be very tense, prolonged negotiations. But there are some exciting possibilities here, as well as some scary ones. Stay tuned…