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Who Will Have Custody of Moviegoers?

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Who Will Have Custody of Moviegoers?

by Scott Bowles 21 July, 2021

Hollywood has always had a lucrative but loveless marriage to the nation’s movie theaters.

For decades, studios and exhibitors have maintained a tense but workable relationship. Sure there have been some knockdown-dragouts, and lamps have been thrown in arguments over things like the cost of a ticket and how long someone should wait before they can see a movie from home.

But things got serious over the weekend. And while mom and dad haven’t filed for divorce yet, it looks like they are getting separated. And the custody battle could change life as you knew it as a moviegoer.

Theater owners on Sunday blasted The Walt Disney Co. for making Marvel’s Black Widow available simultaneously in the home and on the big screen, saying the decision undercut the movie’s box office potential and promoted piracy. It marked rare public in-fighting for an industry that prides itself on private unity.

In a blistering press release from the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the trade organization accused Disney of handcuffing its own film by simultaneous streaming the film and releasing it in theaters, causing the movie to suffer a “stunning collapse in its second weekend in theatrical revenues.” NATO also noted that Widow dropped an unprecedented 41 percent from Friday to Saturday during its opening over the July 9-11 frame.

This is Hollywood eating its own. For years, studios and theater owners had a rough peace accord: a three-month delay between big-screen release and video availability.

But COVID destroyed that treaty. The pandemic forced industries to accomodate a populace sequestered at home, a disaster for companies in the spectating business like movies, theater and sports.

Disney and Warner Bros. have revamped their film slates to accommodate streaming releases, and studios such as Netflix and Amazon Video had already dampened box office revenue, which has remained relatively flat for 25 years.

In a sweeping indictment of all streaming studios, NATO accused Disney of using the virus as a ruse. “Despite assertions that this pandemic-era improvised release strategy was a success for Disney and the simultaneous release model, it demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life,” NATO said.

This is one parent blaming the other for a child’s fatal disease, when in truth their union had been on the rocks for years.

Since 1995, Americans have bought 1.2 to 1.4 billion movie tickets a year. That’s roughly four movies a year, per American.

Whether that’s a healthy business model is up for debate. Whether it’s a stagnant one is not.

Widow‘s subdued ticket sales, coupled with steep second-weekend declines, suggest that moviegoing is far from returning to normal. And while Disney has not commented on NATO’s accusation, it did note that Widow’s box office has passed $324 million, including revenue from Disney+ Premier Access.

But even that is debatable, NATO claims. It argued that Widow‘s stand-alone box office debut was actually $92-$100 million, a rare swipe at studio veracity.

“One can assume the family-oriented Disney+ household is larger,” the release said. “How much? How much password sharing is there among Disney+ subscribers?”

Ouch.

The way back is unclear. The professional sports world seems to have brokered a rough balance between at-home and in-person spectating, though not without significant casualties (The 2021 Tokyo Olympics, for instance, will be fan-less.) There is money to be made.

So these are not necessarily irreconcilable differences. But, given the stark contrasts over what constitutes a true moviegoing experience, they are irrefutable.