A Universal Problem - What's what in the situation involving Cineworld, Odeon and Universal Studios?
You’ve probably heard the news - Odeon and Cineworld, the United Kingdom’s biggest cinema chains, have openly declared that they will no longer be showing any films under Universal Studios that fail to respect the release window. Considering the context around this decision - a single film, Trolls: World Tour, was released on video on demand (VOD) immediately, as opposed to being delayed until it can be released in theatres - it might seem like a drastic and exaggerated call. But there’s one very strong argument to be made.
The coronavirus has hit the filmmaking industry hard. Studios are, of course, still hungry for some kind of output, and some are blessed with a convenient method of circulating content outside of the confines of the cinema, like Disney and their streaming platform Disney+.
However, multiplexes and movie theatres still require the business of big-budget filmmaking: the returns made on films like Trolls: World Tour can guarantee a steady return to financial stability. After all, it’s an animated, family-focused sequel to an original hit: this practically spells a healthy return - a return that is desperately needed to preserve the place in which the cinematic experience lives.
But you might still be asking, what did Universal do wrong? Surely they’re capitalising in the same way that Disney has with their online content? Not exactly. See, Disney is still choosing to delay certain projects: Black Widow and Mulan have seen lengthy delays as these are all failsafe hits, with Marvel, in particular, being a big draw for audiences at the moment.
Note: Yes, the likes of Artemis Fowl will now be shown on Disney+, but early buzz started to diminish from the project anyway due to fan backlash: it’s almost certain that Disney feared a weak return, so an easy release on a streaming platform will draw more viewers looking for a casual watch, compared to the more luxurious (and costly) trip to the pictures. As such, Odeon and Cineworld won’t be losing as much as they would with Black Widow, let’s say.
Universal, on the other hand, chose to release Trolls: World Tour via VOD, a digital means of theatrical distribution that brings the original cinematic release to your living room.
Firstly, this goes against the release window, which states that a film is released on VOD and DVD at least three months after the initial release date. However, the deeper issue? This, unconsciously or not, diminishes the value of going to the movies.
Think about it, a family of four is asked: “You can drive all the way to the cinema, pay a higher price on your snacks and drink and go see Trolls: World Tour on the big screen, or you could watch it at a cheaper price, with cheaper edibles, in the comfort of your home?” What do you think the family is opting for?
The argument can be made that we already have this with services like Disney+ and Netflix. However, they deliver their content in relation to cinema, rather than instead of: their original material was intended for home viewing, while a film like Trolls: World Tour was intended for the big screen and forced onto the small screen. The fear is that the VOD option stimulates the possibility that all wide releases could be released straight to DVD or by digital download, a plan that Universal is supposedly considering during quarantine.
How long until Universal fashions their own streaming platform to negotiate this lapse in revenue?
Now, this is not a pedantic plea for some loss of artistic value. It’s a plea to protect cinemas, specifically those that work to produce and preserve the experience that we know and love. If this straight-to-DVD method caught momentum and became a popular means of distribution, cinemas lose their purpose and effectively, their business: jobs are lost and a dominant source of entertainment loses its unique ‘event’ edge, becoming more background noise on an already bustling TV network.
Ultimately, Universal has a right to distribute its films how it sees fit. I’m sure if it were Fast & Furious 9 in contention for a delay, there’d be no discussion, we’d be waiting a while for Dom Toretto’s next explosive escapade. But irrespective of the picture, the potential to cripple cinema chains by prioritising the quickest method of distribution, is a genuine concern when put into perspective. Because why wouldn’t viewers opt for the simpler scenario?
The notion of banning Universal films could backfire, fuelling Universal’s desire to screen films in the household. But I’d like to think that the ethical value of the situation will overtake the financial: Universal could gain revenue now, or hold off, still gain that revenue, but without the cost of a beloved institution. After all, film production and distribution is a business see-saw: if one side of it stops providing for the other, the see-saw tips and loses its balance. As such, while Cineworld and Odeon’s response seems extreme, it’s ultimately valid.
Whose side are you on? Or do you respect both perspectives? Leave some feedback and let me know! If you liked the article, subscribe to the website! I'll keep you updated on all of the latest posts. And follow The Film Foyer on social media! All of the links can be found in the feedback form at the bottom of the page.