As Moviegoing Returns, What Happens to the Exclusive Theatrical Window?

Last week, 13 of Hollywood’s rival studios and indies miraculously came together for a show and tell celebrating a return to theaters after a pandemic year in which consumers stayed home and watched their favorite movies on Netflix, Disney Plus and HBO Max.

With cinemas now opening up, this summer’s would-be blockbusters and potentially alluring later-in-the-year releases will undoubtedly entice audiences who’ve been hungry to go out and enjoy a shared experience in front of a giant screen.

But the larger question for the business is how sustainable robust moviegoing will be going forward given the widespread habit of watching content from the couch as soon as possible.

People in the industry are asking if 45 days is the new exclusive theatrical window for movies before they become available for streaming or subscription video on demand. So far three of the major studios — Disney, Warner Bros. and Paramount — have each signaled that’s their current plan.

The 90-day window was shattered a couple years ago when the average time a movie spent exclusively in cinemas was cut to 70-75 days. Of course windows went out the window (sorry!) once the COVID-19 virus capsized the entertainment business, shutting cinemas and sending studios scrambling to figure out when their big releases would land.

The creative community still hasn’t forgiven Warner Bros. for pulling a fast one on talent and agents with its shocking news, when theaters were shuttered, that every movie on its 2021 slate would simultaneously debut on HBO Max and in cinemas. Thereafter, its movies won’t be available for streaming until one and a half months after they’ve played theatrically.

ViacomCBS boss Bob Bakish says the same holds true for any of Paramount’s larger titles, though smaller releases will move to the studio’s nascent streaming service, Paramount Plus, as early as 30 days after their theatrical openings.

One exhibition veteran tells me that windows will likely vary from studio to studio based on their specific priorities: “It’s all evolving and is still very fluid.”

NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell — a major proponent of early-in-the-home premium VOD — negotiated a deal with Cinemark whereby Universal’s movies that gross more than $50 million on opening weekend would remain in theaters for 31 days before being available at home. All other films could be rented after 17 days, which is the same amount of time Shell brokered with AMC in an earlier arrangement, giving exhibitors a cut of digital profits.

As for this particular avid moviegoer, I say windows be damned! I can’t wait to go back to my Saturday-night ritual of going out for dinner and a movie.

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