The movie theater industry’s top lobbyist said that the persistent experimentation that saw studios release movies in cinemas at the same time they landed on streaming or on video-on-demand is over.
“I am pleased to announce that simultaneous release is dead as a serious business model, and piracy is what killed it,” John Fithianhead of the National Association of Theater Owners, told a packed auditorium of exhibitors on Tuesday at CinemaCon.
Fithian didn’t claim that release windows, industry parlance for the length of time that movies are available exclusively in theaters, is going to get longer. Most have been cut in half with the majority of studios waiting 45 days to debut films in the home, compared to the 90 days that were the standard before COVID hit. But the NATO chief tried to argue that the new window was more of a compromise, one that preserved the kind of exclusivity that cinemas need to remain viable, while also allowing studios to more quickly capitalize on rental revenues.
During the pandemic, studios like Warner Bros. and Universal debuted film simultaneously on streaming and in theaters, but some have privately confessed that they felt the new release model depressed box office revenues and made it difficult to get attention for the movies. That’s an argument that exhibitors are getting behind as CinemaCon, an annual theater business trade show, gets started this week in Las Vegas.
“Even as they evolve it remains the case that theatrical windows grow our entire industry,” he said Fithian.
Preventing movies from being accessed on streaming cuts back on piracy, Fithian claimed, which threatens the financial underpinnings of the media landscape.
“If a major title that people are clamoring to see in theaters is released too quickly to the home and then pirated, the temptation to stay home and watch pirated films becomes greater for many potential moviegoers,” said Fithian.
CinemaCon is unfolding as the box office is starting to show more signs of life. Moviegoing hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but there have been some notable successes such as “The Batman” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The coming months will see sequels to high-profile franchises like “Black Panther,” “Jurassic World” and “Thor.” However, Fithian argued that theaters need more than just superheroes and dinosaurs to mount a comeback.
“Blockbusters are the keystone of this industry, and we have a great slate of really big movies,” Fithian said. “But mid-range titles and films aimed specifically at families are crucial as well.”
“It’s not rocket science,” he added. “More movies result in more box office.”
Earlier in the state of the movie theater industry address, Motion Picture Association president Charles Rivkin also took aim at piracy, which he called “one of the biggest existential threats to our collective future.”
“Piracy’s dramatic evolution, and our equally dramatic response is a compelling drama … with all the international intrigue and high-stakes action you’d see in any marquee movie,” Rivkin said. “The difference is, the perpetrators, and the threat they pose to our industry, are very real.”
In North America, there were at least 1,400 illegal websites and streaming subscription services in 2019. But due to the MPA’s antipiracy campaign, that number has been reduced to about 200. There’s still work to be done, Rivkin insists, and they plan to keep cracking down on piracy until that 200 number goes down to zero.
“For us to have any kind of meaningful impact, many things must continue to fall into place, including working with governments around the world to expand our pirate site-blocking efforts, and more broadly, driving a sea change in the consumer culture that understands why piracy harms – us all,” Rivkin said.