EDIT: Ha! Moments after I post this I’m seeing reputable tweets (and a Variety confirmation) suggesting Universal has stalled the experiments. I didn’t have much hope for the theater owners on this one, but looks like their threat may have at least temporarily won the day. Uni is still calling this only a “delay,” and stick to their line that home video and theater exhibition can co-exist, but looks like they’re not prepared to sacrifice what they hope is the next Rush Hour to find out.
Leave it to Brett Ratner to make the movie at which everyone on both sides of the Premium VOD line decide to draw the line and say, “fuck you” to the other side.
The Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy action comedy Tower Heist has become the unlikely eye of this particular storm as Universal chose it to experiment with yet another VOD approach that drives the online release of the film even deeper into the traditional theatrical window. It does so by offering it up to customers in Atlanta and Portland a mere three weeks after it opens, for a whopping $60. Considering a VOD DirecTV release 60 days after the film’s release (albeit for half the price) was pissing off the theater owners (and filmmakers) something fierce, you can only imagine how they feel about this move.
Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine because a number of theaters have made their intentions clear: if Universal doesn’t scrap the plans, then they won’t be showing Tower Heist.
This move is being led by the third largest theater chain in the country, Cinemark, and is being followed by a batch of independent theaters. Altogether they represent about 3,850 screens on which Eddie Murphy won’t get fingered by Gabourey Sidibe in front of American audiences if the market test actually happens.
The ugliness between studio owners, who are willing to abandon the traditions of cinematic exhibition in a quest to maintain profits, and the theater chains, who face outright marketplace obsolescence, is getting increasingly irreconcilable. Be it bickering over who’s going to front the millions for the 3D glasses or how quickly studios will start cannibalizing the box office with direct sales, I don’t see this relationship getting patched up anytime soon. Now that some theaters are moving past minor threats to restrict trailer and poster displays to outright booking refusals, we’re soon going to see who really has the leverage in this scenario.
Unfortunately the one side I definitely don’t see winning here is the consumer who actually enjoys theatrical movie watching. The thing is, it’s still very hard to see such a VOD release having a huge affect on the marketplace. I mean, who in the holy shit would actually drop enough cash to buy a tank of gas to turn Tower Heist into a pay-per-view fight night!-type event at their house? Sure, that’s about the price for a family with two kids to see a movie and share a popcorn at the theater, but I still don’t see people adding 50% to their cable bill just to see one movie. But perhaps I’m wrong, and it’s certainly reasonable enough to fear the precedent, considering this is already a deeper extension of a minor experiment that’s caused controversy before. The studios just aren’t going to stop.