When movie studio Warner Bros last month announced it would be releasing all of its major 2021 movies in the US direct to its streaming service HBO Max on the same day as in theatres, cinema operators around the world shuddered.
For an industry already ravaged by the theatre closures and social distancing necessitated by the ongoing pandemic, as well as limited content due to Hollywood’s COVID-delayed release slate, the studio’s spurning of the industry’s traditional theatrical release window was another alarming development.
Roy Mustaca, owner of independent cinema chain United Cinemas which employs 450 staff nationally, calls it the toughest challenge he’s faced in almost 40 years in the business.
“It’s never been this difficult. Cinemas cannot survive if [movies] are going to streaming day and date with the cinemas. It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Mr Mustaca said.
“They’re blaming COVID but it’s not COVID. It’s actually a movement to do away with theatres,” he adds of the studios’ efforts to promote their own streaming services. “We have a three-month window agreed to by the distributors and the exhibitors, but they’re not respecting even the three months.”
In Australia, the theatrical release window in which a movie is made available exclusively to cinemas – once an astounding nine months in the days of Dances With Wolves and Dead Poets Society – is 90 days. But Netflix’s push into the film world over 18 months ago, with major releases such as The Irishman and Marriage Story, poked cracks into the longstanding agreement when it convinced local cinemas to accept a three-week exclusivity window. For local cinema operators, Warner Bros’ announcement that it will eschew the barrier altogether marks the culmination of months of writing on the wall.
Sam Mustaca, Roy’s son and chief executive of United Cinemas, said “without the exclusivity window, we won’t survive”. “The theatrical window is the only thing that keeps cinemas alive in Australia, and pretty much the world. We’re very upset about what’s happening with the studios; they’re making decisions in the US that are affecting us here.”…
Main photo: Sydney Opera House at sunset. Photo by Liam Pozz on Unsplash