Sonny Bunch
The Bulwark Presents
Screen Time with Sonny Bunch

The Movie Theater Is Dead

And AMC killed it.
August 1, 2020
Featured Image
A pedestrian walks with two dogs past the shuttered Globe Theatre, with the message 'After Every Storm Comes a Rainbow' written on the marquee, as the coronavirus pandemic continues on March 23, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Governor Gavin Newsom issued a ‘stay at home’ order for California’s 40 million residents in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

JVL, at the beginning of this week, asked me to write about Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League, affectionately known as The Snyder Cut in cultured corners of the web. And I was happy to do just that—did you know the great man himself unveiled Superman’s black costume in footage for fans this weekend? DID YOU?—until, sadly, fate intervened and AMC decided to blow up the exhibition business.

Here’s the short-ish version of what has transpired over the last four months. In the before-time, the long-long-ago, films had a 90-day (or so) window of exclusivity in theaters. Obviously, the Coronavirus has changed that. A handful of films (The HuntBloodshotThe Invisible Man, and a few others) that had opened in the weekends preceding the virus’s closure of all theaters broke that 90-day window with the grudging consent of exhibitors. Most films that hadn’t been released yet—from big tentpoles like Black Widow and Tenet to indie features like A24’s First Cow—were pushed back on the release schedule.

Universal chose not to push back Trolls: World Tour, releasing it instead on PVOD (Premium Video on Demand). The film did pretty well, grossing less overall than it might have in a domestic theatrical run but earning Universal about the same amount of money due to better revenue splits on VOD sales. So Universal took a victory lap, suggesting that some films in its library would now debut on PVOD sooner than the 90-day window.

AMC . . . did not appreciate this.

In a blistering denunciation, the world’s biggest theater chain announced it was blackballing all Universal movies, and not just those that broke the 90-day window. Notably, the rest of the big theater chains did not back AMC’s play here, saying they would forgo exhibiting only those films that broke the 90-day widow.

And then, because theaters have been closed for so long, nothing happened for a while.

Which brings us to this week, when AMC announced it had struck a deal with Universal: In exchange for an undisclosed cut of the PVOD revenue, AMC was shortening the window of theatrical exclusivity to just 17 days/three weekends. Meaning that, after three weekends of play in theaters, Universal could offer its films on Premium VOD.

To my mind, there are three big questions about what this move means.

Question One: What do the rest of the theater chains do?

This deal is between AMC and Universal only, meaning that Universal is going to have to strike similar deals with the other major chains. And the other major chains are looking at this and, more or less, saying “wtf guys?”