After two years of pandemic upheaval, one of the biggest debates in the film industry seems to have been settled.
The return of the old-school blockbuster – see Paramount Picture’s supersonic hit Top Gun: Maverick ($900 million and up) and Universal’s Jurassic World: Dominion, which is closing in on $650 million worldwide — seems to have convinced studios of the value of the exclusive theatrical window. The move is an about-face since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when, with most theaters closed around the world, studios scrambled to get their best movies on internal platforms — Disney+, Warners’ HBO Max, Paramount + – as soon as possible. Warners has taken this digital mantra the furthest, releasing its entire slate of 2021 movies, including blockbusters. Dunes and The Matrix Resurrectionssimultaneously day and date in theaters and on HBO Max in the United States
And came The Batman. First Warner Bros. movie. for more than a year hitting theaters exclusively, Robert Pattinson’s superhero reboot has grossed $760 million worldwide, including nearly $370 million domestically. The cinematic success of MGM’s No time for Die ($774 million worldwide gross), Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($933 million) and Sony Spider-Man: No Coming Home ($1.9 billion) — all exclusive theatrical arcs — appear to have settled the argument that the theatrical window is boosting the box office and building momentum for an eventual streaming movie release.
“There’s no doubt that audiences want and will return to the cinema to see a great film,” said Tim Richards, CEO of VUE International, a cinema group operating nearly 2,000 screens in nine international markets.
“It’s proven to be very difficult to launch a large franchise on a streaming service, which is one of the reasons Wall Street no longer likes subscription services,” notes Richards. “Can you imagine looking Superior gun Where Spider Man on a streamer instead of the big screen? »
Studios and exhibitors even found common ground on the length of the theatrical window – long a sticking point in negotiations. If a 75-90 day window was the norm before the pandemic, now the waiting period between theatrical release and the online arc is usually around 45 days in the United States. “We all agree on that,” Richards said. “I don’t see any more discussion about windowing in the future.”
But France and Italy do not agree. In two of Europe’s biggest box office territories, new battles over windowing have erupted just as the industry elsewhere has put them to rest. Disney announced on June 8 that it would skip a theatrical release for an animated film. strange world in France, opting to put the film, which was slated for a holiday release in November, exclusively on Disney+. Explaining the move, unprecedented in France for such a big title, the president of Disney France Helen Etzi cited local windowing laws, which she called “unfair” and “anti-consumer.”
Disney opposes French regulations, which not only enforce a strict four-month exclusive cinema window, but also place a pay-TV release ahead of the streaming window – movies are released on pay-TV six months after they are in theaters – which means if Disney puts a film in French theaters, you have to wait 17 months before broadcasting it on Disney+. France, unique in Europe, also has a strict free-TV window, which means that studios must remove new films from streaming platforms for a period, usually between 22 and 36 months after their theatrical release, for their allow it to be broadcast exclusively on commercial television.
For studios looking to use their hit titles to build global streaming businesses, French restrictions can disrupt global rollout and marketing plans. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, for example, dropped on Disney+ everywhere on June 22, 48 days after its US release. Everywhere, that is to say except in France, where subscribers will have to wait until October 2023.
“For platforms, it might make economic sense to just skip French theaters and go straight to streaming,” says Eric Martin, managing director, France, for Comscore box office analysts. “Before, the idea of studios streaming movies exclusively was just a threat, now with Disney and strange worldthe threat is real.
Marti notes that Warner Bros., which will launch HBO Max in France in 2023, could also follow Disney’s lead. “They won’t release all of their films on SVOD, but even if we’re only talking about two to three films a year from each studio, that’s 10 to 15 American films a year that are missing in theaters, which could mean 15 million entries lost,” he says. “It would be a real box office hit.”
Disney could shorten the cinema window for streaming its films in France if it agrees to invest more money in French cinema. That’s exactly what Netflix has done by pledging to spend around $45 million a year on independent French films. In exchange, Netflix will get a shorter cinema window and will be able to show the films it wants to release in theaters in France after “only” 15 months. In practice, it will probably only be French films co-financed by Netflix, which would be released online only in most of the world anyway.
“The system in France is actually incredibly fair: if you pay more, you go first,” says Marc-Olivier Sebbag, managing director of French exhibitor group FNCF. “Pay-TV has a window ahead of streaming because [French pay TV group] Canal+ invests 200 million euros ($208 million) a year in French cinema. If Disney did that, they might skip the line.
Italy has traditionally taken a much more flexible approach. Films that receive government funding must adhere to strict windowing rules – currently 90 days between theatrical and online screenings – but for non-Italian films releases have been handled on a case-by-case basis. Jeanne Campionis Oscar winner The power of the dog and Paolo Sorrentinoit is God’s handboth Netflix titles, hit theaters in Italy in November before dropping on the streamer a few weeks later.
But the Italian Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini shocked many in the industry in March when he announced bills mandating a 90-day theatrical window for all movies, including studio titles. The legislation, which has yet to come into force, is an attempt to revive Italy’s ailing cinema sector, which is nowhere near a rebound from COVID recovery. Even after cinemas opened in 2021, audiences, especially older moviegoers, stayed away. According to figures from the European Audiovisual Observatory think tank, Italy is the only major European market to have seen a drop in box office from 2020 to 2021, with 12.2% fewer tickets sold. . Last year, the Italian box office was 75% below 2019 pre-pandemic highs.
By forcing studios to keep their films in theaters longer, Franceschini hopes to revive the local industry. The minister cited France’s rules, with its cinema-streaming window of 15 to 17 months, as a model for Italy.
“It’s stupid, really stupid, it’s trying to protect one industry, cinema, by destroying another, streaming,” says Pierluigi Bernasconichairman of Univideo, a home entertainment lobby in Italy that includes Disney and Warner Bros. among its members.
In Italy, notes Bernasconi, the three best Hollywood productions last year – Spider-Man: No Coming Home, no time to die and Dunes – made as much money as “the top 150” Italian titles. “Maybe Italy should focus less on telling people where they should watch movies and more on making movies that audiences want to see,” he jokes.
European markets where cinema windows are determined on a case-by-case basis – such as the UK and Spain – have been among the fastest to rebound from the reopening of cinemas, suggesting that flexibility, not strict regulation, might be the best way to go.
“If you talk to the majority of people in the industry, they don’t want longer windows because it won’t help theaters and it will probably hurt streaming, which is the main source of growth right now,” Jaime says. Ondarza, president of the Union of Audiovisual Media Publishers in Italy, whose members include Disney, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Paramount Global. “IIf we create this artificially long imposed theatrical window, it essentially creates a window of exclusivity for another industry, called piracy.
So far, in the fight for tighter and longer theatrical windows, France and Italy are outliers. Across Europe, most countries – including the UK, Spain, Belgium and Denmark – let studios and exhibitors set release windows on a case-by-case basis or, in places like the Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands only set windows for films supported by government grants.
But studios shouldn’t underestimate the political power of local theater owners, especially if they’re mobilizing anti-Hollywood sentiment.
“In France, there’s always the possibility that politicians will say, ‘United States, go home, we’re going to defend our own industry,'” Marti says. “And Disney, as a symbol of American cultural might, well, they’re the perfect villain.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.