Universal backs off 'Tower Heist' VOD test when theater owners protest
What a difference a week makes.
It was last Wednesday that we published a story about the VOD test that Universal Studios was planning with "Tower Heist," the new Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller comedy directed by Brett Ratner. In that piece, I wrote "What I'm really curious about is what backlash there might be from theater owners."
Looks like the backlash was immediate and effective.
Universal has now cancelled their VOD test entirely because theater owners threatened to not play the film at all. Universal says they are going to continue to look at new ways to play with what they're calling the "premium home video on demand," or PVOD, and that they still plan on conducting an experiment into the idea soon.
NATO, the National Association of Theater Owners, responded to the announcement with a public statement of their own, saying "NATO recognizes that studios need to find new models and opportunities in the home market, and looks forward to distributors and exhibitors working together for their mutual benefit."
What's clear here is that theaters are going to fight with every tool they have to preserve a theatrical window as an exclusive and special period. Their point is that the shorter the window between theatrical release and home release, the less incentive there is for people to go see something in the theater. It's more expensive, it's more difficult in terms of logistics, and the experience itself has changed so dramatically over the years that many longtime movie addicts find themselves increasingly more likely to just wait and see everything in the comfort of their own home.
There is a larger conversation to be had here about how to make the theatrical experience better and more compelling, and I think it's important that theater owners take some responsibility for the way things have changed. On the day I turned 16, the first day I could legally work at a movie theater, I started my first job working at one, and I worked in the field for the next five years. In the days I was an usher, we took the job seriously. We spent time checking the theaters to make sure there were no problems, we didn't tolerate talking or rude behavior, we actually carded to make sure the R rating was enforced, and we went above and beyond to keep the theater clean and inviting. I cared about the experience other people had as moviegoers, and if that attitude were present in the staff at the theaters I go to in Los Angeles, I'd appreciate that and I'd reward them by going more often. These days, though, theaters seem almost afraid to enforce the basic etiquette required for a movie to play well. It's one of the reasons I love the Alamo Drafthouse. When I call Tim League the greatest showman on Earth, I mean it. He understands that the entire experience is important, and he works overtime to train a staff that can make that experience special for the audience.
But I do think that the push towards a day and date model where people can either watch something at home or in a movie theater is a disastrous one, and it would cripple the entire notion of theatrical exhibition. I'm glad to see Universal blink on this one, and I'm sure that any further attempts by any of the studios to explore this brave new world will be met with similar scrutiny by both audiences and exhibitors alike.
"Tower Heist" arrives in theaters November 4, 2011.