Theater owners are already taking a victory lap in the fight for where movies screen

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A year of chaotic movie releases made the future of theaters look uncertain. But as cinemas reopen, hybrid releases that studios so warmly embraced amid COVID-19 are now having to answer in earnest to theater owners and talent attached to high-stakes films.

During this week’s CinemaCon, the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual convention, prominent figures from the film and exhibition industry rebuked the simultaneous release models and insisted that theaters and exclusive windows will survive after being pummeled during the pandemic. Speaking during this week’s event in Las Vegas, NATO boss John Fithian said that exclusive theatrical release windows “remain vital to the survival and success of the theatrical experience,” according to Variety.

“What the future holds is up to our members and distributors to decide, but let us be clear about one thing: Simultaneous release does not work for anyone,” Fithian said, per the publication. He added that exclusive theatrical releases are “essential” to the recovery of both theaters and the greater movie ecosystem at large.

AMC boss Adam Aron, meanwhile, said during the event that the only way to curb “massive piracy” is to distribute films in cinemas first, according to Deadline. Sony Pictures Motion Picture president Josh Greenstein was cited by the outlet as committing to distributing Sony films exclusively in theaters first, adding that cinemas “and the theatrical movie experience will triumph.”

“Debuting movies simultaneously in theaters and in the home is devastating to our collective business,” Greenstein said.

While perhaps unsurprising that a convention centered on theatrical distribution would rally so much support for theatrical exclusivity, the comments come at a pivotal moment for the theater industry. As lockdown orders lift and vaccinations allow moviegoers to return to cinemas, studios have begun renegotiating contracts for exclusive theatrical windows, albeit much shorter ones than the 90-day period of exclusivity theaters often had pre-pandemic. It follows a dramatic standoff between theaters during the earliest days of COVID-19, with AMC — the largest distributor in the nation — threatening at one point to ban Universal movies from its screens.

But studios that have taken their films straight to streaming have also had to answer not just to theater owners, but to frustrated talent and directors as well. Most recently, Scarlett Johansson sued Disney over the day-and-date release of its Marvel film Black Widow, with the actress claiming its hybrid release cost her millions in box office bonuses.

Denis Villeneuve, the director of arguably one of the year’s most anticipated titles, Dune, wrote an open letter last year castigating WarnerMedia’s decision to make its 2021 film slate available on HBO Max the same day the films premiered in theaters. WarnerMedia was also reported to have ponied up for potential losses for the hybrid release of Godzilla vs. Kong with Legendary, which financed the majority of the film.

Theaters are still worse off post-pandemic in terms of theatrical exclusivity, with windows in many cases shrunk to just 45 days or fewer. Netflix, the biggest player in the streaming game right now, still bypasses major exhibitors by releasing its films on its service. And Disney’s commitment to theatrical releases remains unclear, with Disney boss Bob Chapek saying earlier this month that “distribution decisions are made on a film-by-film basis.” Warner Bros. will still produce films that head straight to HBO Max, even while it returns its movies to theaters with exclusive theatrical windows. So while theaters are back and the criticism of hybrid releases feels louder than ever, the threat to theatrical still remains — for now.

According to Variety, Fithian commended support for theatrical exclusivity in Hollywood during this week’s event.

“I applaud artists who refuse to accept the false narrative that movie theaters are a thing of the past and that the future will be one in which every movie is consumed at home,” Fithian said, according to the outlet. “These leading creatives know better, and they are on the right side of history.”

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