Europe’s Theatrical Window Standoff Gives Studios Pause Over Strategy

·8-min read

After two years of pandemic upheaval, one of the biggest debates in the movie industry appears to be settled. 

The return of the old-fashioned blockbuster — see the supersonic success of Paramount Picture’s Top Gun: Maverick ($900 million and counting) and Universal’s Jurassic World: Dominion, which is closing in on $650 million worldwide — has appeared to have convinced studios of the value of the exclusive theatrical window. The move is an about-face from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when, with most cinemas shut down worldwide, the studios rushed to get their top films onto in-house platforms — Disney+, Warners’ HBO Max, Paramount+ — as soon as possible. Warners took this digital-first mantra the furthest, releasing its entire 2021 film slate, including blockbusters Dune and The Matrix Resurrections, simultaneously day-and-date in cinemas and on HBO Max in the U.S.

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Then came The Batman. The first Warner Bros. film in more than a year to be released exclusively to theaters, the Robert Pattinson superhero reboot earned $760 million worldwide, nearly $370 million of that from the domestic market. The in-cinema success of MGM’s No Time to Die ($774 million gross worldwide), Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($933 million), and Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.9 billion) — exclusive theatrical bows all — seems to have settled the argument that the theatrical window boosts box office and builds momentum for a movie’s eventual streaming release.

“There is no question that audiences want to and will come back to the cinema to see a great movie,” says Tim Richards, CEO of VUE International, a cinema group operating nearly 2,000 screens across nine international markets.

“It’s proven very difficult to launch a big franchise on a streaming service, which is one reason why Wall Street has fallen out of love with subscription services,” Richards notes. “Can you imagine watching Top Gun or Spider-Man on a streamer instead of the big screen?”

Studios and exhibitors have even found common ground on the length of the theatrical window — long a sticking point in negotiations. If a 75- to 90-day window was standard pre-pandemic, now the waiting period between theatrical release and online bow is typically about 45 days in the U.S. “We’re all in agreement on this,” says Richards. “I don’t see any more discussion on windowing going forward.”

But France and Italy beg to differ. In two of Europe’s biggest box office territories, new battles over windowing have flared up just as the industry elsewhere has put them to rest. Disney said June 8 it would skip a theatrical release for animated film Strange World in France, opting to put the movie, which was set for a prime holiday release in November, exclusively on Disney+. Explaining the move, unprecedented in France for such a big title, Disney France president Hélène Etzi cited local windowing laws, which she called “unfair,” and “anti-consumer.”

Disney objects to French regulation, which not only enforces a strict, four-month exclusive theatrical window, but also puts a pay-TV release ahead of the streaming window — films go out on pay-TV six months after their movie bow — meaning if Disney puts a film in French theaters, it has to wait 17 months before streaming it on Disney+. France, uniquely in Europe, also has a strict free-TV window, meaning studios have to remove new films from streaming platforms for a period, usually between 22 and 36 months following their theatrical release, to allow them to air exclusively on commercial television.

For studios looking to use their blockbuster titles to build worldwide streaming businesses, the 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 U.S. release. Everywhere, that is, except France, where subscribers will have to wait until October 2023.

“For the platforms, it could make economic sense to just skip the French theaters and go straight to streaming,” says Eric Marti, general manager, France, for Comscore. “Before, the idea of studios putting films out on streaming exclusively was just a threat, now with Disney and Strange World, the 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 their films on SVOD, but even if we are just talking about two to three movies a year from each studio, that’s 10 to 15 American movies a year missing from cinemas, which could mean 15 million lost admissions,” he says. “It would be a real hit to the box office.”

Disney could shorten the cinema-to-streaming window for its movies in France if it agrees to invest more money in French cinema. Netflix did just that, pledging to spend about $45 million a year on independent French films. In exchange, Netflix will get a shorter theatrical window, and can stream movies it wants to release theatrically in France after “just” 15 months. In practice, these are likely only to be French films Netflix co-finances, which would have gone out online-only in most of the world in any case. 

“The system in France is actually incredibly fair: If you pay more, you go first,” argues Marc-Olivier Sebbag, managing director of French exhibitors 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 film. If Disney did that, they could jump up the line.”

Italy has traditionally taken a much more flexible approach. Movies that receive government funding have to comply with strict windowing rules — currently 90 days between theatrical and online bows — but for non-Italian films, releases were handled on a case-by-case basis. Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Power of the Dog and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, both Netflix titles, had theatrical releases in Italy in November before dropping on the streamer a few weeks later.

But Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini shocked many in the industry in March when he announced plans for a law making a 90-day theatrical window mandatory for all films, including studio titles. The legislation, which has yet to take effect, is a bid to revive Italy’s sickly cinema sector, which is nowhere near a COVID-recovery bounceback. Even after theaters started opening up in 2021, audiences, particularly elderly film fans, stayed away. According to figures from think tank the European Audiovisual Observatory, Italy was the only major European market to see a box office decline from 2020 to 2021, with 12.2 percent fewer tickets sold. Italian box office last year was fully 75 percent off the pre-pandemic highs of 2019.

By forcing the studios to keep their movies in cinemas longer, Franceschini hopes to revive the local industry. The minister has cited France’s rules, with its 15- to 17-month theater-to-streaming window, as a model for Italy.

“It’s stupid, really stupid, it’s trying to protect one industry, cinema, by destroying another, streaming,” says Pierluigi Bernasconi, president of Univideo, a home entertainment lobby group in Italy that counts Disney and Warner Bros. among its members.

In Italy, Bernasconi notes, the top three Hollywood productions last year — Spider-Man: No Way Home, No Time to Die and Dune — 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 films the audience wants to see,” he quips.

European markets where theatrical windows are determined on a case-by-case basis—like the U.K. and Spain —have been among the fastest to bounce back after theaters reopened, suggesting flexibility, not strict regulation, could be the best way forward.

“If you speak to the majority of people in the industry, they don’t want longer windows, because it isn’t going to help cinemas and it will probably damage streaming, which is the main source of growth right now,” says Jaime Ondarza, President of Audiovisual Media Editors Union in Italy, whose members include Disney, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Paramount Global. “If we create this artificially-long imposed theatrical window it basically creates a window of exclusivity for another industry, called piracy.”

So far, in fighting for stricter, and longer, theatrical windows, France and Italy are outliers. Across Europe, most countries — including the U.K., Spain, Belgium and Denmark — let studios and exhibitors set release windows on a case-by-case basis or, in places like Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, only fix windows for films backed by government subsidies.

But the studios shouldn’t underestimate the political power of local theater owners — particularly if they mobilize anti-Hollywood sentiment.

“In France, there is always the chance the politicians will say: ‘U.S., go home — we’re going to defend our own industry,’ ” says Marti. “And Disney, as a symbol of American cultural power, well, they’re the perfect bad guy.”

A version of this story appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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