NTTD stumbles into a long-term theater-video conflict

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No Time to Die, through no fault of its own, has stumbled into an inflection point concerning the future of entertainment.

Namely, will traditional movie theaters remain a key player? Or has the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) forced a shift to video on demand (VOD)?

This week, AMC Theaters, which also owns the Odeon chain in the U.K., said it won’t show any more movies from Universal.

The latter, because theaters are shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, brought out the animated movie Trolls: World Tour on premium VOD. Universal executives declared the move a success after charging consumers directly for viewing it.

That rubbed AMC the wrong way, prompting the financially troubled theater chain to make its declaration about banning Universal movies. (CLICK HERE to read The Hollywood Reporter’s story on the conflict.)

How does No Time to Die figure into this? Universal is distributing the 25th James Bond film internationally, including the U.K., while United Artists Releasing (co-owned by Bond home studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) handle North American distribution.

If AMC sticks to its guns, that means the Odeon chain won’t be showing No Time to Die, currently scheduled for release in November. Odeon theaters and the Bond film series have a long history together.

To be sure, AMC’s stance may end up being the opening salvo in a long negotiation. Theaters currently have a 90-day window to show films before they go to home video. Perhaps AMC and Universal negotiate a “new normal.”

The conventional wisdom is that big, expensive “tentpole” movies such as No Time to Die, or the Fast and the Furious or Jurassic Park movies (the latter two Universal products) need both a theatrical as well as home video releases. Less expensive movies can get by with VOD alone.

But will that be true in a post-COVID-19 future? Hard to say for sure.

People have been predicting the end of movie theaters since at least the 1970s. At least, that’s the first time I heard such predictions.

Movie theaters have hung on. Still, when change happens, it doesn’t wait. Both Jack Lugo of the James Bond Radio website and the MI6 James Bond website published stories on May 29 analyzing the trends involved.

The thing is, had No Time to Die met its original release date (fall 2019) or its second (February 2020, before COVID-19 was a factor), none of this would really matter.

Instead, the delays put the Bond film into the middle of an entertainment industry debate on how to proceed. COVID-19 has shaken everything up. Walt Disney Co., less than six months ago, seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut.

Today? Not so much. Disney’s movie release schedule is scrambled, its theme parks are closed and its ESPN network has few live sports events to telecast. Life comes at you fast.

At this point, the answers about the future of cinema aren’t certain. The fate of No Time to Die is just one of many variables.