Exhibitors steaming over 'Meatballs'

Sony irks with early home entertainment release

Exhibitors are hot over Sony's decision to release animated feature "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" digitally on Dec. 8, or less than three months after its theatrical opening.

Sony stirred the "Meatballs" controversy by announcing this week that the $121 million domestic grosser would be made available for early home entertainment viewing by owners of Internet-enabled TV sets and certain Blu-ray Disc players. Owners of Sony-branded Bravia TVs and the latest generation of networked Sony Blu-ray players will be able to rent the title almost a month earlier than the Jan. 4 street date for the DVD and Blu-ray discs.

This marks the second time Sony has tried to exploit inter-divisional synergies between Sony Pictures and Sony Electronics on a home-entertainment release. Summer 2008 actioner "Hancock" also got a month's digital jump on its packaged media release when released for Bravia and Sony Blu-ray households the following October.

That tightened its theatrical window to about 3 1/2 months. But the "Hancock" move but drew less discernible reaction from exhibs, who object to any disc released sooner than four months after a pic's theatrical opening. Exhibition sources said Tuesday that at least four major theater chains were poised to pull "Meatballs" from theaters: Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Marcus Theatres.

Distributed in both 2D and 3D versions theatrically, "Meatballs," which bowed Sept. 18 in theaters, played last weekend in a total 1,126 venues and was expected to shed at least a few hundred engagements starting Friday. As a result of the exhib protest, "Meatballs" could play in as few as 300 theaters beginning this weekend.

"Meatballs" rung up $1.3 million last weekend. So the accelerated wind-down to the pic's theatrical campaign likely will cause a modest but quantifiable revenue loss for Sony. There's been little reaction from the DVD retail community to the distributor's digital moves with "Meatballs" and "Hancock," perhaps due to the high $24.95 price for the digital viewing.

Meantime, Sony's "Meatballs" gambit follows another recent controversy over a tight theatrical window.

Exhibitors still are stewing over Paramount's decision to release summer action movie "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 3, or 88 days after its theatrical bow. When exhibs cried foul, Par quickly sought to calm theater owners by characterizing the move as an anomaly prompted by holiday-marketing considerations.

Distributors and exhibitors have feuded from time to time in recent years as studios sought to tighten film release windows to maximize marketing efficiency. But the digital nature of the latest dispute spotlights the more complicated landscape distributors must navigate in current times.

Just last week, the MPAA reiterated a request for an FCC waiver of certain regulations to allow studios to send movies to pay-per-view customers more quickly and securely.

If granted, the waiver would allow distributors to employ technology disabling analog inputs in TV sets. The MPAA said studios want to release PPV titles more quickly but require greater security against potential video piracy.