Moviegoers Split Over Theater Owners' Feud With Universal

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Nearly half of audiences think a movie should premiere first on the big screen, while 40 percent think theatrical windows should be collapsed.

A new survey suggests consumers are divided as to the ongoing feud between theater owners and Hollywood studios — specifically Universal Pictures — over releasing new movies simultaneously on the big screen and in the home.

Slightly more than half of consumers, or 53 percent, agree that "digital premieres" are a good thing during the COVID-19 crisis, but that they want things to go back to normal when the pandemic ends, according to a new Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll. Additionally, 46 percent agree that movies should always premiere on the big screen before being released digitally.

At the same time, the poll of 2,200 adults by Morning Consult found that 40 percent support Universal releasing new movies in movie theaters and digitally at the same time, while 33 percent say the studio should continue to do so even if hurts the movie theater industry.

The survey was conducted between April 30 and May 3, several days after AMC Theatres said it would no longer license any Universal films after comments made by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell regarding the performance of Trolls World Tour on premium video-on-demand.

Universal decided to debut the family animated film on PVOD on April 10, instead of waiting for U.S. and select European cinemas to reopen. "The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD," Shell told The Wall Street Journal on April 28. "As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats."

In subsequent comments, Shell said the company still believes in the theatrical experience. Universal insiders add that Shell never said an in-home release would be simultaneous. Currently, a film isn't available to rent digitally via regular on-demand until three months after its release in theaters. Universal, along with other major studios, would like to shorten that window and make their titles available earlier at a higher price point.

According to the survey, 30 percent of avid moviegoers support AMC's decision to boycott Universal. And over half of those polled, or 52 percent, say cinemas should adapt to changing times and embrace digital movie premieres.

The latest Morning Consult poll also revisited consumer sentiment regarding how quickly a person would be likely to return to a movie theater when cinemas reopen. Almost a quarter, or 22 percent, say they would go to a movie within one month of their state meeting White House benchmarks regarding the number of COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, a new poll from Screen Engine/ASI finds that extra sanitizing measures and staggered seating are key to consumer confidence in terms of returning to a movie theater or other large venues. More than 51 percent of the 2,700 consumers polled said safety concerns are their chief issue. (Screen Engine is one of the entertainment industry's leading research firms.)

But overall only 7 percent say they would go to the movies right away. That's in addition to 54 percent who don’t know when it will be safe to be in large crowds.

“Social change of this sort is unprecedented in the quick time in which it has occurred,” said Kevin Goetz, CEO and founder Screen Engine/ASI. “Changes in habits that might have taken five to seven years to actualize are now in the works, with entertainment an excellent example. We’re seeing an increase in traditional television viewing, the expected increase in streaming and acceptance of premium video on demand.”

After safety, new content is most important, according to the Screen Engine poll, which also found that moviegoers look forward to the escape of going to a movie theater, to “big” movies and to the overall theater experience.