RIP to the 90-Day Theatrical Window

·4 min read

Pour one out for the 90-day theatrical window.

The decades-old staple of the film world slipped the surly bonds of Earth during COVID, perhaps the most consequential example of how the pandemic has upended the cinema business. The roughly three-month timeframe the industry calls the theatrical window, the longstanding agreement between Hollywood studios and theater owners about the length of time to play movies exclusively in cinemas, has officially been laid to rest.

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After months of teetering precariously on the precipice, the final blow came on Thursday following Disney’s announcement that Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the Ryan Reynolds’ action comedy “Free Guy” would screen in theaters for 45 days before landing on home entertainment.

Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek ascribed the studio’s post-pandemic approach of rolling out movies in theaters and on Disney Plus to “the relatively fluid nature of the recovery.” Now that the box office behemoth Disney has declared its post-pandemic terms, there’s no going back to the old ways of doing business.

Disney may have delivered the coup de grace, but it was not the first Hollywood studio to take a hammer to the theatrical window. Movie studios used the pandemic as an excuse to experiment with various release models for many of its biggest movies, most of which involved simultaneous debuts in theaters and on demand or streaming services. And theaters had no leverage to fight the changes.

The health of the theatrical window began to considerably deteriorate last July as Universal Pictures signed a historic deal that allowed the studio move its films to premium video-on-demand platforms after just 17 days in theaters. Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. have subsequently indicated their upcoming movies will play in theaters for 45 days. (Warner Bros. is releasing its entire 2021 theatrical slate concurrently on HBO Max as a one-year concession to the pandemic). Sony Pictures, should the studio actually release any movies in theaters, is expected to adapt a similar shortened window.

While the theatrical window’s exact origin is unknown — other than its birth at the dawn of the 1980s videocassette boom — its legacy in showbiz is undeniable. Love it, hate it, didn’t know what to call it, the 90-day theatrical window was ubiquitous. It pushed ticket sales for James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” to historic highs, it powered the Hugh Jackman-led musical “The Greatest Showman” to sleeper hit status and it probably cost Tom Hooper’s “Cats” an even more sizable chunk of change than the many millions the Broadway adaptation already lost in theaters.

Through it all, 90-day window theatrical was surprisingly resilient. Indeed, many had tried (and failed) to end the theatrical window sooner. The most high-profile attempt came in 2011. Universal flirted with disaster in trying to put director Brett Ratner’s action comedy “Tower Heist” in homes — for a $60 rental fee — just three weeks after it debuted in theaters. The drama surrounding that move was way more interesting than the lame humor on screen. Faced with threats of boycotts, Universal was ultimately forced to abandon the plan.

Theater owners, the staunchest defenders of the theatrical window, had long fought for an ironclad period of exclusivity. They argued audiences wouldn’t pay to see movies on the big screen if they could wait a few weeks to watch them at home.

Studios, burned by the collapse of the DVD business, were dubious about maintaining the theatrical window because most movies make the bulk of ticket sales in their first few weekends anyway. The companies that produced, promoted and released movies in theaters were loath to shell out even more money to revive marketing campaigns once their film moved to digital platforms. It only took a world-altering pandemic to finally sever the age-old power dynamic. At least — at least! — studios will be able to save a few bucks.

The 90-day theatrical window is survived by a leaner, 45-day version. In lieu of flowers, go buy popcorn and a movie ticket at your local cinema.

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