The Movie Biz: A new twist for Atlanta theaters to contend with

You may find this hard to believe, but not everyone in the movie business gets along. I don’t just mean movie star feuds or directors vs. producers or writers vs. anyone (Old Sexist Joke: She was so stupid she thought she could get the part by sleeping with the screenwriter).

Rather, I’m talking about distributors and exhibitors. Distributors are the studios (or what’s left of the studios, like Universal and Paramount). Exhibitors are your local movie theaters or, more typically, a nationwide chain (like AMC and Regal).

They used to get along better, but that was more than a half a century ago, before something called the Paramount decision (which is too complicated for me to go into, but it had to do with the “relationship” between studios and theaters).

Anyway, the pandemic has only increased the friction. Gov. Brian Kemp can allow whatever openings he likes, but not many movie theaters re-opened on April 27. At least, not in Atlanta. Between altered Hollywood release schedules and who-knows-what legal difficulties, it apparently wasn’t worth it.

Chris Escobar, who owns the Plaza Theatre, has been quoted — and pictured in front of his theater’s glorious marquee — just about everywhere. “I want to be back in business right this second,” he told The New York Times. “But we’ve got to be smart about it. What happens if we open too soon and contribute to an outbreak?” (By the way, Escobar is more than a mere movie theater owner; he’s the executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival, which is also on hold).

And Brandt Gully, whose Sandy Springs multiplex, The Springs Cinema and Taphouse, has been a spectacular success, sent a lengthy email to his customers (probably culled from those who pay for tickets by credit card). In it, he expressed his gratitude for their loyalty and his reasons for keeping the theater closed for now.

But here’s the new twist. Universal Pictures decided to forget about a theatrical release and release its kiddie picture, “Trolls World Tour,” directly to premium Video on Demand. In three weeks, the film earned nearly $100 million. That’s more than the original “Trolls” made in five months in theaters in the U.S.

Then, twisting the knife just a bit more, NBCUniversal head honcho Jeff Shell released a statement. To wit: “The results for ‘Trolls World Tour’ have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD. As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”

In other words, he pretty much told the theaters they could take their popcorn and put it, well, where the moon don’t shine.

And it looks like Universal means it. The studio’s new comedy, “The King of Staten Island,” directed by Judd Apatow and starring “SNL’s” Peter Davidson, was set for a theatrical release on June 19. Then came the virus. Now the film is going directly to digital — no matter what happens to theaters — on June 12.

Given the track record of any number of flicks starring current or former “SNL”-ers, direct-to-digital is better than many deserved. But it’s still a major slap in the face to theater owners. Historically, duels have been waged over lesser insults. Mr. Hamilton, meet Mr. Burr.

By   – Contributing Writer, Atlanta Business Chronicle

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