Cinemark CEO Sees Path Forward for Theaters Despite Shrinking Release Window

·3-min read

Cinemark’s new CEO Sean Gamble says he still sees benefits for cinema exhibition from the ongoing push for shorter theatrical exclusivity windows.

Though movie theaters still face plenty of hurdles in their effort to fully recover from the pandemic, Gamble said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia and Technology Conference that cinemas are still a vital tool for studios

For years, theaters passionately defended the 90-day exclusivity window for films playing on their screens as necessary to the financial health of the film industry, with the National Association of Theater Owners releasing commissioned studies arguing that shortening the window would harm home entertainment revenue.

Now, with most films getting at most a 45-day theatrical window before heading to on-demand and streaming, theaters have conceded the 90-day pre-pandemic norm. But Gamble believes that the shorter window will serve as an incentive for theaters to continue releasing a diverse array of films beyond blockbusters that appeal to audiences of all kinds, even as questions still linger over what kinds of films can still turn a profit against the higher marketing budgets that theatrical releases require.

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“If films are not working, that actually creates a better risk proposition for the studios and that will lead to more of those movies getting released because it’s easier to take a risk and manage the outcomes than before,” Gamble said.

In November 2020, Cinemark reached a deal with Universal similar to one that the studio signed with AMC Theatres, giving Universal and indie wing Focus Features the option to release films on-demand as early as 17 days after their theatrical release unless the film earned an opening weekend of over $50 million, at which point theaters would be guaranteed 31 days of theatrical exclusivity.

The deal gave Cinemark and AMC the security of having successful box office hits exclusively in their theaters for at least a month while giving Universal the option to transition films that were not finding a sizable audience theatrically to home platforms.

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Like other theater execs, Gamble believes that studios will never abandon theaters as a release on the big screen allows films to stand out in an increasingly crowded pop culture market, with hundreds of new films and TV shows hitting multiple streaming services each month.

“It’s a big promotional and marketing vehicle. It creates a bigger impact when those films go onto those [streaming] platforms and subsequent distribution channels,” Gamble said.

Movie theaters saw some noticeable progress in box office recovery this summer with a seasonal domestic total of $3.35 billion. While still $1 billion less than the total seen in summer 2019, it was nearly double the $1.76 billion grossed during the early stages of COVID recovery in summer 2021.

End-of-year films like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are expected to end 2022 on a high note, but the continued decrease of wide releases compared to pre-pandemic years is still a major obstacle to the box office returning to its former strength.

Between pandemic-induced bottlenecks slowing down the production of new films and plans by some studios to create more streaming-exclusive films, it is unclear how much the number of wide theatrical releases will increase in 2023 and beyond.