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Sony Executives Slam Hybrid Releases as ‘Devastating’ for Film Industry

Tom Rothman draws connection between "Free Guy" success and theatrical exclusivity: "Go f***ing figure!"

CinemaCon Managing Director Mitch Neuhauser speaking during Sony's presentation at the opening night of CinemaCon

CinemaCon Managing Director Mitch Neuhauser speaking during Sony’s presentation at the opening night of CinemaCon

CinemaCon

CinemaCon opened with a bang in Las Vegas Monday night as Sony executives used their spot as the convention’s first presenters to decry day-and-date releases as “devastating” to the film industry, while doubling down on their commitment to an exclusive theatrical window, according to multiple reports from journalists in attendance.

The subtext was clear: Sony is an outlier among major studios; it’s the only one without its own streaming service and the only one that has not used the pandemic as an excuse to premiere films in theaters and for at-home viewing on the same date, a move that his drawn ire from theatrical exhibitors. But Sony Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman put an even finer point on it when he congratulated 20th Century’s “Free Guy” on its box office performance, citing two reasons: “Number one, it’s terrific, and number two, you can’t watch it at home. Go fucking figure!”

Sony’s place as CinemaCon’s first presenting studio — with an introduction by Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger — was no mistake. To the uninitiated observer reading this headline, one might deduce that the National Association of Theatre Owners’ wishful thinking has come to fruition: that studios and exhibitors are lockstep in their agreement that the theatrical experience is not just sacrosanct, but something that will return in full force out of existential necessity for the future of entertainment, streaming be damned.

But that’s far from reality. Disney couldn’t even be bothered to show up to CinemaCon (likely due in part to legitimate pandemic concerns) and instead will use its two-hour presentation slot Wednesday to screen MCU installment “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ahead of its September 3 release.

“Shang-Chi” is exactly the kind of movie that theaters depend on to keep their doors open and Disney makes a lot of them: Before the pandemic, the studio owned some 40 percent of the domestic box office. But over the last year it has reorganized itself around its streaming services. Disney+ subscribers have been able to pay $30 to watch tentpoles like “Black Widow,” “Jungle Cruise,” and “Mulan” at home — the same day the movies are released in theaters.

For Disney, all signs point to success on hybrid releases. “Black Widow” saw an $80 million opening weekend last month, weaker than expected, but the additional $60 million from Disney+ rentals made the House of Mouse happy. NATO quickly blamed the day-and-date strategy for the underperformance: “theatrical exclusivity is the way forward,” read a press release from the group.

“Free Guy” — released by Disney subsidiary 20th Century — is a rare recent example of one of the company’s films released exclusively in theaters. It was #1 at the box office for the second week in a row last week, bringing its total worldwide gross to $111.91 million.

“Shang-Chi” will follow in its stead, but Disney CEO Bob Chapek fell far short of the full-throated theatrical endorsement from his colleagues at Sony. During the company’s earnings call earlier this month, Chapek called the film’s planned 45-day exclusive theatrical release, followed by a Disney+ debut, an “experiment” that could make “an interesting data point.” Besides, he said, adopting a hybrid release for “Shang-Chi” would be too difficult at this juncture given “the impracticality of last-minute changes.”

Though it’s without its own streaming service, Sony hasn’t ignored the realities of a streaming-first Hollywood. During the pandemic it shifted some theatrical releases, like “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and MCU installment “Morbius,” while selling off other titles to streamers: the Tom Hanks war drama “Greyhound” went to Apple and Netflix picked up the animated comedy “The Mitchells vs. The Machines.”

It also announced a pair of deals this spring, which will see its films released first in theaters, then VOD, then to Netflix, then to Disney. It will also make movies that head straight to Netflix.

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