Is Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist set to change the big movie distribution model?

The upcoming comedy Tower Heist, starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, is causing ructions on the US cinema circuit. And here's why...

Tower Heist

There’s an interesting experiment at work in the US, and it’s all centred around the upcoming comedy from director Brett Ratner, Tower Heist.

Tower Heist is an ensemble movie, starring the likes of Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck, Eddie Muprhy, Matthew Broderick and Tea Leoni. Due for release in cinemas on both sides of the pond in the first week of November, it’s not, in fairness, the kind of film that ordinarily would make too many ripples.

Yet over in the US, Universal Pictures is using the movie to pilot an idea. And for those looking for evidence of the shortening gap between theatrical and home viewing windows, this is one of the highest profile examples.

What Universal is planning is, three weeks after its cinema release, to release the film over a video on demand service. This is a limited trial, with the film being made available over Comcast’s VOD service in a limited number of locations (Portland, Oregon, Georgia and Atlanta).

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It’ll also attract a premium price, costing viewers $60 if they want to see the film this way, this soon. That’s nearly four times the cost of a new DVD release from somewhere like Amazon. In essence, it’s a bit like buying a brand new rental copy of a VHS in the olden days, which invariably cost three to four times the price of the eventual retail release.

Universal’s plan is a bold one, certainly, but it’s not been going down very well at all with cinema chains. And it’s got the point that, thus far, four chains are threatening to boycott the film if it presses ahead with its VOD experiment.

The four chains – Cinemark USA, Galaxy Theatres, Regency Theatres and Emagine Theatres – are being joined in the protest by a number of independent screens, too. Cinemark USA is the big name here thus far, controlling over 3800 screens. It may yet be that more follow suit.

This is a little reminiscent of the spat between Odeon Cinemas and Disney in the UK last year, when the latter announced its plans to release Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland on disc just thirteen weeks after its cinema debut. Only lots of last minute chitter-chatter led to Odeon revoking its threat. But we wonder if Universal might have more of a battle on its hands here.

Our guess it that it’s not banking on Tower Heist being a massive financial success, but it should be a solid one. Given the cast, and the positioning of the film, Universal would surely be looking for at least a $70m return on its theatrical run, but if more chains back those who have threatened to boycott screening the movie, then the studio could face a major financial hit here. To paraphrase Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, if it’s collect, then it’s daring.

It’s hard to see too many ways out of this, short of Universal and cinema owners engaging in a game of who will blink first. It’s not tricky to see the long game if Universal’s plan is successful, and this might be, if it goes ahead, one of the significant moments in the evolutionary slide towards simultaneous releases of films in cinema and in the home.

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Here’s the latest on the story in the Los Angeles Times. As always, we’re interested in your thoughts in the comments, below…

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