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Fast And Furious Fans Just Got Terrible News

In a move that could throw the release of Fast and Furious 9 into a tailspin, AMC Theatres says its plans to release any Universal-backed films are coming to a screeching halt after the studio announced its record-breaking success with Trolls World Tour.

The head of the American movie theater chain sent NBCUniversal a blistering message after comments from its CEO Jeff Shell implied the Hollywood studio might be moving forward with a dual theatrical and at-home release model (via The Hollywood Reporter). 

"It is disappointing to us, but Jeff's comments as to Universal's unilateral actions and intentions have left us with no choice," Adam Aron, AMC Theatres' chair-CEO, said in a letter to the studio. "Therefore, effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters in the United States, Europe or the Middle East."

Nearly all of AMC's 11,000 screens across the globe have gone black, as the world's largest theater circuit was forced to close locations indefinitely following government-imposed limits on social gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. While some states are lifting their restrictions in the coming weeks, the nation-wide closures in March caused studios to push their spring release slate to late summer at the earliest, leaving theater owners with nothing to screen and little reason to reopen. But Aron's statement assures that even when they do, the "decades of incredibly successful business activity together" between AMC Theatres and NBCUniversal will have "sadly come to an end."

Originally geared up for a May 9 theatrical debut, Universal tent pole F9 is among the growing list of titles delayed due to the ongoing pandemic. Universal pushed the ninth chapter of its high-octane Fast and Furious franchise by a whole year to April 2, 2021. The shift followed earlier comments from star Vin Diesel promising fans that the May 2020 release of F9, which will see the return of fan-favorite character Han, was still on.

NBCUniversal says it still planned to release F9 and other films theatrically despite Trolls' PVOD success

Unlike its plan with F9, Universal made the huge decision amid the coronavirus pandemic to ditch a theatrical release window for Trolls World Tour in favor of a premium video on demand debut. It was unclear how successful the gamble would be, but the animated sequel reportedly exceeded NBCUniversal's expectations, earning an estimated $100 million in the first three weeks of its North American VOD launch (via The Wall Street Journal). "As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats," Shell told WSJ.

Neither AMC nor NATO, the National Association of Theatre Owners, responded well to Shell's comment. After declaring that the policy announcement was "not some hollow or ill-considered threat," Aron added that it would apply to anyone considering expanding into a premium video on demand (PVOD) model. "Incidentally, this policy is not aimed solely at Universal... it also extends to any movie maker who unilaterally abandons current windowing practices absent good faith negotiations between us," he said in the statement.

A speedy and pointed response from Universal clarified that Shell's comments on release window and platform plans had been misunderstood. According to the studio statement, theatrical releases were never off the table, with NBCUniversal only planning to do "PVOD when that distribution outlet makes sense." The statement reads in part, "We look forward to having additional private conversations with our exhibition partners, but are disappointed by this seemingly coordinated attempt from AMC and NATO to confuse our position and our actions."

AMC didn't take sitting down with Universal "to discuss different windows strategies and different economic models" off the table between now and when theaters do reopen. But if an agreement can't be met, fans may never get to see F9 race into theaters.

The fate of a Fast and Furious 9 release in AMC locations is still in the air

In its own follow-up statement, NATO challenged Universal's characterization of theater owners' response as "a coordinated attempt" at misrepresenting Shell's quote. "Unfortunately, Universal has a destructive tendency to both announce decisions affecting their exhibitor partners without actually consulting with those partners, and now of making unfounded accusations," Patrick Corcoran, NATO vice president and CCO, said.

The entire debacle, which took place mostly over a day, highlighted an increasingly tense relationship between theater owners and movie studios. Nearly a decade after rental and streaming services practically ended the DVD market, theater owners are facing declining ticket sales and an expensive ongoing effort to modernize various elements of the theater-going experience. Following the closures in March, some Wall Street analysts have even predicted AMC might be forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Despite its woes, a world where the fantastical action and drama of Dom Toretto's (Vin Diesel) crew and family never grace the big screen seems incomprehensible. For some, so does the idea that Universal's success with Trolls World Tour's PVOD release is sustainable. The movie's $100 million earnings are notable because NBCUniversal was able to achieve that by charging at-home viewers $19.99 not to buy the film, but merely to rent it for two days. But as NATO president and CEO John Fithian said in the organization's response to the studio, it achieved this during "unusual circumstances in an unprecedented environment."

"Theaters provide a beloved immersive, shared experience that cannot be replicated — an experience that many of the VOD viewers of this film would have participated in had the world not been sequestered at home, desperate for something new to watch with their families," Fithian said.

The situation is worse now that Cineworld has now sided with AMC Theatres

Not long after AMC Theatres announced that it would no longer screen films from Universal after the company's handling of its release of Trolls World Tour, thus throwing the debut of Fast and Furious 9 in thousands of locations into question, another theater chain sided with AMC. The CEO of Cineworld, Mooky Greidinger, issued a statement claiming that Universal tried to "take advantage of the current crisis and provide a 'day-and-date' release of a movie that was not yet released" (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Greidinger also noted in his statement that he and Brian Roberts, a chairman at Universal's parent company Comcast, had conversed in March following Universal's decision to break the agreed-upon theatrical roll-out of Trolls World Tour. "Nice words from your team are worthless if we cannot trust you as a partner," Greidinger wrote in a message to Robert. According to Greidinger's message, many of Cineworld's other partners had contacted the company to shorten release windows, but had done so in a "timely manner" and gave reassurance that their window policy wouldn't change once it was declared safe to open theaters back up. Greidinger noted that Universal provided "no commitment for the future window."

Cineworld is now arguing that Universal's decision was "completely inappropriate." Like AMC, the cinema chain will no longer be screening films that "fail to respect the windows, as it does not make any economic sense for us" — i.e., movies from Universal. 

This is a huge decision that will greatly impact the release of upcoming Universal-backed films like F9, Candyman, Halloween Kills, Jurassic Park: Dominion, and Minions: The Rise of Gru, and could seriously affect the movies' chances at financial success. Cineworld is second-largest cinema chain in the world that serves as the top operator in the U.K., and AMC is even bigger than that, holding the biggest share of the theater market in the U.S. It would be difficult for Universal to not feel the effects of its films no longer releasing across those massive exhibitors' locations.

It's unclear how this will all turn out, but for the sake of Fast and Furious fans, let's hope it's all blown over in time for the 2021 premiere.