Pete Davidson's The King Of Staten Island Pulled From Theaters

Audiences expecting to see the big-screen collaboration between comedy king Judd Apatow and Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson got a rude awakening after Universal pulled the film just two days before it was set to release. 

With most theaters still closed nationwide and few new releases available in the country's handful of open indoor and drive-in establishments, audiences are starved for new movie material. So it's no surprise that those who purchased tickets for Thursday night and weekend screenings of Davidson's semi-autobiographical dramedy were angry when they discovered their tickets had been refunded. News of the cancellations first came on the Thursday before The King of Staten Island's opening weekend, when establishments like the Warwick Drive-In in New York and the Rustic Tri View Drive-In in Rhode Island began posting their refund policies and announcing the nixed screenings.

To address fans' concerns, Apatow took to Twitter to try to clarify the situation. "THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND IS ONLY OPENING ON VOD FRIDAY. IT IS NOT OPENING IN THEATERS," the Freaks and Geeks and Pineapple Express producer tweeted. In response to a Twitter user who pointed out it was scheduled to appear at their local theater, Apatow replied that it was "a mistake." 

Variety reports that the screening cancellations weren't the fault of theater owners, who were also in the dark about the move. One anonymous independent theater owner even told the outlet that "there was no explanation" about the step and that the studio merely "changed their mind." Insiders at the studio confirmed this, revealing that the last-minute decision to pull The King of Staten Island was the result of a major mix-up linked to Universal's controversial video-on-demand release strategy. 

A misunderstanding among studio executives left theaters scrambling to replace The King of Staten Island

Speaking on the basis of anonymity, Universal studio insiders confirmed to Variety that the company's original release intentions were focused exclusively on a VOD release. It was an "internal misunderstanding" among executives that led to the film wrongly being sold to around 100 theaters nationwide before studio leadership had to reach out to theater owners and request they not screen the film. 

The move angered some, with one Twitter user sarcastically tweeting, "Real class act, Universal," in response to Apatow's tweets. An unnamed screen operator shared that disgruntled ticket-holders had passed along similar sentiments to them. "This caused a considerable amount of ill will with customers who bought tickets online showing up for the Thursday 7 p.m. show," the source told Variety.  

That wasn't the only misstep Universal made around the release of The King of Staten Island, either. Another anonymous theater owner revealed that before Universal abruptly yanked one of its latest films from playing on the big screen, the studio negotiated questionable ticket sales terms with theaters. Reports indicate that the studio pushed for profit-sharing terms that split ticket earnings evenly with the cinemas, something that's traditionally only done with major releases. In a time when theaters are being hit particularly hard due to industry-wide closures, some viewed the ask as too demanding. Especially as the film, which would have mostly screened at drive-ins, would have also been available to rent at similar ticket costs online. "They wanted 2019 terms in 2020 conditions," an independent theater owner said. "This is a new landscape." 

The King of Staten Island mistake is one among several Universal made in recent months

The incident with The King of Staten Island was disruptive to the plans of theater-goers and the revenues for theater owners. But the mistake is also the latest escalation in Universal's tensions with distributors. Following the VOD release of Trolls World Tour, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell implied the studio was seriously considering on-demand as a new distribution stream post-pandemic. The comment sparked a heated back-and-forth in the press between the studio, the popular cinema chain AMC Theatres, and the National Association of Theatre Owners. 

At the time, Adam Aron, AMC Theatres' chair-CEO, declared in a letter that the company would "no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters in the United States, Europe or the Middle East" — putting major tentpoles like F9 in jeopardy after they were delayed to ensure a proper theatrical release. Patrick Corcoran, NATO vice president and CCO, also called the Comcast-owned studio out, stating that "Universal has a destructive tendency to … announce decisions affecting their exhibitor partners without actually consulting with those partners." 

It was largely believed that things were still tense between the three entities until Variety reported that during a recent earnings call, Aron attempted to quell the flames from their public fight earlier this year. "Relations are warm with Universal," he said. "Relations with Universal have always been warm. There is nothing personal about this issue with Universal … this is just an issue about money."

While things may have warmed, the response to Universal's latest move is looking more like The King of Staten Island mishap may re-ignite that fight. 

The response to The King of Staten Island

The good news in all of this is that the majority of those who have seen The King of Staten Island have truly enjoyed it. Davidson's star turn — described in the film's Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus as a "soulful performance" that holds the entire film together — has blown tons of critics and movie-watchers away; likewise, Apatow's direction has been a highlight of many reviews.

Don Aucoin of The Boston Globe said of The King of Staten Island, "[It] doesn't come across as standard Hollywood product. It registers as a piece of personal filmmaking on the part of both director and star." He gave the film a dazzling three and a half out of four stars.

Another critic who stamped The King of Staten Island with a near-perfect score was ComingSoon.net's Kylie Hemmert. "Apatow, Davidson, and the other writers struck gold with The King of Staten Island by creating a genuinely hilarious movie that is full of character and life," she wrote. "This might be the most special project he's ever helped put on screen and I am endlessly impressed by Davidson's performance as the actor is able to confront and cope with his own real-life loss as Scott starts the next chapter of his life."

The King of Staten Island is available to watch on video on demand now.