Premium VOD may be becoming a new normal, but ten years ago, there was a huge backlash when Universal tried it with an Eddie Murphy movie.

Shortly after cinemas around the world first closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Universal was one of the first Hollywood movie studios to bring its then-current releases – specifically The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma – to streaming for a premium VOD (video on demand) rental price around the £13.99 mark. The studio also gave us the first big premium VOD (PVOD) premiere of lockdown, the DreamWorks sequel Trolls: World Tour.

While this caused some upset with exhibitors in the UK and the US, who promised to boycott future Universal films even at a point when it was unclear when they’d be in a position to play them to audiences again anyway, we’ve gradually seen other studios adopt combined theatrical and home viewing releases over the last 18 months.

It may be that Universal was first out of the gate because they were already primed to trial this sort of thing almost a decade ago, with the ensemble caper comedy Tower Heist. Directed by Brett Ratner, the film stars Ben Stiller as a building manager who leads an amateur crew in robbing £20 million from the reserves of a heartless Wall Street billionaire, with Eddie Murphy co-starring as the petty criminal who helps them plan the heist.

The film hit cinemas in November 2011, but not before briefly becoming a major story in the movie press over Universal’s plan to bring the movie to a VOD platform ran by its parent company Comcast, at the price point of $59.99, 21 days after the film’s cinematic release. Targeted at cable customers, the experiment was to be entirely localised in two US cities – Atlanta, Georgia, and Portland, Oregon.

Examining the backlash that follows, it’s unsurprising that the plan was cancelled a week after it was announced. With a decade of hindsight and the way in which the pandemic has hastened a shift in release trends that was likely coming at some point anyway, is it possible that Universal was just ahead of its time?

The experiment

Tower Heist was originally pitched by Murphy in 2005, as an all-star vehicle for Black comic actors including Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, and Tracy Morgan. Back then, it had the working title of Trump Heist, as Murphy’s pitch was about disgruntled employees of Donald Trump hatching a plot to rob their boss.

In the years that followed, various writers worked on the script. A big change came in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, when it was decided that Trump was less relevant as an arch-villain (hoo, boy, those were the days) and the premise was modified to revolve around a Bernie Madoff-alike businessman (played in the film by an against-type Alan Alda) instead.

Murphy departed the project when he felt it was getting away from his original pitch, but Ratner was eager to work with the star and enticed him back as the script and ensemble were finalised. Around the same time, the pair also started developing Beverly Hills Cop IV and a collaboration on the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, but neither of these collaborations came to fruition. (Ratner made homophobic comments about his Oscars gig at the premiere of this very movie and resigned said role when controversy ensued; Murphy duly stepped down as host and hasn’t worked with the director again.)

Unlike some of Murphy’s earlier R-rated comedies, the renamed Tower Heist was aiming for a PG-13 rating and that enabled the producers to get funding some of the more elaborate and expensive set-pieces they wanted in the movie.

All told, the budget for the film was somewhere between $75 million and $85 million, with some tax rebates for shooting in New York City – not a massive tentpole film even by 2011 standards, but nonetheless, quite an investment for Universal, which didn’t have any other big movies slated for the back-end of the year.

On paper, it looks like a viable candidate for this kind of test – not so high-risk that the studio wouldn’t wash their face if it failed, but a crowd-pleasing star vehicle that might still appeal. And so, just a month before the film was due to open in cinemas, Universal announced the experiment they were planning. From US exhibitors’ point of view, this did not go down well.

The hitch

Almost instantly, America’s top cinema chains balked at the idea of bypassing the traditional 90-day theatrical window. The day after the announcement, Cinemark USA announced that it wouldn’t show the film in any of its 3,800 screens if the test went ahead. The threat of a boycott was subsequently echoed by chains such as Galaxy Theatres, Regency Theatres, Emagine Theatres, and a consortium of 50 small cinema houses nationwide.

With a VOD platform to sell, executives at Comcast were reportedly eager for the test to go ahead, but cinema exhibitors felt it would likely set an unfavourable precedent and lead to a situation where more and more viewers chose to watch new movies at home rather than go out for the big-screen experience. As we’ve seen in the gradual but encouraging comeback for cinemas since restrictions were lifted, streaming isn’t going to kill off cinemas, but that same tension has been around for a long time.

At this point in time, exhibitors had a couple of key advantages over the studio. First and foremost, Universal wasn’t the Big player in the Big Six studios that it is now. Nowadays, it has the Jurassic World, Fast & Furious, and Illumination Entertainment franchises up and running and (theoretically) a new James Bond film coming up this autumn, but the 2011 slate was slim.

Looking back at the calendar, November 2011 was a much busier month for the other studios, with big releases like The Muppets, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, Happy Feet Two, DreamWorks’ Puss In Boots, and Adam Sandler’s Jack And Jill all coming from others in the run-up to the five-day Thanksgiving weekend. As a result, cinemas wouldn’t be hard up for films to show if they boycotted Universal’s latest, and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for exhibitors to continue snubbing its slim slate of upcoming tentpoles the following summer, which would have cost the studio even more money.

What’s more, representatives for Murphy, Stiller, and Ratner were all calling the studio to ask why their movie was being used in this experiment. As we’ve recently seen in Scarlett Johansson’s falling-out with Disney over the release of Black Widow, making this sort of decision late in the day can be tricky when contracts are already signed. It may not have gone as far as legal action, but Universal might have soured relations with the talent.

The price point for the PVOD plan may also have been a stumbling point. From what I can remember of online discourse at the time, forum posts ranged from people laughing at the very idea of paying almost 60 dollars for a new Eddie Murphy movie in 2011 to those for whom getting a few friends and family members round to watch a new film at home would be more cost-effective than going to the cinema. It wasn’t anything like the backlash that the idea got from in the cinema industry.

However, when the 950-screen National Amusements chain joined the chorus, Universal cancelled the PVOD release outright and proceeded with the theatrical release on November 4th 2011. The film opened at second place at the box office behind Puss In Boots but made a respectable $24 million.

That Thanksgiving weekend, when it was originally supposed to hit PVOD in Atlanta and Portland, Tower Heist was holding on at number 10 in the US box office chart. It was still behind DreamWorks’ Murphy-less Shrek spin-off and assorted other new releases, but it also added a cool $10m to its domestic tally over the five-day weekend. We’ll never know if families gathering for Thanksgiving and renting the film on cable TV could have dented that figure, but it’s not for nothing that exhibitors still wanted exclusivity that weekend either.

 

The pay-off

10 years later, Universal has settled its latest spate of exhibitor disputes from a much stronger position. As we reported last year, the current deal the studio has in the US is that the length of the exclusive theatrical window is based on its opening weekend returns, ranging from 17 days for a film that opens with less than $50m (a recent example would be Nobody) to 31 days for bigger hits (like Fast & Furious 9). Exhibitors are also getting a cut of the PVOD revenue.

Read more: Universal agrees another US deal to shorten the theatrical window

In theory, this means that there are no announced plans for a PVOD release until two weeks into a film’s theatrical run to avoid deterring those who want to see the film in that timeframe from forking out for a cinema ticket. Either way, the announcement of Tower Heist’s 21-day window was only the first of the issues that prompted the backlash.

The response to Universal launching Trolls et al on VOD in early 2020 wasn’t too far removed from the Tower Heist fiasco either and it’s only by necessity that the window has shifted somewhat. Rumours of the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated too, and Universal is still deciding what goes to PVOD and what doesn’t on a case-by-case basis.

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For instance, the forthcoming horror sequel Halloween Kills will get a day-and-date US release in cinemas and on Universal’s new streamer Peacock for obvious, time-sensitive reasons, but we’re unlikely to see No Time To Die going to home viewing as quickly under Universal’s distribution deal with EON Productions and MGM (Universal has non-US distribution rights to the new 007 film).

Either way, both films will be guaranteed theatrical releases too. Though it does happen, it’s not always going to be as simple as pulling a movie from cinemas and sending it straight to streaming where contracts for already-filmed works are concerned. All in all, serious reform is needed on the production side to make sure everyone is getting paid what they’re owed when it comes to VOD and streaming residuals.

Hollywood still has that reckoning to come, especially now that world events have sped things up a little on the distribution side of things. It’s weird to think a decade later that a serviceable middle-of-the-road caper like Tower Heist might have been a historic turning point, had things gone a little differently.

However, given how cagey studios are to this day about streaming and PVOD numbers, it’s unlikely we’d know exactly how well the experiment did or didn’t go even if it had gone ahead. If nothing else, we hope this has been a sweet reminder of the days when Donald Trump was considered irrelevant…

 

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