Some Independent Theaters May Be Left Unable To Screen Classics Because Of Disney

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Each year, products change with the season. People bundle up or cool down in different clothing. Meanwhile, in stores, colors change from romantic red to vivid yellow, from cozy orange to festive green. Movie theaters keep their fingers on the pulse of the season as well. Not only do they look at the season but they also observe the legacy of particular movies and when might be a good time to screen them again. Disney, however, may make it hard for independent local theaters to screen some classics.

Disney’s catalog grows by the year, it seems. They already established many of our favorite movies decades ago, then went on to make animated favorites for the kids. Now, they have their hands in Marvel franchises, Star Wars movies, and more. They also went through a merger with Fox. Disney spent $71.3 billion to acquire this company and its library. Thus, that merger affects 20th Century Fox’s massive movie catalog and, likewise, how and where those movies get played.

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Disney doesn’t want independent theaters screening 20th Century Fox classics

Disney reportedly categorizes theaters and limits which movies they can screen
Disney reportedly categorizes theaters and limits which movies they can screen / Richard Drew/Associated Press

Already, three theaters in Canada and one in the U.S. have been affected by Disney’s policy towards independent theaters, according to Vice. In August of 2019, those four theaters found their access to the old Fox catalog denied. “We’re talking about one of the most important libraries in the world,” said Dylan Skolnick, the co-director of the Cinema Arts Centre on Long Island. As a result, “People are totally freaking out.”

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In particular, smaller, independent or Indie theaters find themselves worrying. Christopher Escobar, who owns Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre, explained the impact this can have on smaller theaters that rely on those big names to draw in viewers. He told Vice, “About 25 to 30 percent of the tickets we sell annually are 20th Century Fox titles.” The Plaza actually represents a lot of important milestones for Atlanta. First, it is the only locally-owned theater for Atlanta. Additionally, it is the last independent and only historic theater.

Disney’s policy sets theaters into different categories

Disney's library grows exponentially as time passes
Disney’s library grows exponentially as time passes / 9to5toys

Even the big-name theaters can feel the effects of Disney’s policies. Disney divides theaters into two categories: commercial and repertory. Commercial theaters can screen new (“first-run”) Disney titles. But commercial theaters cannot readily screen movies from the catalog. Repertory theaters experience the opposite, able to screen old catalog titles but not new ones. Since the merger, Disney extended this to include 20th Century Fox titles.

As repertory theaters, those that Skolnick and Escobar work at can access the library of old titles. But they worry about restrictions on first-run movies as 20th Century Fox’s legacy perpetuates into present day.

Fox has a massive library of impactful, favorite movies

20th Century Fox has a library containing thousands of impactful movies
20th Century Fox has a library containing thousands of impactful movies / IndieWire

People catch reruns and screenings of many Fox movies when they can. Because the library sports some 2,000 titles, the categories span the whole spectrum of genres. Indie theaters typically lean into various niche titles and genres to draw people in, as well as depending on timeless favorites. With Disney’s policy, independent theaters could lose access to The Abyss, Cast Away, Moulin Rouge, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and more.

Some workarounds exist for theaters of both types. For repertory theaters like Skolnick and Escobar’s, they can play first-run movies from other production companies. If this is the case, they can retain their repertory status and continue to screen old Fox titles as well. Already, Disney has participated in reshaping how we watch movies with Disney+. Similar to Netflix, the streaming service already saw Disney navigate delicate policies regarding its old movies. Now, independent theaters hope Disney adequately addresses their concerns too.

Independent theaters worry that this limitation set by Disney could severely hurt their business
Independent theaters worry that this limitation set by Disney could severely hurt their business / DisneyExaminer

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