Theater Owners Pressure Comcast To Abandon $60 Premium VOD Test

Comcast customers in Portland, Ore. and Atlanta may not get the opportunity to spend $59.99 to watch Tower Heist in late November.

Regal Theaters has joined the Cinemark movie chain, threatening not to exhibit the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy action comedy if Universal Pictures (now a subsidiary of Comcast) goes ahead with its plan to offer the movie as a premium video-on-demand feature just three weeks after its November 4 theatrical debut.

Universal may withdraw the plan this week, according to a savvy Washington entertainment insider who was privy to the negotiations. The two big chains control about 60% of U.S. theatrical screens.

Moreover, Comcast’s announcement last week of the Thanksgiving weekend VOD screening apparently riled the film’s director Brent Rattner; he had opposed previous plans for VOD offers that cut into the traditional three-month theatrical release window before DVD distribution. Although Universal claimed that Rattner had approved the early Tower Heist VOD release, Rattner now says that the first he heard of the plan was when the studio announced the deal, according to my sources.

Corporate executives didn’t return calls seeking comment over the holiday weekend.

About 500,000 Comcast subscribers in the two cities would be able to buy the VOD movie and watch as frequently as they (and their families and guests) cared to see it during a 48-hour purchase window. The very high price for a movie that has not yet been reviewed was double the $29.99 that DirecTV tested in April for an Adam Sandler movie, Just Go with It. Buy rates for that venture have never been revealed, suggesting that viewers didn’t care to pay that fee for a lackluster film.

When Universal announced the Comcast $59.95 plan last week, it said, “This experiment will allow the two companies to sample consumer appetite for this film in this window at this price while allowing the film to achieve its full potential at the box office.”

Universal has even indicated that it would seek a way to compensate theatres for revenue lost to the VOD delivery, although no details are available about the compensation process. Theater owners are also worried that cable home viewing of a three-week old movie during the Thanksgiving weekend would keep audiences away from theaters to see other movies they are showing at that time.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.