When Night At The Museum upset UK cinema chains

Night At The Museum
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UK cinemas decided to pull screenings of 2006’s Night At The Museum, as a battle between multiplexes and movie studios hotted up.


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The live action family action comedy Night At The Museum is just the kind of movie that cinema chains like, even in these differing post-lockdowns times. In the 2000s, particularly so. Headlined by Ben Stiller and with a cast that also included Dick Van Dyke, Carla Gugino, Robin Williams, Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney, the plot – if you’ve not seen it – sees the exhibits of American Museum Of Natural History coming to life, and comedy gold (it says here) ensuing.

In truth, it’s a pretty decent movie, although the pair of sequels that followed stretched the thin formula to Poundland clingfilm-like levels. Director Shawn Levy though would take what he learned making the films into his more recent success, Free Guy.

However, in the UK, Night At The Musuem was one of those that found itself at the raging heart of a debate over just how long a film should play in cinemas. It seems quite a quaint story this, in the aftermath of the aforementioned global pandemic changing cinema release strategies for seemingly all time. But in the mid- to late-2000s, major distributors were pushing back against cinema chains as they tried to get their films to home entertainment formats quicker. Cinemas, meanwhile, were digging their heels in and refusing to budge.

Necessary background here: by 2006, DVD was the golden goose for movie studios, although as it’d turn out, it was also a time that marked the peak of the physical media format. Streaming was still some way off, yet more than even in the VHS era, a cinema release was seen as a promo for the far more lucrative and profitable disc debut. And 20th Century Fox for one was keen to fasttrack one or two productions to the point where they could get their hands on that disc loot quicker.

For many years at this stage, the window in the UK between a theatrical release and its home debut was four months. Even this was a contraction. Heck, I’m old enough to remember Terminator 2: Judgment Day not even arriving on VHS to rent for six months after it’d debuted in cinemas, and it was more than six months after that before you could buy the thing. A four month exclusivity period then was felt to be a bit of a last stand for some cinema chains, who were keen to give no more ground on the issue.

They’d certainly already given some. BFI research in March 2007 noted already that “the window between a film’s release at the cinema and on DVD/video rental fell on average by one–third from 190 to 125 days between May 1999 and April 2006”. Just to stir things up a bit, it also concluded that “there is no statistically significant relationship between box office returns and window length, suggesting that box office revenues have not been ‘cannibalised’ by DVD/video transactions – at least to date”. You can read that report here.

Night At The Museum

This image along was terrifying enough for cinema chains to reconsider showing the film.

Back to the story. Fox was determined to give this a try, and Night At The Museum became its guinea pig. Thus, by early 2007, it revealed its plan. The movie had landed in cinemas at the end of 2006, and cinema chains became aware that Fox was looking to get the film on DVD in just three months, pencilling in a March 2007 disc date.

It’d be fair to say that cinema chains did not take this news well.

Fox, for its part, was insistent that the reason it was going for a quicker DVD release was that the Easter holiday fell a bit earlier in 2007. This being a family film, it wanted the benefits of a disc release in time for school holidays, and it wasn’t overtly looking to prod at the cinemas to see what they’d do.

That, though, didn’t really wash. As a report in Film Review’s April 2007 noted for a start, it’d already done something similar in Germany by this stage. In that case, it had moved the disc release of its other 2006 family movie – Eragon (remember that? Was supposed to start a franchise and everything) – to an earlier date. German cinemas weren’t having that either.

As it turned out, both German and UK exhibitors presented a similar response to Fox.

“The cinemas are furious”, Film Review reported. They thus pressed the nuclear button, and promptly withdrew the film from their screens. There was a little bit of cutting off their nose about this too. Successful family movies – and Night At The Museum, commercially, very much was one of those – play for months. Once the main run is complete, then they pop up at Sunday morning film clubs too. Cinemas would want to keep playing the film if they could, but the major chains didn’t want to give ground.

In Germany, more than one Fox film was thus pulled pretty much instantly. This gave Fox little choice in the end but to make concessions to the exhibitors.

Night At The Museum

In the UK, it was just Night At The Museum that was affected, but the unified protest attracted big chains. Odeon and Vue were said to be leading the charge (coming back to them), with Cineworld and Showcase also signing up. Thus, just over a month after the movie’s December 26th 2006 UK release, the film was taken off most British cinema screens.

It’s worth noting that the argument had been stoked the year before by then-new Disney boss Robert Iger declaring that he was looking to shrink the period of time between a cinema release and a home debut. In truth, there are farts in cars that have gone down better. But it was Fox that took the first hit on this, and bore the brunt of the cinema backlash.

In the end too, it had little choice but to buckle. Faced with the loss of earnings from the film’s cinema run, the studio pushed back the DVD release date of Night At The Museum to April 23rd 2007, leaving the near-four month window in tact. It meant the film was back on UK cinema screens fairly quickly, and multiplexes had won this round.

That said, the argument would continue to surface. Disney put its money where its mouse was a few years later by looking to shrink the theatrical window for Tim Burton’s $1bn-grossing Alice In Wonderland, leading to Odeon boycotting that particular release for a period of time. Vue too got spiky with Universal releases more recently, with Universal said to be not too pleased at the price promotions the chain was running pre-pandemic.

Now, of course, everything’s changed. Oftentimes, a month after a film’s done its cinema run, it’s available via an on demand service somewhere. Even the major cinema chains have accepted this is a game long lost. But for a while, it was a pretty testy battleground. And Night At The Museum became an unlikely pawn in a very big battle…

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