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Universal blockbuster movies will stay longer in theaters than smaller flicks before renting online

But you'll still be able watch new movies from Universal at home faster than ever before.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Universal's franchises include the Jurassic World movies. 
Universal Studios

Universal's new deal with a theater chain -- Cinemark, this time -- will let the film studio rent its new movies online dramatically sooner than ever before, but the latest agreement has a twist: If a Universal movie scores $50 million or more at the box office in its opening weekend (which gigantic franchises like Fast & Furious and Jurassic World uniformly do), that flick gets to stay in theaters exclusively for 31 days, or five weekends. If the movie doesn't hit the $50 million mark, it can be released to rent online just 17 days after its big-screen premiere, or three weekends. 

The Universal-Cinemark deal puts a slightly different spin on a similar arrangement that Universal reached with theater chain AMC in July. That deal didn't include the option for a different "window" of theatrical exclusivity based on box-office returns; instead, it only provided the 17-day waiting period before Universal could rent a new movie online. Because Universal can't release the same movie two different ways, the more-restrictive Cinemark deal, with the $50 million carve-out that keeps movies in theaters longer, will prevail.

Regardless, both agreements mean movie releases will never be the same again in the post-pandemic future. Whether new movies rent online three weekends or five weekends after they hit big-screen cinemas, that's a titanic change from the standard months-long period that theaters traditionally have enjoyed exclusive dominion over new films. 

Universal was one of the first studios to test its fortunes in the coronavirus pandemic by essentially skipping theaters in favor of online rentals, when it released Trolls World Tour as a digital rental in April on the same day the film was available in a sprinkling of theaters. That experiment triggered outrage from theater chains, which have clung tightly to the traditional 75-day (or longer) window that theaters usually get to exhibit new movies exclusively before films move to other formats. 

But Trolls World Tour -- a DreamWorks Animation movie under the umbrella of Comcast's NBCUniversal -- ended up dominating home viewing stores the weekend it was released. It was the top on-demand title on Amazon, Comcast, Apple, Vudu, Google/YouTube, DirecTV and FandangoNow, and it did about 10 times the business of the studio's next biggest opening day for a traditional digital release, NBCUniversal said. 

The latest Cinemark deal encompasses both Universal Pictures, as well as DreamWorks Animation and Focus Features, known more for midbudget fare like the thriller London Has Fallen, the Downton Abbey movie and Brokeback Mountain. After the 17-day or 31-day period of theatrical release, Universal may then offer the film through what's known as "premium video-on-demand." PVOD, as it's sometimes called, usually means limited-period rentals at a higher price, and they can be available on a range of online stores like iTunes and Amazon Video. 

"Universal's century-long partnership with exhibition is rooted in the theatrical experience, and we are more committed than ever for audiences to experience our movies on the big screen,"  Donna Langley, the chairman of Universal's filmed entertainment group, said in a statement. She added that the structure for film releases going forward gives the company "the confidence to release our movies in the marketplace, keep the content pipeline moving, and provide consumers with the optionality that they are looking for."

Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said "a more dynamic theatrical window, whereby movie theaters continue to provide an event-sized launching platform for films that maximize box office and bolsters the success of subsequent distribution channels, is in the shared best interests of studios, exhibitors and, most importantly, moviegoers."

In the coronavirus pandemic, studios have almost uniformly decided to postpone the release of their biggest new movies, as theaters remain closed or limited in how many seats they can fill -- and as audiences have shown caution about sitting in windowless rooms with strangers for hours. But as the pandemic stretches on, studios are coming up against the difficulty that some of their films must be released other ways, with the heavy stacking of delayed movies sure to depress box-office performance even when theaters do reopen. 

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