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Struggling Small Theaters Cry Foul Over Disney Throwing Classics In Movie ‘Vault’

Topline: As the movie theater business struggles to stay relevant in an age of cheap streaming services, Walt Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox earlier this year has brought about a worrying new trend for smaller theaters, who are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to and screen classic Fox movies.

  • Since Walt Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, an increasing number of film programmers and theater managers have found it difficult to show screenings of Fox’s back catalogue of older movies, Vulture first reported.
  • Disney has quietly been placing classic 20th Century Fox movies—everything from The Sound of Music and Fight Club to Die Hard and Home Alone—into its “Vault,” making them mostly unavailable to for-profit theaters.
  • The long-standing “Disney Vault” strategy has kept older Disney movies out of theaters for years or decades in a bid to artificially generate excitement for repertory screenings—but now that’s happening to classic 20th Century Fox movies, too. 
  • It’s hard to tell exactly what Disney’s policy is on classic Fox movies, according to Vulture’s investigation, but smaller theaters across North America—and even some bigger chains like Cineplex–have been abruptly losing access to these movies.
  • For smaller theaters especially, who rely on that collection of older works for repertory screenings to drive an already struggling business, that could be a death knell that makes survival much harder, several sources told Vulture.

Key background: When Walt Disney bought 21st Century Fox for $7.3 billion this past spring, that included the rights to hundreds of older 20th Century Fox movies. One theory about classic Fox movies going into the Vault is that the company wants consumers to subscribe to its new streaming service, Disney+, while another theory is that Disney simply wants the maximum number of eyeballs on its big franchises, like the Marvel movies or Star Wars.

Crucial quote: “Over the course of a year, it all adds up. A lot of these movies are what you’d call ‘steady earners’ for theaters. You show them, and people turn up,” a film programmer told Vulture.

Surprising fact: Disney’s expansion over the last 11 years has been forging ahead: Last year, the company claimed 40% of all North American ticket sales—and that’s expected to rise to 50% once results from the Fox merger start to kick in.

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