For years, independent theaters have been able to screen old movies from 20th Century Fox's catalog, an archive of more than 2,000 films that stretches from the silent era in the 1920s all the way up to the present day. It's what allows your favorite local movie house to put on Die Hard and Home Alone at Christmastime, or show Fight Club in 35 millimeter film, or bring classics like The Sound of Music back to the big screen. But after its merger with Fox, Disney is refusing to let some indie theaters access 20th Century Fox's catalog—causing panic among cinemas that rely on it to survive.
"People are totally freaking out," Dylan Skolnick, the co-director of the Cinema Arts Centre on New York's Long Island, told VICE. "We’re talking about one of the most important libraries in the world.”
At least three theaters in Canada, and at least one in the US, have been denied access to the Fox catalog this month. Christopher Escobar, who owns Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, told VICE the loss could be debilitating. The Plaza is the last independent movie house Atlanta has left. It's also the only locally-owned theater, the only historic theater, and the only minority-owned theater in the city.
"About 25 to 30 percent of the tickets we sell annually are 20th Century Fox titles," Escobar said. "For us to be cut off from that, we would close."
Disney places theaters into two separate categories: "repertory" or "commercial." If you're a commercial theater, you can screen Disney's new (or "first-run") movies, but you can't play anything from its catalog. If you're a repertory theater, the deal flips: You can screen Disney's old movies, but not its new ones. After the merger, Disney extended that policy to apply to 20th Century Fox, which accounts for the change. (Disney designated both Skolnick and Escobar's theaters as repertory, meaning they can still access the Fox catalog.)
"Disney took it upon themselves to designate theaters into each category. There was no contact with theaters to determine this," a programmer at an indie theater, who asked to remain anonymous, told VICE. "If you play one first-run feature, you no longer have access to Disney’s repertory catalog."
The programmer said that some theaters have managed to successfully appeal their designation after Disney handed it down, which the programmer's theater did to acquire repertory status. But several programmers told VICE that designating theaters as either strictly repertory or commercial isn't realistic. Most indie theaters rely on a mix of new and old programming to stay afloat—playing, say, Avengers: Endgame throughout the week, and Alien (a Fox title) on the weekends. Disney's policy wouldn’t allow them to do that.
"It sort of defies the logic of how independent cinemas operate and actually work," the programmer said. "It’s a very corporate, cold decision that doesn’t take into account any sort of real, on-the-ground factors.”
To make matters worse, several programmers said Disney never officially announced the policy change, leaving theater owners scrambling to figure out whether they were designated as repertory or commercial. Some, like Skolnick, have contacts at Disney, and were able to ask directly if they'd have access to the Fox archive. But others are still in the dark. They're left to blindly request to screen movies from the 20th Century Fox catalog, and wait to see if they're approved or denied.
"There’s not an actual spoken policy, and not everybody is in a position to have someone they can reach out to at the company. They’re feeling helpless, " Skolnick said. "It’s like: 'What the hell is going on?' And you can’t get a clear answer.”
A spokesperson for Disney confirmed that it separates theaters into repertory and commercial categories, and that "for commercial theaters… these library titles are not available." But the spokesperson wouldn't explain why Disney refuses to let theaters screen both first-run and repertory films, a question that's baffled programmers and theater owners. No other major studio—not Warner Bros., not Paramount, not Sony, not Universal—has a policy like Disney's in place.
The policy does have a few caveats. From what programmers like Skolnick and Escobar have gathered, you can still screen first-run movies from other studios and retain your repertory status, so long as you're not playing any new Disney or Fox films. (For example: You could screen Columbia Pictures' Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and still show an old Fox film like Titanic.) Additionally, Disney told VICE that every theater, regardless of its designation, will be allowed to screen Fox's Rocky Horror Picture Show—a cult favorite at indie theaters, a number of which show it on a monthly or even weekly basis. But that's just one movie of more than 2,000 in Fox's catalog.
Fox's archive contains some of the biggest movies of the past century, not to mention countless niche films that programmers draw on for genre-specific series, a fixture of almost every independent theater in the country. Losing access to the Fox catalog would mean losing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cleopatra, The Hustler, M*A*S*H, The French Connection, Cast Away, Moulin Rouge, The Fly, Raising Arizona, The Princess Bride, The Abyss—the list goes on, and on, and on.
“It’s just such a crucial, important library,” Skolnick said. “It’ll affect every part of people’s programming if they can’t get it. So we’ve been making the argument that this is an essential part of America’s cultural history, and they can’t just put it in the vault, lock it up, and throw away the key.”
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