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'Tower Heist's on-demand bust

Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy’s film ruffles feathers as Universal releases it to homes before it hits theaters

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How much would you pay to see Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy at home? Universal was hoping to find out with a plan to offer the duo’s action comedy Tower Heist to Comcast digital subscribers in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., as a $59.99 premium video on demand just three weeks after the Nov. 4 theatrical premiere. Theater owners weren’t happy when the news broke: Cinemark, along with a number of smaller chains, said it wouldn’t screen Tower Heist at all if Universal went through with the plan.

Ultimately, the studio backed down. But a source close to the decision says that theaters shouldn’t have been so surprised. ”The proposed test was the result of two years of active, ongoing, and very specific dialogue with exhibitors,” the insider says. National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian admits that Universal was ”engaged with individual exhibitors on this test.”

Theater owners may have been particularly concerned because Tower Heist is a potential hit. Smaller films, like Melancholia, which hits theaters on Nov. 11, are sometimes available on demand before their release, and not much protest is raised. But the insider explains, ”If we’re self-selecting small films, we’re not getting the full benefit of learning.”

Studios say they’re not out to put a damper on theatrical viewing — with DVD sales plummeting, box office is still Hollywood’s bread and butter. ”The fact that the studios are fully intent on driving robust theatrical attendance is seen in the kind of product that the studios are currently making,” says the insider. It’s just that viewers are growing accustomed to watching their entertainment when and how they want it, and it seems inevitable that another studio will try a Tower Heist-style experiment soon. After all, on demand is in demand.

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