At the annual gathering of cinema owners in Las Vegas, movie studio chiefs have been conspicuously quiet on the most delicate topic facing the industry — how to make movies available for digital home video earlier than usual.
But Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. marketing and distribution president, broke the silence Wednesday, telling theater owners at CinemaCon that the industry needs to adapt to fast changing consumer demands.
"Consumer tastes are changing, and that is changing the way we do business," Kroll said at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "What our customers are telling us is they want more choices in where and how they consume our content.... And where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill the void."
It was abundantly clear, though, that not everyone was on board with Kroll's call for change.
Director Christopher Nolan, who took the stage next to show off footage of his next Warner Bros. movie, "Dunkirk," almost immediately undercut Kroll's comments with a strong rallying cry for the theatrical experience.
"The only platform I'm interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition," Nolan said, to a round of applause from theater owners.
The sensitivity of the topic may explain why Universal Pictures, Sony and Paramount executives all avoided the matter in their addresses earlier in the week, as did Disney, which is said to have no interest in changing the traditional model.
Kroll's remarks come after months of discussion between studios and exhibitors about ways to shorten the traditional gap between a movie's theatrical release and its home video debut. Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara forced the issue last year through his public comments on the need to be flexible. Tsujihara did not attend CinemaCon this year because he is in China.
"We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges in the marketplace," Kroll said.
Cinema chains have long resisted any change to the so-called theatrical window, fearing that such a move will destroy their business. But declining home entertainment profits and stagnant domestic attendance are breaking the ice.
The talks between individual distributors and exhibitors are expected to result in deals as early as the end of this year, according to people familiar with the matter. The studios disagree on what they want, but many are looking to shorten the theatrical window to 45 days or less, about half the current wait time. Some want much shorter windows of 17 days.
Kroll noted that global box-office attendance remains healthy, but warned that the industry is "evolving at a pace that's impossible to ignore." She added, "Everyone in this room is facing a challenge but also an opportunity when it comes to windowing."