Cinemark told Universal on Thursday that it will not show "Tower Heist" if the studio releases the action comedy on video-on-demand three weeks after it debuts.
That could shave a significant chunk off the big-budget film's profits by preventing it from screening on any of Cinemark's nearly 300 theaters nationwide.
"Cinemark has urged Universal Pictures to reconsider its market test of this product," Cinemark said in a statement. "If Universal Pictures moves forward with its 'Tower Heist' premium video-on-demand offering, as announced, Cinemark has determined, in its best business interests, that it will decline to exhibit this film in its theatres."
A spokesperson for Universal declined to comment.
On Wednesday, however, the studio confirmed that it was moving forward on the early home entertainment debut, labeling it a "first of its kind" experiment." Though the the studio has remained mum, seeing the Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller film will set customers back nearly $60.
Over the past year, studios and exhibitors have locked horns over efforts to move up the VOD and home entertainment debuts of major releases. So far, however, exhibitors have limited their reprisals to warnings that they may not show trailers or post signs for films that don't respect the traditional 90 day release windows.
Cinemark's announcement significantly raises the stakes for studios looking to mine extra riches from the thriving VOD business. It is a clear threat that other major players follow Universal's lead at their own peril.
Even though Universal is limiting its early VOD trial to Comcast subscribers in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., the country's third largest theater chain still sees the move as a danger to the exhibition business.
"Movies are designed to be exhibited in today’s state of the art digital theatres which enhances awareness of the film and maximizes downstream distribution," Cinemark added.
The decibel level may have lifted with Cinemark's warning, but the outrage is nothing new.
After news broke last spring that four major studios including Universal would debut over a dozen films a mere two months after they hit theaters on DirecTV, theater owners threatened to hit back at studios, but for the most part failed to make good on their ultimatums.
At the time, they claimed that early VOD debuts of movies like “Just Go With It” and “Unknown” would cannibalize ticket sales.
The National Association of Theater Owners and its members have shown a greater tolerance for VOD experiments by the likes of Summit and Lionsgate that move the home entertainment debuts of films such as "Source Code" and "Abduction" up, but respect a 90-day window that theater owners say is necessary.
Directed by Brett Ratner, "Tower Heist" hits theaters on Nov. 4.
The Los Angeles Times first reported Cinemark's threats.