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The big-screen brawl that could reshape the movies

But having agreed to consider streaming films under extraordinary circumstances, it may be difficult for the Oscars to unring the bell. If you can tell that a streaming movie is extraordinary in a pandemic, why can’t you make the same determination in a normal year? And what happens when “normal” doesn’t actually return?

The second news item of the week gave us a sense of how the new state of affairs might emerge. AMC, the largest movie theater chain in the world, delivered an ultimatum to Universal Studios, declaring that it would no longer license the studio’s movies for screening in the United States, Europe or the Middle East.

In mid-March, given the uncertainty about when movie theaters would reopen, and when patrons might feel comfortable returning, Universal released “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Emma” on video-on-demand while all three films were still in theaters. The strategy showed some success as a stopgap. But it was the tufty-haired animated protagonists of “Trolls World Tour” who ignited a real-world explosion.

After “Trolls” made $95 million in VOD rentals, NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Shell suggested that the studio might release movies straight to video even after theaters opened again. AMC Entertainment chief executive Adam Aron responded with the movie business version of shock and awe, banning all Universal movies from the chain’s screens going forward. Mooky Greidinger, chief executive of Cineworld, which operates the Regal Cinemas chain, joined the chorus, accusing Universal of “trying to take advantage” of the pandemic.

The immediate problem this poses for moviegoers ought to be obvious. If 2021 rolls around and you feel confident enough to venture forth to see the postponed “F9,” or stir-crazy enough to seek out “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” you’d better hope that you live within driving distance of a theater chain still willing to do business with Universal and its subsidiaries. The number of movie theaters in the United States has been shrinking since the 1990s; if the number of studios each theater chain does business with shrinks, some big-screen devotees may end up out of options.

And the movie environment could get a whole lot weirder, given changes in the industry that were underway even before the start of the covid-19 pandemic. In November, the Justice Department announced plans to dismantle the Paramount Decrees, the legal framework that since 1948 has governed just how vertically integrated the movie business can get. At the time, I wondered whether the Walt Disney Co., which has negotiated aggressively for theater screen real estate in an effort to crowd out its competitors, might take advantage of the new environment to snap up a theater chain of its own.

AMC may have been emboldened to take on Universal because Disney’s movies, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe, provide the chain with such reliable money-makers. But AMC was also contemplating bankruptcy earlier this year, before raising $500 million in debt to stay afloat until its theaters could start showing movies again. Though Disney has its own coronavirus-induced woes, the prospect of the company — which, according to a report from the research firm MoffettNathanson, pulled in 61 percent of movie studio profits last year — buying a distressed theater chain and showing nothing but Disney, Pixar, Marvel and “Star Wars” movies seems more plausible than it did in November.

Pixar is excellent, Marvel movies are consistent if not outstanding, Disney is pretty good and the latest iteration of “Star Wars” has been a mess. But however you feel about these corporate subsidiaries and their offerings, they do not capture the entire range of cinematic experience. Life isn’t composed only of events that fall in the G to PG13 range, or to the few stories and ideas that are palatable both to red- and blue-state America — as well as to the Chinese censors who determine what’s allowed to play in the world’s second-largest movie market.

Maybe the pandemic will merely shrink the movie business, rather than transform it. But those of us who care about seeing small movies on big screens shouldn’t take for granted that we’ll be able to preserve even the fragile state of affairs that existed before the coronavirus.

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