Trouble at the tea party: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ faces theater owner revolt in U.K.

Feb. 17, 2010 | 5:28 p.m.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 16 DAYS

Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today, a look at the brewing controversy that threaten the film’s box office in Europe.

Red Queen and frogs

Walt Disney Pictures’ decision to accelerate the release of its upcoming 3-D film “Alice in Wonderland” on DVD has sparked a revolt among movie theater owners in Europe.

Major chains in the U.K. and the Netherlands have threatened to boycott the movie when it hits theaters March 5, a move that could cut into box-office revenue.

The film adaptation based on classic characters of Lewis Carroll has become the latest battleground between studios and exhibitors over how soon movies should be released on DVD after they’ve opened in theaters.

Disney said it intended to release the “Alice” DVD about three months after the movie appears in theaters, compared with the typical four- to six-month window. Like other studios, Disney is experimenting with shorter windows in response to declining DVD sales. Theater owners, especially in Europe, fear that will discourage consumers from going to theaters amid a period of record revenue. Exhibitors are also upset because they have recently spent millions of dollars upgrading thousands of screens to show 3-D movies.

The flare-up illustrates how an arcane topic once only of interest to Hollywood executives can affect moviegoers around the world.

No U.S. theater owners have threatened to boycott “Alice” so far, although some have said they will pull it from their screens once it hits the home video market. In Europe, however, theater owners have taken a harder line.

Alice in Wonderland

“I’m getting e-mails from my colleagues all across Europe and everyone says … this is one step too far,” said Ad Weststrate, president of the International Union of Cinemas in Europe. “The guys are really fanatic now.”

Weststrate also is past president of the Dutch cinema operators association, which said on its website Tuesday that a “large number of cinema operators” won’t show the film because of “stranded” talks with Disney.

Theater owners in Italy and other European countries are mulling over similar action, said Weststrate. Some European exhibition executives complained that, unlike their counterparts in the U.S., they were not consulted by Disney executives until recently.

“It was represented like ‘take it or leave,’ ” said one high-level European exhibition executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussions. “It was done brutally.”

Disney Distribution President Bob Chapek has been in London since last week meeting with exhibitors in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

Vue Entertainment Ltd. and Odeon Cinemas, two of the U.K.’s three major cinema chains, currently don’t plan to show the film in their theaters, two people familiar with the matter said, although talks remain ongoing.

Disney has reached a deal with a third major chain, Cineworld Group, and a number of independent exhibitors, one person familiar with the situation said.

Johnny Depp

A spokesman for Disney declined to comment.

Britain is the second-largest international market for American movies after Japan, but its potential for “Alice” is even larger, given that the movie, which cost about $150 million to produce, is based on a classic English story and features Johnny Depp and a mostly British cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman. In addition, director Tim Burton, Bonham Carter’s partner, lives in England.

“Anything that would prevent maximizing ‘Alice’ for the U.K. would be horrible,” said Joe Roth, a producer of the film. “This would be one of the biggest pictures of the year in the U.K. But I honestly think this will be worked out.”

The dispute over “Alice” isn’t the first time that Disney has clashed with exhibitors in Britain over the issue.

Last fall, the studio made plans to offer Pixar’s animated film “Up” on home video about two months after it hit theaters there in October.

Theater owners were upset that the move might cut into their ticket sales, two people familiar with the talks said. In response, major theater chains in Britain threatened to retaliate by refusing to book Disney’s principal holiday film, the 3-D version of “A Christmas Carol.”

In response to the furor, Disney backed down from its accelerated plans for “Up,” the sources said.

Despite the dispute, Odeon will still host the “Royal World Premiere” of “Alice” at its flagship theater in London’s Leicester Square next Thursday.

– Richard Verrier, Ben Fritz and Claudia Eller

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Photos: At top, two images from “Alice in Wonderland.” Credit: Walt Disney Co. Third, Johnny Depp at London’s Leicester Square on June 29 at the British premiere of “Public Enemies.” Credit: Max Nash / Getty Images. Bottom, a promotional poster for “Alice.”

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