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Curiouser And Curiouser – The case of the shrinking theatrical release window

Disney’s announcement [in 2010] that it was to release its blockbuster 3D feature ALICE IN WONDERLAND to Blu-ray and DVD just 12 weeks after theatrical release-down from the established 17 weeks-set off a veritable tumult of discontent and opprobrium from the theatrical exhibition community on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe and the UK. With dire warnings from parties both inside and outside the business, forecasting the imminent demise of filmgoing as we know it, is this really the case?

The reality of the theatrical window is that it has been steadily shrinking from six months to four over the course of the past decade, with no measurable impact on theatrical receipts. On the contrary, exhibition has boomed in most territories over the same period. It’s not even as if Disney is the first studio to look to contract the window; In 2009 Paramount quietly came to an accommodation with US exhibitors in order to release its summer hit G.I. Joe to retailers in time for the Thanksgiving holiday period, a little more than three months after its successful theatrical run.

Both studios have stressed that these proposed new windows will only affect a selected number of releases from their annual schedules, perhaps no more than four titles a year. We also know that, after some brinkmanship, the issue was resolved amicably between rival parties (with a 13-week window and, presumably, improved exhibition terms mollifying cinema owners) and a threatened boycott of the film was abandoned. Disney’s Alice went on to have the highest grossing non-sequel opening weekend in film history and, at the time of writing, is the highest grossing film of the year. The film was no doubt helped, like its 3D brethren, by the increased ticket prices that cinema owners are able to charge for this ‘unique’ experience.

Despite its success, compounded by the murmurings of other majors looking to replicate the terms of its distribution, Alice has proved to be a lightning rod for exhibitors and augurs a potential fundamental change in how we distribute and consume film in an age increasingly defined by competing digital delivery systems. As the past few months have proven, with the performance of Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon et al, picture attendance remains buoyant-but the product itself is becoming more expensive to produce and distribute. With the recent decline in DVD sales, coupled with the relative failure at this stage of Blu-ray and digital download to ameliorate these losses, both sides in this equation feel they have much to lose.

Audiences expect their entertainment to be delivered on a variety of platforms.

Studios and, it’s fair to say, independent distributors alike are therefore now keen to maximise their investment by taking their product to electronic platforms as quickly as possible after theatrical release. Exhibitors, meanwhile, have heavily invested in new digital screens and projection systems in order to showcase and benefit from the wealth of premium product provided to them by the majors, but with no way of monetising this increased investment beyond the concession sales and exhibition terms now-as they might see it-under threat from their core suppliers.

To compound this, audiences are increasingly expecting their entertainment to be delivered to them on a variety of platforms and devices, on terms that suit their consumption patterns and not those of established business hierarchies. Increased broadband penetration, the recent deployment of 3D television and release of AV-centric portable media devices such as Apple’s iPad will do little to reduce these expectations amongst the core filmgoing audience demographic.

So does this represent the thin end of the wedge for cinema owners, and does the challenge of these new delivery systems and reduced windows portend a time of permanent decline for the filmgoing experience? Probably not.

Despite the sabre-rattling on both sides, theatrical exhibition remains the key driver in establishing the maximum value of the product in the film distribution chain. Cinema’s perceived ‘event’ status amongst audiences is not something that is easily translated to the home or personal environment; the experience of seeing a film with a like-minded audience in a modern, well-equipped theatrical environment remains the most compelling USP that cinema has to offer. Similarly, the music industry now has a renewed emphasis on concert attendance, having learnt the importance of this after a far more catastrophic decline in the sale of packaged goods brought on by comparable changes in distribution and consumption.

With the reality of shrinking windows, cinema owners will probably need to be more aggressive in pitching the experience of filmgoing to consumers. 3D has proven a boon and exhibition standards in general have-thanks to improved digital technology-continued to improve, so can compete more effectively with the lure of constantly improving high-tech home cinema systems.

From a distributor’s perspective, the notion of ‘one size fits all’ in terms of exhibition windows has seemed a little archaic for some time now, and a more selective and considered approach could reward all parties. There are numerous films outside of the established mainstream studio products that would potentially benefit from a selected reduction in these terms, with an opportunity to reach an audience that has not been able to consume them during the limited access that most of these titles now have in theatres. (This is largely due to increased competition from studio product even in independent theatres, but that’s another column…)

Despite the furore of the past few months, and the changes this might portend, the cinema back row remains in front position for the time being. But these recent moves and continued changes in domestic delivery systems prefigure a time when distributors and exhibitors alike need to adopt more flexibility in their practices and terms in order to preserve and ensure the continued growth of our business. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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