Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cracked Windows

Last month, I criticized Warner Bros. for its wrong-headed move to delay the distribution of new releases to Netflix.  Last week, they reached a similar deal with discount rental company Redbox.  Again, the studio wants an exclusive 28-day window to sell their new releases on DVD before they are made available more cheaply for consumers to rent.  But in reality, this move will do very little to boost up DVD sales and will only encourage piracy by making it more difficult for consumers to conveniently and affordably access the content that they want.  According to Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, they need the separate home viewing windows to maximize "the best economics for the studio."

It is at least a little ironic, then, that while one studio defends its prerogative to space out home viewing windows, another studio strikes a new blow against the theatrical window for motion pictures.  In 2009, blockbusters like Avatar, The Blind Side, Up, and The Hangover demonstrated that long, successful runs at the local theater are still both possible and profitable.  And when a film establishes itself as a huge hit in theaters, it generally carries that success over into the home video market.  The Hangover has already become the best selling comedy DVD of all time.  But Disney has decided to go the other direction and actually shrink the theatrical window for the upcoming U.K. release of Alice in Wonderland. 

This is counterintuitive for at least a couple of reasons.  First, Disney has hinged a huge component of the marketing for Alice on the fact that it is 3D, creating the impression that the film is the kind of event that has to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  This perception is undermined when the company is rushing to get the DVD out into stores.  Second, Alice in Wonderland is an "evergreen" property for Disney.  For most people, Disney's 1951 animated classic is the definitive reference point for this story, and Disney has been able to leverage that association over the years into its consumer products and theme park divisions.  Tim Burton's new take is a way for Disney to keep the property fresh so that it has new opportunities to profit from it in the future.  Thus, it is in their best interest for the 2010 film to be a big event that establishes a new touchstone for today's audiences.  That result won't happen if the film is pushed out of theaters too soon, leaving only a fleeting impression on popular culture.

If studios want to fully reap the benefits of their movies, they have to take the long view, which necessitates an understanding that the theatrical exhibition of movies is not only irreplaceable, it is the foundation upon which future success is built.

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