The Fracture of the Theatrical Release Window, PART I

For Part II, click here. For Part III, click here.

As a kid I wasn't allowed to go to the movies, so I had to wait until a VHS showed up at Blockbuster before I could see a 'new' movie. Having to wait was frustrating, but in my naivete I figured it just took a long time to convert from film to video or something. What a silly child I was.

Now I know that agonizing waiting period was not due to some production constraint, but part of an agreement between studios and theaters. In the eighties, you see, new technologies like video and pay-per-view were allowing the masses to watch movies in their homes, not in theaters as God intended. Thankfully, a little Hollywood magic turned competition into collusion, and thus the 'release window' was born.  Under this arrangement,  films would undergo sequential releases: first theatrical, then video, then pay-per-view, and so on. This way, a movie wouldn't compete with itself in different formats. If you wanted to watch a movie right away, you went to the theater. If you hated the theater or didn't care about waiting several months, you could catch the flick at your house instead. Studios and theaters maintained their revenue streams, and except for kids like me who had no choice, everyone was happy.

For thirty years the release window system has been sacrosanct. This has been fine just fine for theater owners, but studios are having second thoughts. According to this Slate article from 2005, theater goers accounted for less than 15 percent of worldwide studio revenues, with the rest coming from DVD sales and TV rights. Understandably then, studios began to question the wisdom of delaying the real money-makin' for several months while theaters made their money on popcorn.

As a result, studios have been monkeying around with the release window(s) since 2001. While the original theatrical release window was six months, by early last decade that window had been shortened to five months and then to four, as studios pushed out DVDs earlier for better holiday timing. The four-month window lasted for several years until Alice in Wonderland was released on DVD three (three!) weeks earlier than usual in order to beat the attention-stealing World Cup. And if that fortnight and a half body blow wasn't enough, DirecTV introduced in April a video-on-demand service which allows users to stream HD movies into their living rooms a full eight (EIGHT!) weeks early.

Theater owners are not happy with these ill harbingers, and DirecTV's new service prompted the National Association of Theatre Owners (or, more confusingly, NATO*), to write a letter arguing that reducing the theatrical release window below four months "could irrevocably harm" the film industry. Interestingly, this letter has been signed by numerous big name directors, who are evidently also worried about 'protecting the movie-going experience.' I read the letter a couple days ago, and was surprised at how little it did to clothe its naked self-interest. So amateurish is this letter, in fact, that in the next post I plan on performing an in-depth analysis of it;  I would've just continued with it in this post, but I thought I'd do my own sequential release.

*Before she left to do good in Rwanda (and meet me), girlfriend Thelma used to be deputy executive director at NATO, a fact I love to share.