August 24, 2005

Releasing movies simultaneously to theaters and to DVD.

Th summer movie season was a flop. Why?
Multiples theories for the decline abound: a failure of studio marketing, the rising price of gas, the lure of alternate entertainment, even the prevalence of commercials and pesky cellphones inside once-sacrosanct theaters. But many movie executives and industry experts are beginning to conclude that something more fundamental is at work: Too many Hollywood movies these days, they say, just are not good enough.
The main solution talked about at the link is not, interestingly enough, making better movies. It's releasing movies to theaters and DVD at the same time! There's a recognition that a lot of people prefer to watch at home, so why not take advantage of the high publicity at the time of a movie's release to sell to all these home theater folk who aren't going to go out? Such a move might hurt theater owners, who are already hurting. But I'm in no position to discuss the economics of the movie business, so I want to speculate about how it would change the actual content of the movies.

Would there be more movies designed to appeal to persons over 25? Would there be more movies in smaller settings that look appealing on the television? Maybe people with big home theater set-ups prefer the same sort of movies that make a lot of us feel that we ought to go out and see the film on the big screen.

Simultaneous DVD release doesn't need to be an across-the-board strategy. It could be used for some smaller movies or movies that appeal to the older audience. For example, right now, I'd love to see Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man." I'd buy it immediately if it were available. And I'd go out to see it if it were playing in my city, but it's not. Eventually, it will come around here, but I might not notice. And eventually, it will come out on DVD and I might get around to buying it. If I could order DVDs of films the day I read the reviews in the paper, I'd buy a lot more of them. I'd impulse buy. Now, I have months to cool off. Why do I need that movie? Why not just watch some other supposedly good movie I own but haven't watched yet? I'm a much more skeptical customer when the DVD comes out months after the glowing reviews.

But would there be more art house-type films if the simultaneous release approach were taken? Art house theaters outside of big cities might have a terrible time getting people to show up. If these theaters go out of business, would art house films end up being more or less straight to video films? They might lose prestige. Instead of more of them, we might have less. Why call them films at all anymore? And then, why even have DVDs of them? Why aren't they just shown on premium cable channels and pay-per-view? But maybe if the merger with television took place, the films would get better. Look at how good HBO is now.

It's hard to predict what would happen with the policy shift — or what will happen without it.


DannyNoonan said...

Brian Flemming's documentary, "The God Who Wasn't There" ( was released on DVD the same time it was released in theaters (with the exception of some sneak previews in bigger cities). Like Grizzly Man, it's tough to find a theater showing it around here. It was nice to be able to buy the DVD at the same time. For arthouse-type films, this seems like a good strategy. Another interesting thing about TGWWT is that anyone who buys it is free to hold a showing of the film, even charge for it, without any additional consent from the film maker.

Kathy Herrmann said...

Hmmm, interesting concept...although the better one would be to make better movies!

Hard to say how the idea will play out. In the short-term, theater owners will probably lose if people can watch newly released movies from home. In the longer term, though, it might lead them to innovate the movie-going experience in some way.

Pogo said...

The tactic of releasing DVDs while in theaters seems promising, but it reminds me of George Lakoff's book "Don't Think of an Elephant". By simply "reframing" movies (i.e. pursue the market in another fashion) while ignoring the content problems, they merely avoid a core problem.

Are movies worse? I think so. I am rarely motivated to see one now. I would stand in line to see The Great Raid, but it won't come to my town. Plenty of seating for Duece Bigalow is available, however.

But I think movies are going to contract over time for a whole host of reasons. Having bad movies be the staple of Hollywood doesn't help slow the decline. And given the antiwar flavor to several upcoming films, I'll be staying away for the next year as well.

me said...

The problem with releasing DVDs immediately is illegal copying. If the studios could get full proceeds from DVD sales, it would probably be economically viable.

The movie industry is going to be experiencing problems similar to that of the recording industry and there is no perfect solution. Cheap DVDs are a good start. Needlessly expensive CDs have killed the record industry.

Independent and foreign films have consistently retained their quality.

The big Hollywood blockbusters are geared for the lowest common denominator, and with a committee writing the script, it is rare that the final product has any merit.

There is a tremendous difference between seeing a film in the theater or watching it on TV (even if you have a big screen). I hope theaters survive this transition.

Tristram said...

I think perhaps it could help with non-blockbuster style movies. Surely, 'Return of the King' or 'The Passion of the Christ' or 'Harry Potter and..." and 'Return of the Sith" do not need simultaneous releases to generate more money and buzz. In fact, you could probably make a case the simultaneous release could hurt the overall take, as people may choose one or the other, rather than both as can happen now.

OTOH, as noted, smaller scale roll-outs could use the marketing dollars. And combining the marketing campaigns for theatrical and recorded releases make sense in the short run.

Music bands oftenhave tours to correspond to album releases. Doesn't really seem to hurt one or the other, but of course concerts can have additional and a different kind of experience.

Perhaps what the theatres need to do is figure out how to diefferentiate their experience from home viewing now that audio and visual home thechnology can mimic high cost theatres to a remarkable degree for a modest amount of money.

bill said...

Saul - I've come to the exact opposite conclusion about illegal copying. Even Star Wars: Thank God It's Finally Over was available over the internet the same day it hit the theaters. There will always be a black market economy, but a huge majority of people will buy a legitimate copy from a legitimate source. We're seeing that with how well the iTunes Music Store has grown.

The marketing problem is figuring out which movies this will work for. My guess is obviously the small movies with little studio support. Arthouses don't seem to be as prevalent as 20 years ago and if a movie doesn't open big its first week, it's a failure.

I think we'll see more festival events and touring shows, all of of which is similar to how the movie companies reacted in the 50s to the threat of television. I'll offer 2 examples.

In another topic I mentioned Blowing Smoke, a movie only being sold over the internet.

And there's Bubba Ho-tep. The creators of this film opened city by city and tried to attend each premiere. I bet if they'd had DVDs available in the lobby, a large number of fans would've bought one on their way out.

I do agree with Saul that theaters will survive.


Ron said...

They will make more movies for the over 25 crowd when that audience goes to see the same movie more than once, like the under 25 crowd will do. And when the older crowd will buy the "Far From Heaven," "L'Aventurra," and "Seventh Seal" action figures...

Me, I want the "Dr. Strangelove" action figures myself...

Decklin Foster said...

Maybe it's just simple economics. A rental is about $4, at the video place, or free, at the library, and the selection is huge (especially since the two have slightly different niches). At a theater, a ticket is maybe twice as much, and the selection is maybe 10 movies, none of which look very good, and maybe 7 of which look exactly like something I've seen before.

(an extra $4 isn't that much, rationally, but people always seem to balk at the price of theater tickets. Why is that? It costs a lot more to go see live theater. Maybe we feel cheated because what it seems like we're paying for, emotionally, is the privilege of seeing it before it comes out on DVD?)

And yet, I'd rather go out. I'm ticking down the days until "2046" opens at my local little art-house theater, because I couldn't imagine getting a DVD, or downloading it illegally, etc, and watching it on this crappy little screen with all the distractions of my house around me. If nothing else, I want to see what the other crazy people who are fans of the same thing look like!

I don't think that's a big draw for the major hollywood films. But does that really matter? I don't know. If the art houses are smart, though, I think they will capitalize on the fact that that have a potential community insofar as they are a filter and an aggregator for the infamous "long tail".

Kathy Herrmann said...

I also suspect you'll see ever more movies that go right to DVD and avoid the theaters completely. Given the advantages and attractions of self-publishing and podcasting, it's a natural extension for producers to self-promote their movies just as some authors are doing. Especially if they can score a higher percentage of the take.

Pogo said...

There are two issues, separate but intertwining. The market process will evolve to encompass the burgeoning home theater industry, to be sure. It will be fun to be part of that change.

The second concern, as Ann's post denotes, is the decline in quality among movie offerings in the past few years. While every era bemoans its share of clunkers, the sheer banality and boredom in recent fare seems unprecedented.

Perhaps I am wrong, and that there are as many gems as in the past, but the box office take suggests otherwise. Maybe projects like Disney's proposed live action "Underdog" (I kid you not) might be shelved in place of more original content.

Tristram said...

Well, the studios have been proving that they really don't know what people want. They passed on Passion, Pixar had all kinds of trouble negotiating with Disnay (and I think Pixar produces the most consistently excellent movies atm), Stephen Jackson needed to do yeoman work and finally found a studio that would take a chance on The Lord of the Rings.

Economics works many ways. The studios, as high profile (read: crown jewel-ish) members of large conglomorates seem to have a disporportional effect on the stocks of the conglomerates. A few bad movies, especially high profile movies, can send bean counters into spasms. So the studio owners and heads are playing not to lose. And ask any fan of football how freaking much fun it is to watch your team, up by 6 go into the prevent defense. 'Bout as much fun as...watching a hollywood movie.

Then you add the egos (and insecurities of the artists) invovled, plus the absolute worse than death experience of not being relevant any more, and you get a lot of the current wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Hollywood needs to clean some deadwood out of its system. Maybe an industry downturn is needed to convince studios that paying Tom Cruise $18 Million isn't unversally the best use investor money.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't think simultaneous releases will help at all. As others have said, I think it would only help pirates.

Of course, I might have a skewed perspective because my husband makes movies, so movies are a family passion. We go to the movie theater every week (sometimes many times each week) and buy hundreds of DVDs.

Better movies would certainly help. This year has been pretty dismal.

HaloJonesFan said...

"Family Guy", "Futurama", and "Arrested Development" got extra seasons due to unexpectedly-high DVD sales. "Firefly" has a theatrical film next month, and it didn't even have a full season! (And said half-season is four years old, for that matter.)

The reasons that direct-to-video looked bad were that advertising was difficult, and distribution was limited. These days, massive networks exist to tell genre fans exactly what's out there, and anyone on the planet can buy things from Amazon. DTV is a much more viable proposition than it was in the days of VHS; it's in a position closer to the Japanese anime market of the late eighties & early nineties.