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When Cinemas Strike Back…

Hmm… I knew there wasn’t good news on the horizon when Disney announced they were steamrolling ahead with their plan to truncate the cinematic run of Tim Burton’s upcoming Alice in Wonderland adaptation. Obviously driven by the home entertainment market (and the fact that parents would be look for distractions for the kids as the summer holidays approach), they want to release the DVD 12 weeks after the movie premieres, rather than the standard 17 weeks. As you can imagine, this has ticked off the cinemas who make more money the later into a film’s release you see it, so it looks like we may have a boycott – in the UK at least. 95% of 3D screens may not be showing it. Including Cineworld, the largest cinema in Dublin.

Through the looking glass but not necessarily on the big screen...

You can see where the cinema managers are coming from. The market is already over-saturated with the compacted release schedule. I know a lot of people who simply don’t go to the cinema because they know the DVD release is about four months away – less if they import. Why pay all that money when you can order it online from various international distributors for the price of a single ticket? Even a film buff like myself is becoming increasingly indifferent. I likely won’t see The Road or Invictus in cinemas, despite my anticipation of them, but I don’t really care – The Road will arrive in my mailbox come May for the price of a ticket, plus drink and popcorn. Even if I can’t be bothered buying or renting it, it’ll be on Sky in a year (less if I spring for Box Office). This is the reason my parents don’t worry about missing The Dark Knight or Avatar in cinemas (even though it’s probably the only way to see it) – they don’t have to anticipate or wait for its release.

When I was younger, I remember (or I think I remember, I was very young) the wait seeming impossible for movies on home media. Avatar’s box office receipts may have finally trumped Titanic – but they needed the increased 3D revenue to do so, the economic equivalent of steroids.  Titanic reigned at the box office for half-a-year. Imagine that, half a year. Avatar is already fading. Not that it hasn’t made a pretty penny, but it just illustrates that the window for these things is getting smaller and smaller.

One can see why studios want to get the DVD out there. There’s a reason that wise ass commentators have referred to the cinematic release as the trailer for the DVD. The discs and packaging are cheap to produce and can be sold in bulk at huge mark-up to the consumer. I can’t blame Disney for wanting to get that out there. Particularly, as noted above, since the summer holidays are approaching around about May and June and a Disney DVD is the perfect thing to keep young kids occupied. I should know, I wore out the tape on my old copy of Dumbo. And don’t get me started on The Lion King.

For the cinemas, this is understandably bad news. The shorter the wait, the less people will feel the need to see it in cinemas. But, more than that, the economic model for movie distribution only really favours the cinema towards the end of a movie’s run:

The percentage of ticket sales that the studio takes decreases on each week that a movie is in the theater. If the screening was arranged by an independent middleman, he also takes a slice. So the movie has to pull in sizeable audiences for several weeks in order for theater owners to make any serious profits.

During the film’s opening week, the studio might take 70 to 80 percent of gross box office sales. By the fifth or sixth week, the percentage the studio takes will likely shrink to about 35 percent, said Steven Krams, president of International Cinema Equipment Co.

If you’ve got a blockbuster like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings, with audiences that keep streaming in for weeks, everybody’s happy — especially theater owners.

You can see why the cinemas would get a little tetchy. Particularly since that whole summer holidays audience would be perfectly situated towards the end of their run to maximise their profit margins. But why would parents take little Timmy to the cinema when they can just buy the DVD?

However, all of this is academic. It explains why studios want shorter release windows and why cinemas would oppose them. I’m not so sure it entirely holds water when it comes to Alice in Wonderland. Or, at least, I think it might be offset slightly. 3D is apparently the saviour of cinema – something which can’t be replicated at home… yet. Even though apparently the movie hasn’t been shot in 3D and is only being retroactively rendered in it (which is apparently an inferior process, or so I’m told), I still think that that may go someway towards mitigating the damage done in this particular case.

Kids are smart enough to know that 3D is the one where the shapes pop out and will probably bug their parents to see it in that style. There’s a possibility that Disney will release the DVD with an inferior style of 3D like with the releases of Coraline or The Final Destination, but they haven’t done so previously with Up or Bolt.

I don’t know if this really matters. If I owned a cinema (one day, Darren, one day), I would be looking beyond this example to the greater context. Sure the damage might not be outrageous when it comes to this film, but you can be sure that other studios will follow suit. The line must be drawn here, and all that.

I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

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