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Shrinking Windows Make it Tougher to Predict Summer Video Hits

20 May, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

It used to be that box office was a surprisingly accurate barometer of home video six months down the road. A good summer for theaters meant a good fourth quarter for video stores.

But now the old golden rule just doesn't work as well as it once did. The six-month window between theatrical and video, once ironclad, has rusted through, and what you're seeing now is a variable window that can be as short as three months for a real box office stinker.

What's more, the emergence of DVD — and the dramatic shift away from rental and toward sellthrough — has made forecasting even more difficult. In the old days, a film that tanked — I'm sorry, “underperformed” — at the box office would often be a stronger renter, compared with its theatrical take, than a successful blockbuster.

These days, the bigger the box office, the bigger the sales — although with the DVD format still on a growth curve, virtually everything released on disc is ownable, even low-budget urban actioners. Just ask the folks at Ground-Zero, who are as surprised as anyone that people are buying, and not just renting, their movies.

Confused? I thought so. And if you're a bit puzzled about what the future holds for our business, just think how those poor folks in Hollywood are feeling. Focus groups, research studies, tracking data — and they still don't have a clue as to what the fourth quarter will bring any more than you or I do.

Let's take a look at what's happening with the crucial “summer” movie season, which this year opened the weekend of May 7 with the special effects-happy monster yarn Van Helsing and the Olsen twins' cute little New York Minute. Van Helsing had a decent opening, but died the following week, roughly seven days after the Olsens' much-ballyhooed feature breakthrough died an instant death.

My prediction: Van Helsing will be pushed out for pre-Halloween release, while New York Minute should be out by the time school starts. On video, both will be monsters, one because the timing is so perfect — and Universal knows the Halloween/horror playbook by heart — and the other because the Olsens are a direct-to-video phenomenon whose fans expect to interact with them on the small screen rather than the big.

Moving on, we have Troy, which failed to make what everyone expected and will likely fade away after this weekend just as Van Helsing did. Again, I see an October DVD release — maybe even a week before Van Helsing — in an attempt to steal some of the latter's thunder. It will sell well, but not as well as Van Helsing.

What's going to be the megahit of the holiday DVD season? It's hard to say at this point, but my hunch is Shrek 2, which opens theatrically this weekend, will be right there. As for a DVD release date, that's a tossup. DreamWorks might rush it out to coincide with the Oct. 1 theatrical release of Shark's Tale, created by the same team that made Shrek, or wait until late in the fourth quarter, which this year should be more crowded than ever due to the astounding success of December 2003 DVD releases Pirates of the Caribbean and Seabiscuit.

I also predict good DVD things for Spider-Man 2, which opens June 30 (it's currently the most requested trailer on AOL); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which breaks in theaters June 4 (movie collectors just love trilogies); and The Day After Tomorrow, the disaster flick that opens May 28 (although the timing will have to be just right, because no one wants a downer for Christmas. If it makes a big splash in theaters, don't be surprised if it doesn't hit video until January).

My summary prediction: Despite a rocky start, it will be a good summer at the box office. And even if it isn't, it will be a great fourth quarter for DVD.

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