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Theatrical-to-Video Windows Shrinking

14 Mar, 2003 By: Joan Villa

Studios are shrinking the theatrical-to-home video window -- in some cases down to three months from the old six-month standard -- and the trend is likely to grow.

Just as video stores served consumer demand faster through copy depth, movie theater multiplexes with vastly more screens are also satisfying moviegoer tastes quicker, according to studio executives. Plus, in the short time that DVD consumption has exploded, studios have set up duplication and distribution infrastructures that reduce manufacturing delays and allow them to bring a film to the home video market more quickly.

Both those phenomena may prove a boon to video, which can piggyback on the recent awareness created when movie marketing campaigns are still fresh in consumers' minds.

More Studios Shortening Window
The advantages of the shortened window have led more studios to try out the idea: MGM's Barbershop hit theaters Sept. 13 and arrived on video Jan. 1, just three-and-a-half months later; Warner's Two Weeks Notice has a four-month window, from a Dec. 20 theatrical opening to April 29 in video stores; Paramount's The Wild Thornberrys Movie will go from a Dec. 20 theatrical debut to video just over three months later, April 1; and DreamWorks' Catch Me If You Can flies onto video May 6, after four months in theaters chased down a $161 million box office tally.

Columbia TriStar has two recent examples: Maid in Manhattan opened on movie screens Dec. 13 and is set for video in three-and-a-half months March 25, and Darkness Falls will hit stores Apr. 29, just over three months after scaring up $31 million at the box office following its Jan. 24 opening.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment president Ben Feingold expects the trend to grow.

“You'll probably see it across the board a little bit depending what the theatrical run is,” Feingold said. “Theatrical runs continue to shorten as they have more screens the first week, so it's likely that the window to video can shorten because the films may not be in theaters. But you have to pick the best date for a movie, and that can be anywhere from three months to nine months. It depends on the picture.”

Hanukkah-themed Eight Crazy Nights, for example, opened last November, but “the best thing for the picture” will probably be to hold it for home video until this year's holiday season, he said. On the other hand, Darkness Falls and Maid in Manhattan can move to video quicker at a time when studios traditionally hold back their Academy Award contenders to give them more theatrical exposure, Feingold said.

“Some films get held back as a function of the Academy run, and others, which are very commercial but not necessarily Academy pictures, you can move forward,” he said.

Columbia TriStar execs liked the fact that Maid is the first of the fall romantic comedies to hit stores in the first quarter, he said, following the Feb. 4 release of the summer's romantic comedy hit, Buena Vista's Sweet Home Alabama, timed to capitalize on Valentine's Day sales. Besides the spillover in theatrical awareness, Feingold said Columbia TriStar, like other studios, has also discovered the power of the Web to extend a film's theatrical “buzz” into the home video arena.

For Darkness Falls, “April is a good retail month,” he said. “The theatrical campaign is top-of-mind. It had a pretty good theatrical result, so there's no reason to hold it. Its theatrical run will be completely over by then.”

Windows Considered on Case-by-Case Basis
For a family title such as The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Paramount Home Entertainment aimed to hit holiday time frames -- Christmas and Easter -- for both the theatrical and home video campaigns. Paramount domestic president Meagan Burrows agreed release windows are shortening overall and some titles are further compressed when the studio has a unique opportunity to maximize returns.

“We've certainly shortened the window down to about an average of five months, and then where there has been an opportunity with the right street date with the right campaign, we've gone shorter,” she said. “A good example of that is The Wild Thornberrys. That released right before Christmas Dec. 20 theatrically and we wanted it out pre-Easter for home entertainment, so that has a short window. So we really look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

Growing Similarity Between Theatrical and Video
DreamWorks Home Entertainment domestic chief Kelly Sooter believes some of the street-date scramble is a result of the growing similarities between the theatrical business and home video, which both rely on strong opening weekends.

Catch Me If You Can did $161 million at the box office, but stands to double that with home video revenue, making the sport of date-picking a high-stakes game, she said.

“We're more focused than ever that our day one is off to a very big start,” she said. Catch Me's May 6 date was chosen in part because it was the same release week as last year's Oceans Eleven, which went on to be the top-renting title of 2002, according to Video Store Magazine research. So the chance to repeat that success, made it “a good reason to be there,” she said.

The shortened windows are becoming so prevalent that the Video Software Dealers Association is launching new research to study the trend's impact on video revenue, which traditionally represents at least 50 percent of a studio's take on a title, according to Carrie Dieterich, VP of marketing and industry relations.

“I was looking at a traditional title that was five months [between theatrical and home video release] -- Insomnia -- and after eight weeks it made 52.2 percent of its revenue back in rental, so if we looked at a similar title with a shorter window, we want to know would it get there faster?” she said. “We believe the rental revenue will go up partly because it's fresher in people's minds. If so, it may save some studio money on marketing because it's riding the coattails of theatrical marketing.”

Going forward, the trade association will build a database of titles with three- or four-month windows and track rental revenue using its VidTrac research for the project, she said.

But regardless of the results, Columbia's Feingold insists that finding a perfect release date to vie for a record-breaking “opening weekend” doesn't change the basic dynamics that made the video industry so profitable.

“The beauty of video is, our films are in continuous distribution from the date released on video to the end of time -- it's more than enough time for us to recoup our investment in our pictures,” he said. “Yes, we'd like to have the best result in the first week of release, but The Patriot or Joe Dirt or The Wedding Planner is still selling just as strongly now as it did two or three years ago. We'd like the best result upfront, but not to have enormous success in the first week doesn't mean you can't generate enormous money.”

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