Reading David Pogues’s interview with Todd Wagner, whose company is releasing movies on DVD the same day they are released in theaters, I was struck by a bit of humility that’s rare among system-buckers:
You know, I could sit here and say, “Oh, this is how it’ll play out. We’ll do this and this and this.” But if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that we don’t know yet. And I wouldn’t wanna lock ourselves in to say, “This is the model.” That, to me, would be as shameful as saying the old model’s right.
For most big movies released in North America, I think going out day-and-date with both the theatrical feature and the DVD would be a mistake. Maybe not a disaster; you could conceivably sell more DVDs because you’re piggybacking on the main advertising campaign. But it would hurt movie theaters. It would confuse DVD buyers. Cows and sheep would start mating.
It would not be good.
But note the condition I put on my prediction: “for most big movies released in North America…”
Here’s the thing: Everywhere else in the world, movies do come out on DVD the same day they go to theaters. The difference is, the DVDs are all pirated.
In St. Petersburg, Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve seen the movies I’ve written for sale on sidewalks. They’re always bootlegs. Sometimes, the packaging is impressibly authentic-looking. Most of the time, it’s a crude Xerox. Either way, it’s how most of the world is going to see these movies.
So I can’t blame Sony or Warner Bros. for releasing films with a shorter and shorter time window between the theatrical release and the DVD. If I were running a studio, I’d make the cheapest DVD I could for China, and flood the market with it the first day it’s released anywhere in the world. Better to make fifty cents per DVD than nothing.
Also, the logic of theatrical versus DVD windows breaks down when it comes to very small movies, which never end up playing in much of the country. A film like Me and You and Everyone We Know will never make it to Wichita, despite good reviews and a fair chunk of publicity. So there’s a fair argument for putting out the DVD right away, or offering it on pay-per-view.
Would this hurt the tiny arthouse theaters? Probably. But maybe not as much as the free screener tapes almost everyone in Hollywood gets around awards season. (To date, I’ve gotten three, but more are coming.) In the interview, Wagner explains a profit-sharing idea that would help the little theaters, which are under increasing pressure from the 30-plexes anyway.
Of course, for movie-goers the issue isn’t financial, but emotional. There’s something intangibly awesome about seeing a great movie on opening day with a packed house. The worry is that if DVDs come out too soon after release, movie theaters will go away. I doubt that. We still have packed stadiums for football games, even though they’re all televised. As long as people want to be part of a shared experience, as long as THX sound makes the seats rumble, as long as teenagers want to get away from their parents, there will be movie theaters.
To reiterate, I think releasing a film like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on DVD the same day it goes in theaters would be a Bad Thing, both financially and creatively. But knee-jerk panic over shrinking video windows is unwarranted. The goal of a release should be getting the film in front of the greatest number of viewers (paid viewers, ideally). If we need to tinker with the model to do that, so be it.