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Coming to a Theater and a Television and a Video Store Near You
Micki Krimmel, 26 Jan 06

Every January, the movie industry and film fans alike turn towards Park City, Utah for the hottest news in cinema coming from the Sundance Film Festival. The news that is generating the greatest buzz this year is not about the next big hit or the brightest new director. The words on everyone’s lips this year are “day and date.”

“Day and date” is the term used in the film industry for distributing a movie simultaneously across platforms – i.e. releasing a film in theaters on the same day as pay per view and/or DVD. Early in the festival, IFC Entertainment unveiled its new distribution initiative called First Take, which will release 24 films simultaneously in theaters and on their new cable video on demand service, beginning in March.

This announcement adds fuel to the raging debate in the industry over distribution windows, sparked by the upcoming release of Stephen Soderbergh’s low budget film, "Bubble." Produced by internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, "Bubble" will be the first feature film by an Oscar-winning director ("Traffic") to be released with a day and date strategy, when it opens this Friday in about three dozen theaters and on Cuban’s cable channel, HDNet. A few days later, the film will be available on DVD.

Traditionally, theaters are given an exclusive window months before a movie is made available via other formats. But in an effort to stave off slumping ticket sales and piracy, studios have been gradually shrinking the amount of time between theatrical release and DVD. Still, few in Hollywood are eager to close the window completely, fearful of losing the opportunity to generate buzz (and income) in several stages over a longer period of time. Not surprisingly, theater chains are also balking at the idea of losing their exclusive release window. Regal Cinemas has refused to showcase films that are released day and date with any other platform. Studio executives and filmmakers are unable to come to a consensus on what this new strategy will mean for the future of the industry. This LA Times article illustrates the various opinions of several high profile directors and studio heads. It’s interesting to see the recurring themes.

Tim Burton, director of last year's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the animated "Corpse Bride," called the notion of simultaneous release absurd. Obviously, he said, cinema is a business, "but everything should be done to treat it as an art form — it's a visceral medium."
Ron Howard, whose latest release is "Cinderella Man," agreed. "Viewing in a theater is the optimum experience," he said. "It needs to be preserved…. But, at the end of the day, technology and viewers are going to tell us what they really want."

According to the article, the main objection from filmmakers to the new release strategy is an artistic one. They want to hang on to the sanctity of the film-going experience, with the flickering images on the big screen and the rapt crowd around you.

In a recent blog post, Mark Cuban argues (and I agree with him) that giving viewers more choices will not keep them away from the theater - at least not completely. We don’t go to the theater because it’s the only option to see a particular film. We go to the theater for the experience. We go, as Cuban puts it, “to get out of the house.” Cuban puts the burden of maintaining business in the hands of the theater-owners rather than the distributors. If you want to hang onto your customers, you need to better cater to their needs and improve the experience of going to the theater.

Personally, I’m really excited by the experiments with new release strategies. I’ll always vote for more options and easier access. Shrinking the distribution window will lower marketing expenses and create more space in the marketplace for more content. Independent and foreign films may reach a bigger audience since viewers who live outside of major metropolitan areas will have the opportunity to see them before the limited advertising dollars are spent and the films are forgotten.

The IFC announcement about First Take echoes this sentiment:

"In an era where opening weekend grosses determine the overall success of a film, it is important that we find a way to ensure that the important independent films of our time have the support to reach a national audience," said IFC Entertainment’s president, Jonathan Sehring. "For over ten years, IFC has strived to provide independent filmmakers with a strong voice and to help expand the audience of independent film. We are doing more here than simply collapsing windows, IFC's First Take will serve the independent community by creating an electronic national art house for independent films."

I’m sure this news is welcome to film fans who are infirm or house-bound, as well as to those who just prefer to watch a good movie in the comfort of their own home. And if the theater chains heed Mark Cuban’s advice and focus on making the movie-going experience unique and worthwhile, everybody wins. “I can whip up a mean steak, but I still like to go to restaurants.” Well, that is, as long as the restaurant experience is better than eating at home.

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