Disney drank the potion this week -- Alice is shrinking in all-new ways. This time the shrinkage isn't taking her on a magical adventure through Wonderland, it's taking her to the retailer shelves right as the summer gets going. In an attempt to sell more copies of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (which sees theatrical release on March 5) on DVD, the studio is shifting the theatrical window from 17 weeks to 13. What this means is that roughly three months after Alice is released in theatres, you'll be able to buy your own copy.
The idea here is that the product rides in on the coattails of the theatrical marketing, and, with the film still fresh in viewers' minds, it increases the chances of sell-through. The side effect is that, as shorter windows become more common, It fuels the idea that there's no reason to go to the theatre when you can catch it on video. Alice is a slightly different case because it's 3D -- the first post-Avatar 3D film, and as such, will be closely watched by the Hollywood money men. If audiences want to see it in 3D, they're going to have to make a trip to the cineplex (that is, until 3D TV's become affordable, but that's a discussion for another day).
3D or not, exhibitors are not happy with Disney over their decision. Theatre chains in London (Odeon, Vue, and Cineworld) are already publicly boycotting the film to send a strong message to the studio. They don't want to lose a single ticket sale to someone who waits for the DVD, and I can understand their fears. Both sides assume too much about the product and the consumer, and I don't think either argument is airtight at the moment.
For Disney or any other studio that wants to shorten the home video window (Paramount did it with G.I. Joe but didn't make an announcement before the movie hit theatres like Disney did), the biggest assumption is that a shorter window will move more copies than a traditional 4-6 month window, regardless of the box office take or critical consensus. I can see this being true for a movie that flops -- one, it needs to ride those theatrical coattails, and two, it's leaving theatres quicker than a hit would. But for a blockbuster? I think drawing the window out, increasing anticipation for the title, and making the release day a special event, akin to its opening box office weekend, are all in the studios' best interest.
CHUD's Devin Faraci wrote an interesting article last year, wishing for a world in which DVD existed day-and-date with the theatrical release (especially in the case of arthouse and independent films). I have an idea, almost the polar opposite of Devin's, in which a theatrical release advertises the fact it can only be seen in theatres for the first year of release. So a movie like Alice in Wonderland would let audiences know that the ONLY way you can see it in 2010 is in a cinema.
If a handful of releases did this every year, it would start to train audiences to get back out to the movies on a regular basis. Create a situation where you make audiences wonder when a film is ever going to hit DVD. That uncertainty might draw them out of their homes for films they might not have made time for, if they have no idea when they'll be able to see it at home. It should only help DVD sales, because if the film is a hit, people will be especially excited to get their hands on it at last, after a 12-month window. It creates a second release event for the studios to capitalize on.
For theatre owners, there's not a good way to prove that ticket sales aren't being made -- people will only see what they want to see, and there's no way to quantify the folks that plan on sitting out and waiting for the video anyway. A bigger, unspoken problem is in the way that theatres market themselves over the product, spending an inordinate amount of time and money pushing their own brand name over what's on their screen. They let the studios do the heavy lifting on the marketing of the actual films by playing the trailers and displaying the standees that the studio created, but there's little visible effort from the exhibitors to create their own movie marketing.
In that way, the exhibitors allow the studios complete control over the product because the chains aren't staking their own claims on the film's worth. It makes the movie theatre more like some kind of flea market, providing a space for someone else's product. Of course the studios are going to dictate the rules when it comes to their own films. What exhibitors need to do is show the studios that they care about the films beyond providing them a place to play. If that's all they are, then that's all the studios will view them as -- putting a multiplex on the exact same playing field as someone's living room.
The bottom line is that home video is in a slump, and movie ticket sales are doing just fine (better than ever, actually). The studios should be allowed to experiment with new ways of doing business, without direct repercussion from the exhibitors, but the theatres need to start examining new ways to sell the movies themselves. What's wrong with a home video kiosk in a theatre lobby or being able to download films directly from a chain's website or maybe even special post-film events, like exclusive live-via-satellite Q&A's with the filmmakers?
Exhibition should be worried about exhibition -- about how they can start the dialogue instead of sleepily accommodating the studio's fresh ideas. If they did that, home video wouldn't even be a blip on their radar. The theatres should be taking the risks. Fall down that rabbit hole -- it's the only way to wake up in Wonderland.