Why everyone is so animated about Disney
So, the Odeon cinema chain has relented and agreed to show Alice in Wonderland, Disney's new Tim Burton-directed 3D movie. What has all the fuss been about, and does it affect you and me?
There are lots of reasons, all of which boil down to one thing: money. Disney presented its new Alice movie to cinema-owners worldwide with a "drink me" new idea. This was to reduce the time the cinemas had exclusive rights to show the film, known as the "exhibition window" - no DVD sales, no video-on-demand (VoD), no pay-per-view television - from roughly four months to three months. The cinema owners took one look at the idea and chose not to swallow it, fearing that their businesses would be reduced to the size of the door Alice walked through.
At first, all the cinema-owners in the UK stood firm and refused to screen the film. Then one relented, leaving the others with the prospect of seeing their rival cash in. That proved even harder to swallow than Disney's idea.
But the fear remains among cinema-owners that this is the thin end of the wedge. They worry that the end-game for the studios is not simply a three-month exhibition window on the occasional movie. They worry that it's not even a three-month window for every movie. Their fear is that this is a step towards "day-and-date" releasing. That's the trade term for releasing the theatrical version, the DVD, VoD and pay-per-view TV all at the same time.
These are the points being debated:
• Argument: DVD sales are not making as much money as they used to; an extra month's sales while the film is still fresh in the consumer's mind will help reverse this trend.
• Counter-argument: Reducing the exhibition window by a month won't make any difference to overall DVD sales
• Argument: The costs of marketing a film are huge. The costs of marketing a DVD are pretty big, too. If you release them together, you reduce marketing costs.
• Counter-argument: DVD sales will cannibalise the box-office taking, resulting in a much-reduced return to the studio.
• Argument: Piracy has a negative effect on DVD sales. Reducing the exhibition window by a month will help reduce piracy.
• Counter-argument: Piracy is a problem, but it peaks very early in a film's run; a one-month reduction in the exhibition window will have little effect.
• Argument: If the consumer can buy the film on DVD, VoD or pay-per-view, they won't come to cinemas.
• Counter-argument: People go to restaurants when they can eat at home; they go to pubs when they can drink at home; they will still go to cinemas. Only a tiny minority has a home cinema of anything like comparable quality to that of an Odeon or Vue.
• Argument: People like going out, they like a shared experience.
Shortening the exhibition window will harm smaller regional cinemas which only receive the print of the film some weeks after the release.
• Counter-argument: As above. Also, with more and more digital cinemas likely to appear, the issue of a limited amount of prints is removed.
Everyone I have spoken to in the industry thinks it is inevitable that the exhibition window will be reduced, maybe ending up as brief as two weeks. But some have questioned Disney's timing and reasoning and whether the firm will actually see an increase in DVD sales. They suggest a better time for the move would be when VoD becomes the home-movie medium of choice. To cause a fuss now, after the success of Avatar and the clear consumer interest in 3D, will mean those investors who had been preparing to make significant financial commitment to building and renovating cinemas will be scared away.
Two outcomes present themselves. The first is consumer-orientated and technology-driven, which means giving the customers what they want, when they want it, on whichever medium suits them best. The logical conclusion here is day-and-date. Cinemas would just have to trust that there are still enough people who choose their medium and enable them to make money. The studios, who have invested heavily in making the movie, are relaxed about which medium the customer watches it on, just so long as they pay for the privilege.
The other model is France, where there are rules and regulations that stipulate that the exhibition window last four months (it used to be six), a position that the regulations' advocates feel protects cinema. But some argue, with piracy and digital dissemination in the ascendency, will such an inflexible position mean that they have lots of cinemas but nothing to show in them?