The widely reported spat between Odeon/UCI cinema and Disney which has resulted in the former boycotting the latter’s Tim Burton-helmed Alice in Wonderland reveals just how topsy turvy film business models are becoming. Disney want to release the movie on DVD five weeks earlier than the normal window of 17 weeks which they hope will increase their take from DVD sales and limit the loss to pirates, while the cinemas’ view is that reducing their exclusive window by a third will seriously erode their revenues – hence the boycott.
What this dispute reminds us is that the film value chain (from producer to distributor to exhibitor, TV and retailers) is composed of a number of discrete players who, although they usually operate in reasonable harmony, from time to time have divergent interests. This often happens around the introduction of new technology and so, from the wiring of cinemas for sound in the 30s to the installation of 3D projectors and screens today, issues about who bears which costs or how premium ticket prices or revenue from sale of 3D glasses are split can break out, as in this example, into open conflict.
The bigger threat to cinemas’ place in the once rigorously enforced release window chain is simultaneous/non-exclusive release across multiple distribution platforms – cinema, DVD, TV, VOD etc. which some in the industry consider the only way to counter the threat of file-sharing etc. Echoing the ‘freemium’ model in other entertainment media, music in particular, this way of pricing films is premised on the idea that you pay for the added value of the experience context (big screen, going with your mates, 450 varieties of confectionary in the case of the cinema; the DVD packaging and extras; the Wii tie-in version and so on) as control of physical copies becomes harder. (That said one of the big attractions of 3D to the studios is that is is, for the time being, much harder to pirate).
However no-one really knows how destabilising this will be to the still pivotal role of theatrical release in establishing the perceived value of the movie in other media, with few exceptions box office correlates to the (larger) revenue from DVD etc and remains the key opinion former after the opening weekend. So we can expect more conflicts like the Disney/UCI standoff if Pay-TV/VOD operators no longer get their exclusive window and their customers can get the same content cheaper somewhere else.
Some say the music industry has already shown that these more complex business models work but the big difference is that music comes in handy bite sized 3 minute chunks and you can afford to give away some chunks (tracks) if it gets people sampling then buying bigger chunks (box set albums with nicely designed lyric sheets) and ancillary merchandise and paying over the odds to see the act live and checking the fansite everyday and thus generate click through advertising revenue and…well you get the point. Movies dont easily fit this model – there’s very little repeat business (franchise movies like SAW etc. being the exception that proves the rule) and customer loyalty is practically non-existent. About the only people making money out of new movie business models are the people running courses on…how to make money out of the new business models. Of course that in itself is a business model.