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Time from release to DVD narrows

How tight will the window get? Exhibs are increasingly nervous that the gap between theatrical and DVD releases has hit three months and that the pressures are great to close it even further.

Last year, studio pics arrived on DVD an average of four months, 16 days after their theatrical releases, according to data compiled by the National Assn. of Theater Owners,

That’s 11 days sooner than in 2003, and more than two months quicker than in 1994, when the average was six months, 12 days.

At the same time, however, box office biz is also accelerating for pics. Films now make more than half of their entire gross in the first two weeks of release. In fact, for the top 100 films last year, the opening weekend accounted for a third of the entire cume. Five years ago, the first three days was just a quarter of the cume.

The trend is frightening to exhibs, who fear that the closing window is encouraging more moviegoers to wait for the DVD rather than trek to the cinemas.

But despite tinkering with release windows, the goal of studios remains the same: maximize the amount of revenues a film can generate in every stage of its lifespan.

“We would like to preserve the windows where they’re at now,” said Universal vice chair Marc Shmuger. “We’re not eager to push them forward any closer. We want to preserve the uniqueness of the theatrical experience.”

Exhib execs are nonetheless leery of what the trend portends.

“The shrinking window of theatrical to video does concern us,” said Regal Entertainment Group theatrical chief Mike Campbell. “It is difficult to measure what effect it has on our theaters today. My concern is that if a negative impact occurs, it will be too late to reverse course.”

Underachievers out first

So far, it’s films which underperform at the box office that make the quickest appearances on homevid. For example, DreamWorks’ “Surviving Christmas,” which grossed just $10 million and played theaters for only two weeks, was for sale on Dec. 21, less than two months after its Oct. 22 theatrical release.

DreamWorks’ decision was widely noted among exhibs, who fear it will set a precedent in the minds of moviegoers.

“We’re concerned about the general message,” said NATO prexy John Fithian. “It doesn’t help to have a DVD announced less than a month after a film hits theaters. There’s got to be a small percentage of patrons who may just wait for a DVD if it’s coming fast after theatrical.”

But it’s difficult to argue with the results: On homevid, “Surviving” has outgrossed its theatrical run.

‘Retail-driven’

Still, DreamWorks homevid chief Kelley Avery said the decision for the fast turnaround was not a shift in policy. “It’s a title-by-title approach. And it’s a very retail-driven business.”

In that case, the only time of the year that made sense to release a pic like “Surviving” was around the holidays, which meant DreamWorks could either rush the pic to DVD or wait until next Christmas.

If the pic had clicked and played through the holidays, they would have waited the year, as they had with 2003 holiday hit “Elf.”

“Our primary goal is to maximize theatrical box office,” DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp said.

Another title that attracted exhib attention last year was Universal’s “Ray,” for which Jamie Foxx won an Oscar. After its Oct. 29 theatrical release, it was released on homevid on Feb. 1, three months and three days later.

But Shmuger said the decision was also idiosyncratic. With Oscar buzz surrounding Foxx, the music of Ray Charles being featured at the Grammys and the observance of Black History Month in February, he said, “We were really able to capitalize on maximum heat on Ray Charles and the movie and music in general.”

Decision pays off

Again, the decision looks good in hindsight: While the pic grossed $75 million at the box office, it has since grossed more than $100 million from homevid.

And while the two-month shrinkage in the past 10 years of the video window looks dramatic, studio execs note that both the theatrical and homevid markets have changed even more dramatically.

Ten years ago, noted Avery, was “the heyday of the rental market,” when studios derived most of their homevid revenue from rentals not sales. Since then, the advent of the DVD format has sparked a huge public appetite to actually own copies of films.

Likewise, films are playing out much more quickly at the box office, with the opening weekend accounting for a larger share of a film’s total run.

Industry execs say the frontloading of box office has roots far deeper than the early arrival of DVDs. For instance, films are released far more widely today than they were ten years ago. Last year saw films cross the 4,000-theater mark twice with “Shrek 2” and “Spider-Man 2.” In 1994, the widest released pic was “Beverly Hills Cop III” which started at 2,748 venues.

And of course, over the same span, total box office has grown spectacularly — from $5.4 billion in 1994 to $9.5 billion last year, a 76% increase, accoridng to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s tally.

“It’s the way of the world,” said Sony distrib prexy Rory Bruer. “The playtime in theaters is much faster and what you may have done in 12 weeks, you now do in six weeks. The whole cycle is playing out faster.”

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