Studio shakes up delivery skeds

Twentieth Century Fox is developing plans to release movies via video-on-demand simultaneously with their release on DVD, thus eliminating the traditional window between homevideo and VOD.

News Corp. president-chief operating officer Peter Chernin made the announcement during a keynote address at an invitation-only dinner here during the Consumer Electronics Show on Friday.

Movie studios have traditionally been reluctant to close the gap between the highly profitable DVD release of pix and the less-certain revenues from VOD, despite pleas from cable and satellite operators.

However, with homevideo sales taking a dip last year for the first time, studios are looking at VOD as a potential new revenue stream and are willing to gamble that new VOD revenue will offset the likely decline in DVD sales.

In another move that could signal a seismic shift in how motion pictures become available to the public, Chernin said Fox is developing a plan to release its movies in high-definition just 60 days after theatrical release.

Chernin said Fox has not yet determined the delivery platform for the newly created high-def window between theatrical distribution and homevideo release. High-definition can be delivered via cable, satellite, the Internet and, soon, digital discs.

A News Corp. spokeswoman declined to provide further details of the plans and Chernin left the dinner without taking questions.

However, Fox home entertainment officials said after Chernin’s speech that the high-def movie would be available for one-time viewing only in the new window, indicating that the likely means of delivery would not be on disc.

The news comes just three weeks before Mark Cuban debuts Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” in 20 of his Landmark theaters Jan. 27 nearly simultaneous with the premiere of the movie on the high-def HDNet Movies channel and on DVD Jan. 31.

Chernin’s address capped a week of aggressive digital delivery announcements by Fox companies, including plans to make “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” available several days in advance of their weekly debut on FX to customers who adopt parent News Corp.’s new DirecTV DVRs. The studio’s homevideo unit also announced plans to release the first movies in the new high-def digital disc format called Blu-ray Disc two weeks prior to the introduction of the first Blu-ray machine sometime this spring or early summer.

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn said the move to introduce the new premium high-def window could happen within a matter of months.

Chernin’s appearance at the Leaders in Technology dinner marked the first time an executive from a content-producing company has addressed the annual bread-breaking between technology companies and public policymakers hosted by the Consumer Electronics Assn., at CES.

Chernin said he was seizing the opportunity to try to reverse the impression among many in the technology community that News Corp. is resistant to technological change.

“This is an electrifying moment for the CE and IT industries,” Chernin said. “And I’m here with a message that may sound counterintuitive: It’s an even more electrifying time for content companies.”

Chernin said Fox is also in advanced discussions with Apple and Sony to make Fox TV episodes available for download through the iTunes and Sony Select online services.

His latest comments were in sharp contrast toearlier remarks, in which he sharply criticized technology companies for not doing enough to help stem widespread piracy of movies and music.

At CES, however, he sounded conciliatory.

“We have no intention of wasting the opportunity you and your companies have created,” Chernin said.

The News Corp. exec appeared to extend an olive branch on the question of copy-protection, declaring, “We have to work together to make sure these new devices provide a secure home for our content.”

(Paul Sweeting is a reporter for Variety sister publication DVD Exclusive.)

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