Exhibitors on edge over early DVD dates

Theatrical windows shrank overall last year, but Hollywood’s biggest movie hits actually took longer to get to videostores.

That’s the opposite of 2005, when overall windows remained fairly steady but narrowed by 11% for the biggest hits (Daily Variety, March 22, 2006).

Although gratified by the expansion of windows for Hollywood’s top draws, National Assn. of Theater Owners topper John Fithian remains deeply concerned by the overall narrowing of windows. He plans to address window compression — “the No. 1 issue by far and away,” above even piracy, for the org — in his speech at the ShoWest confab in Las Vegas today.

“We are concerned that there was a 10-day shortening overall — that’s more than we have seen in recent years,” Fithian told Daily Variety. “They are getting short enough it’s starting to get dangerous.”

Last year, according to NATO’s tally, the average theatrical window shrank 7.2%, or 10 days, to four months and eight days. The prior year, the decline was just 1.4%, or 2 days.

The annual analysis showed windows widening in only one area: films grossing more than $100 million at the box office. The windows for those pics increased 11 days, or 7.7%, to an average of four months and 23 days in 2006.

Fithian cautions that some of those gains could be tied to longer-playing hits at theaters in 2006, when overall B.O. rebounded.

He says he’s particularly concerned about shrinkage in the fourth quarter. NATO’s analysis, which includes only films that ended their theatrical runs as of March 2, shows the fourth-quarter average window to be three months and 25 days, down from four months and six days the year prior.

In recent years, studios have become even more aggressive about releasing hits from the late summer and early fall in the fourth quarter, the biggest DVD selling period of the year. And more and more late-year awards contenders are popping up in the December-February window.

This past kudos season, for example, Warner released “The Departed,” an Oct. 6 theatrical bow, on disc Feb. 13 for a four-month, 10-day window. “Babel” bowed in theaters Oct. 27 and hit DVD Feb. 20 for a four-month, four-day window.

Studio execs weigh many factors when determining DVD dates for their pics, including time of year and competish. Sony, which has traditionally been one of the most aggressive with its windows, starts with a four-month window and works from there, shortening or lengthening the time frame accordingly.

Last year, when the studio had several big hits, including “The Da Vinci Code,” its average window inched up to four months and eight days, from four months and four days.

“DVD release dates these days are a lot like theatrical release dates,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chair Jeff Blake, who oversees marketing and distribution. “You always look at the competition.”

He points out that Sony will hold onto movies just as often as it will accelerate their DVD debut.

Universal had the lowest average window for a major last year, coming in at four months and six days, followed by Sony and Fox, both at four months and eight days.

If there’s a silver lining for NATO, it’s that the chatter about collapsing windows has died down just a few years after Bob Iger and Mark Cuban made headlines proposing just that.

“There continues to be no interest on the part of major studios in collapsing or simultaneous windows,” Fithian said. “A few years ago, that was not the case.”

Sony, for one, has no interest in compressing windows that far.

“Our message to the consumer is yes, it will be coming on DVD, but it’s not going to be too close to theatrical,” Blake said.

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