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Disney to break windows

Studio wants to shorten gap between theater, DVD for 'Alice'

Disney has boldly told U.S. exhibs it wants to break the theatrical-to-DVD window on at least two titles a year — beginning with Tim Burton’s 3D tentpole “Alice in Wonderland,” according to insiders.

If theater owners in the U.S. are OK with Disney shortening the gap to just over 12 weeks, vs. the usual 16 weeks, they could be seen as fundamentally softening on the windows issue.

Other studios, just as eager to feed ancillary revenue streams as quickly as possible, are sure to come forward with their own requests on a more regular basis.

Theater owners could have a difficult time explaining why other event pics shouldn’t be allowed an early DVD release if Disney’s blueprint is approved.

But if a larger circuit takes a hard-line stand and refuses to play “Alice,” Disney would be in a bind — the same sort of bind it’s facing in the U.K., where the country’s most powerful exhibs are threatening to toss “Alice” down the rabbit hole because of the shortened window also being proposed there.

So far, American circuits in the U.S. haven’t said publicly how they feel about the Mouse House’s plans, although there are rumblings that one big exhib might not be happy. To incentivize theater owners to agree to shorter windows, Disney could be offering them better terms for “Alice.”

Until now, U.S. exhibs have granted informal waivers on a one-off basis, although they are usually for smaller titles. The only recent event film to have gotten a waiver was Paramount’s “G.I. Joe.”

“Alice,” the first tentpole of 2010 and toplining Johnny Depp, opens March 5 in the U.S. and overseas in territories including the U.K. and Australia. Disney also apparently wants to shorten the window in Italy. Plans for Australia and Spain aren’t known.

A Disney spokesman didn’t return phone calls Wednesday.

One day earlier, however, Iger loosely outlined the new thinking in a conference call with investors.

“We feel that it is really important for us to maintain a very healthy business on the homevideo side, which we think is actually in the best interest of theater owners,” Iger said during Tuesday’s call. “Mindful of what is going on the homevideo side, we feel that it is time on a case-by-case basis to really take a look at how we are windowing homevideo product into the marketplace.”

Iger has been one of Hollywood’s most ardent advocates for shortening windows, saying it won’t hurt moviegoing, contrary to the concerns of exhibitors.

It’s the same argument put forth by all the studios. However, theater owners still have leverage by being able to pass on a movie, such as some circuits did when Sony said it would release “Cloudy With a Cloudy of Meatballs” early on DVD.

For now, Disney is only discussing with theater owners the issue of shortening the theatrical-to-DVD window. While studios don’t yet have the piracy protection they want for early VOD releases, some suggest the Mouse House wants to make some films available on VOD within 50 days, or just over seven weeks, of the theatrical opening.

Smaller distribs IFC and Magnolia have started seeing stronger returns from early VOD releases.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners has yet to comment on Disney’s plans to release “Alice” on DVD in early June.

On Tuesday, the Mouse House dispatched Disney prexy of worldwide distribution Chuck Viane and other execs to the U.K. to meet with circuits, who count on a 17-week window.

Brit exhibs Odeon and Vue have pulled marketing materials from their theaters for “Alice” and have stopped playing the trailer or taking advanced bookings. They’ve also removed any mention of it from their websites.

“Disney has acted in an absolutely mercenary fashion,” said one U.K. exhib. “There is no compromise, no discussion being offered. It’s very frustrating. Our business model is under attack even though we’ve enjoyed three straight years of huge box office. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”

Disney’s reasoning for the shortened window with “Alice” in the U.K. is to avoid the World Cup soccer tournament, which kicks off in June in South Africa, and to take advantage of school breaks in May.

Releasing “Alice” on DVD earlier in June could help boost DVD sales, which tend to taper off in summer.

The windows conflict between exhibs and studios has been heating up over the last year due to a dramatic downturn in the DVD market.

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