Interval before films air on TV or online a hot dilemma

Before its cancellation, the syndicated movie-review show “At the Movies” did offer one important evolution, shifting (albeit out of necessity) from a simple “thumbs up” or down to three options: See it, Skip it or Rent it.

That third way gets into a thorny issue for studios and theater owners — namely, the question of windows, and how long the interval should be before movies ought to be available on TV or online.

Studio moguls have recently graduated from boring audiences to death with feverish rhetoric about piracy during public forums to this new favorite topic — obsessing over the politics and permutations of windows. While they debate, however, there are growing signs these decisions might be made for them.

Strange as it sounds in a year when “Avatar” has broken all records with $750 million in U.S. box office and more than $2 billion worldwide, James Cameron’s epic just might be the exception that proves the rule. As the summer keeps eliciting adjectives like “lackluster” and “tepid” — with substantial declines beyond opening weekends even for movies that start big — we appear to be seeing a demarcation crystallizing between two camps: Those who rush out to see movies right away, and everyone else, more content to take them in on a big, beautiful TV.

Theater owners, not surprisingly, appear to be in some denial about these forces, howling when Disney shortened the DVD release on “Alice in Wonderland.” But with better streaming available, studios are clearly interested in exploring changes in traditional windows, guided by the logic, “Why wait until tomorrow for what you might earn today?”

Meanwhile, there are those who still attribute every dip in box office merely to the shortcomings of the latest batch of movies. Indeed, the predictable response in some quarters is invariably to damn studios for bad choices or lack of creativity.

“Even in the summer,” Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein wrote in a diagnosis blaming sequelitis for the current B.O. blahs, “it’s the movie that delivers something startlingly new that reminds audiences why they started going to the movies in the first place.”

But anyone paying attention knows the media landscape is more complex than that. Watch video on an iPad or have a movie delivered via your Wii console, and one’s perspective begins to change — especially in regard to where or how to see movies lacking the scope best served by an Imax screen.

Studios and theaters have seized on 3D as a possible savior, but technology is always a double-edged sword in such matters. For every innovation that improves the theatrical experience, there’s another gee-whiz app for the home — or the car, airport or waiting room.

Ultimately, two major opposing forces are at work: The communal and social experience of enjoying entertainment with a crowd, and the inertia of doing so in the comfort of home — especially as push-button access to content adds to the convenience of couch-bound viewing.

Studios continue wrestling with how to master this domain, whether that’s Time Warner’s advocacy of TV Everywhere or Comcast’s desire to wed its pipes with NBC Universal’s content.

Moguls, however, will be hard-pressed to dictate the terms of engagement. The inevitable trend lines rather point toward a liberated, empowered audience watching what it wants, where and when it desires. That’s also assuming, in what’s no small “if,” individual members will pay enough — via streaming, downloading, whatever — to offset production costs in a fragmented landscape.

The perception (or perhaps hope) nevertheless persists that enough old rules apply so that all it will take are a few big movies — or technological breakthroughs, like the jolt 3D has provided — to snap movie attendance out of temporary doldrums. Besides, hasn’t there always been another wrinkle — most famously the DVD — to pull studios’ collective fat out of the fire?

The confounding riddle, though, centers not merely on the public’s appetite for studio product but the fast-changing manner in which viewers choose to consume it. As for those who dutifully return to, “It’s the movies, stupid,” such talk brings to mind Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which closes with a character ruefully saying, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

The 1957 version wasn’t a bad movie, by the way. But today, most people would wait to rent it.

BRIAN LOWRY

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