Conglom's plan raises Hollywood hackles

Comcast’s cable unit is looking to get in on the premium VOD action for theatrical releases, possibly in an even shorter window than the 60-day experiment that four of the majors launched with DirecTV last week.

However, the cable giant is likely to have trouble recruiting studios to take part in any VOD release that comes earlier than 60 days after theatrical release; even Comcast’s own Universal banner currently is not planning to participate in the test.

Sources at the majors also say there are still big concerns about whether Comcast’s cable boxes offer the same level of piracy protection that DirecTV’s system of watermarking each individual VOD stream affords.

Comcast insiders on Wednesday acknowledged that it has been talking to distribs about a VOD service that could come as early as six weeks, 42 days, after a pic hits the plexes. But insiders indicated that Comcast would likely have to stick with the longer time frame, which already has exhibitors andsome in the creative community up in arms about the potential to undercut the crucial theatrical window.

The talk of the Comcast plan was spurred by a report published early Wednesday by Bloomberg News. A Comcast spokeswoman would only say that the company does not “comment on current programming discussions.”

But sources close to the studios taking part in the DirecTV test — Fox, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. — said there were no plans to try anything earlier than a 60-day window. Several studio insiders raised piracy as a major hurdle.

Warner Bros. execs have been emphatic that the studio sees the $30 premium VOD launch on DirecTV as a test, and that the studio will take its time in evaluating the impact on the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray market before expanding it to other distributors (Daily Variety, April 19).

Exhibs, of course, were none too happy to hear talk of a plan to further collapse the lag time between theatrical and VOD release.

“It’s no surprise that additional delivery companies are interested in the model,” said John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “It’s the parties that have the most to gain and nothing to lose that are the ones floating new models.”

Fithian said he doesn’t hold much stock in the most recent VOD chatter. He contends that studios and exhibitors need to stay at the forefront of VOD discussions, rather than third-party companies.

Amid the studio-exhib VOD scuffle, NATO last week recruited some of Hollywood’s top filmmakers to air their concerns about premium VOD.

“You can argue about VOD windows all day long, but what you can’t deny is that there is an overwhelming outcry from the theater owners that they feel threatened by this,” said James Cameron in the news release.

Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes has been a vocal proponent of VOD’s potential to boost the profitability of features. But he took a conciliatory tone on the issue Wednesday during a Q&A conducted by Charlie Rose as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Bewkes said studios “have to have the interest of theater owners in mind” when deciding how to participate in premium VOD. He added that theater owners need to protect their business models. “We need the support of all our distributors,” he said.

At the same time, he suggested that releasing movies on-demand sooner could help curtail piracy, saying the gap between pics “disappearing from theaters three weeks after release and when they are available on DVD and on-demand four months later” makes them vulnerable.

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