NATO reduces threat level

Org more optimistic these days about release windows

For a man who spent 2005 fending off what he sometimes referred to as “death threats” to the sequential film release window, National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian speaks these days like a man who’s been pulled back from the edge.

“I’m confident and our members are confident that simultaneous release won’t be adopted,” he says. “It’s clear to us that mainstream Hollywood will not support the simultaneous release of films.”

Certainly, a 4% decline in overall box office revenue not withstanding, all of the predictions, statistics or outright assaults that rattled exhibitors and NATO most in 2005 have seemingly amounted to only so much Sturm und Drang.

For example, Disney CEO Robert Iger programmed more than a few ShowEast panels all by himself with remarks last August suggesting that sequential film release windows would soon compress to the point where they weren’t sequential anymore.

Iger, however, has since backed away from those incendiary comments, while a number of other top media execs — Viacom topper Sumner Redstone, Sony chairman Howard Stringer and Universal Studios head Ron Meyer, to name three — have since spoken out in support of the traditional release paradigm.

There’s also the matter of NATO’s own statistical evidence, which revealed that the average window between theatrical and DVD release had melted to just four months and 16 days in 2004. However, tentative data compiled by the trade org in January suggest the global warming of the digital age has yet to accelerate this thaw to the pace of the polar ice caps, with windows averaging four months and 13 days in 2005.

Then there was Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble,” financed by billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban and debuting in February with the stated purpose of proving that simultaneous theatrical, DVD and video-on-demand release is a business model that consumers are ready to get behind today.

But the film earned only $127,888 during its first 10 days of limited theatrical release while generating first-week DVD sales of about $76,000, according to Rentrak.

“We never thought it was a big test case,” Fithian says of the small-budget film that featured a no-name cast.

Still, Fithian believes “Bubble’s” novel and boldly stated release model ultimately garnered enough media attention as to actually warrant relevance in the larger discussion of compressing release windows.

“That film had as much media juice as you can get, and it generated more media inquiries for us than any other issue I can remember,” he notes.

“The lady who works at my supermarket knew about ‘Bubble,’ and so did the lady who cuts my hair,” says helmer M. Night Shyamalan, an outspoken proponent of the traditional theatrical release model. If the film became a hit, “It would have been on the front page of every newspaper. … You have to take the good with the bad.”

Of course, all of these new developments combined won’t end the discussion about changing the release paradigm — Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, for example, calls the shrinkage of release windows “unstoppable.” And recent statements from several high-level conglom toppers aside, there are still plenty of other media pundits who agree with him.

Still, don’t look for Fithian to use the term “death sentence” at ShoWest.

“I think it’s been a healthy and lively public debate, and I think the results are relatively clear based on what the mainstream studios have stated,” he says. “We’re guardedly confident that the current model is here to stay.”