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WB, Sony, U and Fox cue premium VOD

'Unknown,' 'Just Go with It' expected to be offered for $30 next month

Hollywood has firmed up its plans to roll out premium VOD next month, though theater owners quickly protested the strategy.

Warner Bros., Sony, Universal and 20th Century Fox are the first studios that have agreed to launch Home Premiere as the official brand under which the industry will offer up movies to rent for $30 two months after their theatrical bows for a viewing period of two to three days, depending on the distributor.

DirecTV will exclusively launch Home Premiere nationally to its nearly 20 million customers, while cablers including Comcast will introduce the service in certain cities for an undisclosed period of time some time around the end of this month.

As first reported on Variety.com, the first films expected to launch include Warner Bros.’ actioner “Unknown” and Sony’s Adam Sandler comedy “Just Go With It,” sources close to the new service say.

The launch plans come months after studios started to float the idea to experiment with higher-priced rentals of pics closer to their theatrical runs as a way to boost their homevid operations with film campaigns still fresh in people’s minds.

WB, U and Fox have already succeeded in fending off companies like Netflix and Redbox, forcing them to wait 28 days after a film bows on DVD to offer those titles for rent through their online services and kiosks. Those same studios wouldn’t mind lengthening that window even longer and have considered pursuing such talks.

On the premium VOD front, the majors say they’re missing out on audiences who aren’t making the trip to the megaplex because of the size of their families or the expense of babysitters or of food and other concessions.

But exhibitors worry that allowing auds to watch family fare at home, even at a higher price point, may get them used to staying away from theaters over the long run. A statement released by the National Assn. of Theater Owners Thursday at CinemaCon accused the studios of compromising revenues for the entertainment biz, saying, “These plans fundamentally alter the economic relationship between exhibitors, filmmakers and producers, and the studios taking part in this misguided venture.”

Studios contend that offering up films 60 days after their theatrical run won’t hurt the box office since most films generate most of their coin during their first three months.

But NATO says studios “risk accelerating the already intense need to maximize revenues on every screen opening weekend and driving out films that need time to develop — like many of the recent Academy Award-nominated pictures. They risk exacerbating the scourge of movie theft by delivering a pristine, high definition, digital copy to pirates months earlier than they had previously been available.”

Paramount is not participating in the Home Premiere program, reportedly due to piracy concerns.

The majors also say they wouldn’t release any films via Home Premiere that are still performing strongly at the B.O.

DVDs and Blu-rays typically bow 90 days after a pic’s theatrical run, although that’s been shrinking for higher-profile titles.

A specific launch date was not revealed for Home Premiere, but sources told Variety that it would occur at the end of April.

DirecTV has recently launched a more aggressive effort to encourage its customers to upgrade their set-top boxes to be able to connect to the Internet as it readies to launch Home Premiere.

Comcast, meanwhile, is eyeing Home Premiere as a way to bolster its pay TV market share through enhancements of its broadband-based Xfinity TV service.

DirecTV was initially targeting a trial launch this summer, during which “we’ll try something that’s four to six weeks from theatrical release,” DirecTV chief Michael White said in February.

Studios have talked DirecTV into compromising to a longer release window since then. One reason: The major theater chains, including Regal Entertainment, have threatened not to screen films should they become available during a six-week window via premium VOD.

The Digital Entertainment Group, which helped Hollywood launch and brand Blu-ray, will assist in building the Home Premiere brand.

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