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Slaying the 'release window' dragon


Steven Soderbergh is my hero. Not because I'm wild about all his movies--other than Ocean's Eleven, I'm not exactly gonzo about his filmography--but because he's dissing the Hollywood release window formula. In this Wired magazine interview, he explains why his indie-flick Bubble

will debut in theaters, on DVD, and on cable TV simultaneously, rather

than rolling through each release in succession to "maximize profits."


For those too lazy to read the article, I'll paraphrase. Reason one for

simultaneous release: Piracy. You can already get a bootleg DVD or

download of any major-release film on or before the theatrical release

date. Why not actually release a high-quality official cut and grab a

chunk of those profits for yourself. (Most of the bootleg consumers I

know are nutzo movie buffs who just don't want to wait, so they'd pay

full price for the high quality rips.)


Reason two for simultaneous release: Consumer reality. There's not a

significant per-film overlap in cable TV, DVD and movie audiences. What

I mean by that is on a film-by-film basis, a person decides whether

they want to pay theatrical, DVD, or cable prices for theatrical, DVD,

or cable format quality and experiences. Release date has nothing to do

with it.


Impatient consumers can get instant gratification from piracy.

Everybody else chooses based on price point, setting their desire to

see the film against the cost and convenience provided by each release

format. Surprisingly few people go to the theaters just because they

"can't wait to see it." They want the "theater experience"--a reason I

only like to see movies in theaters on opening weekend, when that

experience is maximized.


This might also explain why these days, movies have huge opening

weekends but no staying power, crashing and burning in one or two weeks

of release. Everyone goes for the opening rush, and after that, you're

just paying for the big screen and THX that--without the packed houses

and electric sense of anticipation--can be reliably supplanted by a

decent home theater and homemade popcorn. Besides, if early release is

the only thing the theaters have going for them, that's basically a

monopoly-supported business model, and thus theaters aren't really a

viable business in the competitive marketplace.


Therefore, if most consumers choose their release format based on the

merits of the format, rather than the release date (big shock), why not

simultaneously release a film in all formats and maximize the marketing

push and the cultural buzz all at once. It saves on advertising budget,

and it allows consumers of every format to gather round the water

cooler and discuss a big film concurrently. Moreover, it might actually

encourage cross-consumption of formats. If a hardcore theater-goer sees

a film he loves, he can immediately purchase the film on DVD, rather

than wait months. Conversely, a cable consumer might see a film, love

it, and want to go see it on the big screen, trading up formats on the

merit of the product.


A slick marketer could actually build cross-promotion into each format,

so cable promotions or enhanced DVDs could link to showtimes, and

theater ticket stubs could be good for DVD discounts. A film's Web site

could link you to local theaters, let you order the DVD, program your

TiVo to record the cable version, or download the digital rip straight

to your video iPod.


That's my dream--consumer empowerment as business model. Mr. Soderbergh, make it happen.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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