October 02, 2014

Movies: Delay Digital Releases At Your Own Peril

By Hisham Isa, Vice President (Marketing)

It's time for the feature film industry and television producers to adapt to a new era of distribution.

For decades -- since the advent of VCRs and home movie viewing, if not the beginning of television itself - major studios have given cinemas an exclusive window to screen films first before releasing them through other channels.

Today, though, these delays foster piracy.

Consumers want to watch films at their convenience - when they want and where they want. While this can still mean going to a cinema for a night out to see a film on the big screen, it can also mean watching it at home online or on a mobile device. And if the studios don't put a film online, someone else will.
Eighty-four percent of mobile users on the The BuzzCity Network watch video on their phones; nearly 30% watch full length feature films and TV series.

Cinemas used to enjoy a monopoly on films. The gap between seeing a blockbuster like Back to the Future in the theatres, then a cut version with commercials on TV, was a couple years. And while badly-filmed pirated versions existed, distribution was limited in the pre-internet days.

Today, legit versions of films appear in online stores like iTunes and on Blu-ray/DVD in rental chains like Video EZ within a matter of months. Consumers in international markets may need to wait longer as many Hollywood films are often released first in the US, then elsewhere.  (Actually, it's not just Hollywood producers and cinemas that impose a release window.  In India, the average delay between a cinema debut and release on DVD is 6 months, nearly 2 months longer than in the US, according to Ernst & Young and Forum D'Avignon.)

And while the exclusive window enjoyed by cinemas is shrinking, it's still too long for many digital consumers, who not only want to watch movies online but television series as well. The Guardian's media and tech blog 'Monday Note' calls the industry's release windows system 'an analog era relic' which is 'forcing honest viewers into piracy'.

Imagine, for example, that you live in Singapore, Mumbai or Johannesburg and would like to watch 'Game of Thrones'. You'd be willing to pay Netflix, but it's not available in your country. The only alternative are torrent files. They're unofficial and free, but pirated. In 2012, the top five TV shows - including 'Game of Thrones' and 'Breaking Bad' - were illegally downloaded 1.44 million times.

Some companies are starting to wake up and challenge the traditional model though.

Film producers in Australia are cutting the exclusive theatrical release period from 4 months to 3.
And next August in the US, the Weinstein Company will release the sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", staring Michelle Yeoh, across the globe on Netflix and in a limited number of Imax theatres at the same time. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Destiny" is touted as the first major motion picture to debut on Netflix and in theatres at the same time (except that the major cinema chains in the US will not screen the film, which is why Weinstein made a deal with Imax; the Weinstein Company is also an independent studio and a relatively small player when compared to big companies like Disney, Fox and Paramount.)

Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the New York Times that he hopes the deal will 'show Hollywood that the time (has) come to respond to what movie fans want'. "These are two different experiences, like going to a football game and watching a football game on TV," Sarandos told the newspaper.

Netflix is also aware of the international opportunities: it's expanding to Europe and has its eye on other international markets, though it's not moving as quickly as diehard fans would like.

Warner Brothers meanwhile made a foray into new territory this past February when it released "Veronica Mars" online (for rental and sale) on the same day that it was release to a limited number of US theatres. This case was also an exception, though, because Warner Brothers' hands were tied. Two major cinema chains - Cinemark and Regal - didn't want to screen the film, while a third, AMC Entertainment, insisted that WB buy out entire theatres in advance, rather than share ticket sales as per normal.

While these examples represent progress, they're not enough. The release windows system has got to go. And the media industry needs to see the mobile internet for what it is: the opportunity of a new audience, not a medium to be kept at arms length.