By Amber Dvorak
Today’s fast-paced media industry has affected the length of time that elapses between a film’s release in theaters and its availability for home consumption.
What was often up to a six-month waiting period in 1997 is only roughly four months long today, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. The NATO’s statistics also show that in 2012, only 45 percent of major film studios’ releases had a wait time of longer than four months.
The length of time that a film is available in a particular medium, such as theatrical release, is known as a distribution window. Distribution windows exist to ensure that each different medium of distribution – theaters, DVDs, video-on-demand, cable, and broadcast – is able to return the highest amount of profit possible from a given film.
In some cases, the shrinking distribution window has seemed to influence how viewers choose to consume their films.
“I’m not a huge moviegoer, but it’s not as bad waiting (for a movie to be available online now) and still get good quality,” said Mary Dickinson, senior. “I’m only going to go to the theater if I go with friends.”
Dickinson said she’s still willing to buy a movie if she knows that she’ll watch it multiple times, but if she’s not sure, she’ll just stream it instead.
Stephen Macek, associate professor of speech communication, explained his theory behind the shrinking distribution windows.
“In the ’90s, studios began to expect more (revenue) from DVD sales and global theatrical releases than the domestic theatrical release,” he said. Additionally, due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix in recent years, there’s been a decline in the number of DVD rentals.
“It seems to me that studios are trying to speed up the process by which they get to the video-on-demand window, or to reach TV,” Macek said. “Broadcast and cable are still significant sources of revenue for studios.”
Since the domestic box office has not been making as much money in recent years, studios make deals with services such as Netflix, Hulu, and cable to attempt to recoup their losses, Macek said. “Theater owners are, of course, really upset because they bank on having exclusive rights to these films.”
Finances are not the only possible reason behind the shorter wait time; the entire nature of film consumption has undergone a change.
I’m only going to go to the theater if I go with friends.
Mary Dickinson, senior
“People are, of course, getting used to sitting down with their laptops and streaming their favorite films,” Macek said, and they’re expecting to be able to do it sooner. “In general, it’s part of this move away from centralized programming toward more of an a la carte media consumption. What they want, when they want it, wherever they want it.”
The behaviors of some North Central students testify to this.
“I almost never go to the theater,” said Madison Nehrkorn, freshman. “I’m a Redbox type of girl. Going to the movies now is pretty expensive unless you go to a matinee.”
Sophomore Caitlin Waterman agreed: “I don’t go to the movies as much – I just wait for it to come out (to rent).”
In some cases, the traditional distribution window has shrunk to almost nothing, with services such as iTunes allowing viewers to pay to stream certain films to their home even before the films enter the theatrical release window. More services allow paid-for-streaming during the theatrical window.
“(It’s) part of studios trying to respond to technological changes and trying to figure out what’s going to work in this new environment,” Macek said.
One of the reasons that films are sometimes released earlier online is to build up hype for a theatrical release, he said, particularly with independent filmmakers.
“Independent filmmakers are selling and renting their films through iTunes, Amazon or Netflix, (using) direct, a la carte sales as a way to build word of mouth to get a distributor for theatrical release,” he said. This is partially why consumers are seeing a greater number of documentaries being released on the big screen.
Another potential reason behind the shorter release time waits could be related to piracy, but Macek said he thinks that isn’t as big of an issue in the film industry just yet. Macek explained that movies have not reached the point of illegal online music downloads, since with music, there’s a single compressed file format that is incredibly easy to share. He noted that movies’ quality cannot currently be condensed and maintained in the same way that it can be for music files, but if this ever changes, film studios may find themselves in trouble.
“It’s hard to say the role (movie) piracy has played in this country,” Macek said. “I would imagine the MPAA would be releasing reports if this was a serious problem.”
With all of this, there’s the potential that people will no longer go to a theater to see films, especially due to the inflated prices related to the overhead required to maintain them, Macek said.
However, some statistics show that box office sales have remained fairly consistent in recent years, with a small dip between 2010 and 2011. In fact, combined U.S. and Canada box office sales have increased 6 percent, from $9.6 to $10.2 billion between 2007 and 2011, according to 2011 theatrical market statistics compiled by the Motion Picture Association of America.
This doesn’t necessarily equate to a greater number of people going to the movies, however, since average ticket prices have also increased from $6.88 in 2007 to $7.93 in 2011. Additionally, the MPAA’s statistics also show that the typical moviegoer bought 5.8 tickets in 2011, fewer than in previous years.
This trend seems to be reflected by some of North Central’s movie-going population. Reilly Radomski and Ryan Moy, both freshmen, said they haven’t gone to the theaters since December.
“There’s some movies I like to see in the theater, but if I’m not too sure about it, I’ll wait until it’s on Netflix,” Radomski said. “(Sometimes it’s available) like a month later – what’s the point of going to the theater?”