The latest battle in the war between movie studios trying to recapture the glory days of the home entertainment market and exhibitors trying to hold onto their theatrical business has, a bit surprisingly, revolved around Johnny Depp in a funny hat. In the words of Paul […]

The latest battle in the war between movie studios trying to recapture the glory days of the home entertainment market and exhibitors trying to hold onto their theatrical business has, a bit surprisingly, revolved around Johnny Depp in a funny hat.

In the words of Paul Sweeting over at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), Disney managed to pick itself a real fight with exhibitors over the distribution of its upcoming Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland reboot, specifically with regards to its decision to shorten its DVD window from four months to three months. With the change, the Alice DVD is poised to hit retailer shelves this June.

It was mostly international exhibitors who started crying foul over the decision — the UK-based Odeon declared they would boycott, while Vue Entertainment only agreed to show the film after being assured by Disney that the Alice DVD window was an experiment, and would be an exception to the rule. In the States, AMC Entertainment is also still negotiating with Disney about the decision.

Sweeting argues that timing doesn’t matter in this new world of DVD distribution, because consumers find physical media overpriced in comparison with rental options from Redbox and Netflix, and bringing up the release date won’t change their minds on that score. Me? I disagree, because for films with the potential to perform well both at the box office and Blockbusters, delaying the DVD release can mean creating greater anticipation. And the thing is, Disney agrees with me.

I’m referring to the Disney Vault, Disney’s program for limiting the release of its classic works of animation, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia. By limiting the distribution of some of its most beloved films, it’s created an artificial scarcity around those titles, making people wait YEARS to buy them once again, and happy to do so. And that’s for movies that consumers may already own, just in a more primitive format.

(If you’ve never seen it, by the way, TV Funhouse’s take on the Disney Vault is priceless.)

The major catch, of course, is that by limiting the distribution, piracy might increase — after all, a tech-savvy parent confronted by a child screaming to watch The Lion King (which has been in the Vault since 2005, and does not appear to be slated for a Blu-ray release anytime soon) probably won’t care too much about copyright infringement after a certain point.

In addition, this strategy really only works if the film’s worth watching, and while one early review celebrated the film’s visual style, the reviewer seemed pretty unimpressed with the scripting and performances. Which might make Tim Burton’s reimagining worth $15 for an IMAX 3-D experience, but maybe not $30 for the Blu-ray release three — or nine — months later.

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): Disney Picks a Fight With Alice

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  1. Interesting post, though I have a bit of a different perspective. First, shortening the DVD window to 12 weeks really isn’t something that is that new. Studios have shortened windows to the 8 week range on a few releases before. This strategy varies on a studio by studio basis but I am surprised that this is really bringing up that much attention.

    Shortening the DVD window really helps with the marketing of a film and does help DVD sales and rentals. It is all about consumer awareness, and the shorter window allows awareness to remain high at the time of the DVD release. Therefore studios have to spend less money to actually promote the DVD release which is the first direct benefit. Further, I do not believe that consumers will really be aware that the DVD is coming out a month earlier than usual, so it should not impact theatrical box office. Even more, the 3-D experience is not something that can be easily replicated at home, giving the theatrical distributors even more protection. The scenario that I see as being uniquely impactful to theatrical distributors is the scenario where the movie does extremely well and continues to play for months in the theaters as Avatar did. Having the DVD out while the movie is still in theaters could encourage the repeat viewer to buy the DVD rather than to go out and buy a movie ticket. But that is a rare occurrence, and frankly the distributors should be happy if the movie is doing so well that they want to keep it on their screens 8 weeks after release.

    I do think this is just a test by Disney, but if it is successful, the test could lead to the formulation of a new strategy for releasing content. Look forward to watching this play out.

    1. I agree with Paul. Only when a movie is a blockbuster that has legs does this come into play. The vast majority of movies quickly die and are removed from the box office. Some don’t survive past their premiere weekend. The sooner they move up their DVD sales/rental date, the more they will benefit from the advertising blitz the studio did for the movie.

      As for Disney DVD release strategy, it is based on their old movie release strategy. And that strategy ONLY applied to their animated movies and nothing else. It applied to animated movies because they were trying to capture the next wave of young children. It is this reason why it was exactly seven years. For Disney, it was like a forever-renewing natural resource. However, I wasn’t aware that they’re continuing this strategy with their DVD sales. Are they? Please give a link to an article where this is the case as I’d be interested in reading it.

    2. Also, what is to prevent a movie studio from delaying its DVD sales date for a movie? A movie takes off even more than they expected, what is so wrong with just telling retailers and video rental stores that the DVD will be released at a new later date. The movie release dates to theaters are constantly adjusted as circumstances warrant. And very few people wait breathlessly for the DVD releases so I would think there’s even less pressure (downside) by fiddling with its release date.

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