Sony Pictures desperately wanted to release the DVD of the Michael Jackson concert movie "This Is It" for the holiday shopping season, but backed down after movie theater owners balked that it was too soon following the film's theatrical premiere.
"This Is It" opened in 99 countries yesterday and is scheduled for a limited two-week run, though the studio may extend that depending on ticket sales.
Sony had hoped to capitalize on audiences' heightened interest in what turned out to be Jackson's final performance by releasing the DVD in mid-December, about a month after the movie ends its short time in theaters. The disc is now expected to come out in late January or early February.
Selling DVDs before Christmas can be particularly lucrative for studios as they are timed to to capture the holiday gift giving season.
While that made sense for Sony, owners of the nation's cinemas were none too happy at the prospect. They have historically urged studios to wait at least 90 days, but preferably four months, from the day a movie opens in theaters to start selling the DVD, in order to maximize ticket sales. For years, studios have honored that "window," in part out of concern that theaters would retaliate by not booking some of their movies or driving harder deal terms.
Sony executives tried to persuade theater operators to make an exception for "This Is It," given its short life span on the big screen and the uniqueness of the picture.
"We felt we made a pretty good case as to why this movie was different," said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who oversees worldwide marketing and distribution.
However, the movie theater owners refused to budge.
"We had several conversations with Sony and so did our members," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, an industry trade group. "Anytime we see the window go under three months, we alert our members and raise concerns with the studios."
After hearing complaints from executives at several of his member companies, Fithian said, "I raised a general concern with Sony about the extraordinarily short window."
After talking with theater owners, Sony, whose DVD releases on average come out four months and four days after a movie's theatrical run, reluctantly decided to back off from its request in order to preserve good relations with them.
"We didn't want it to be an issue," said Blake. "At the end of the day, we wanted a big theatrical run and they certainly stepped up and supported that with 6,000 screens in 3,481 theaters."
However, the Sony executive acknowledged that he was sorry the studio didn't get what it it wanted. "It would have made a big financial difference to us," he noted.
All of Hollywood is feeling the pain of an industry-wide decline in DVD sales, which are down more than 13% this year.
Sony is not the only studio that has recently attempted to push up the traditional DVD window. Paramount Pictures is releasing its summer event film "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" in the home entertainment market on Nov. 3, 88 days after it first hit theaters, which raised the ire of many exhibitors.
In 2005, Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Iger suggested that the studio might someday respond to consumers' growing impatience to see entertainment when and how they want it by releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on DVD. After theater owners responded in outrage, along with Disney's then-studio chief Dick Cook, Iger went silent on the subject for years.
However, in a keynote address earlier this month, Iger revisited the topic. "In order to keep the DVD business vital, that product has to be perceived as being fresh in the marketplace," the Disney chief said at a conference at the University of Southern California. "The press to move the DVD window up, be it physical or digital, will grow because of that phenomenon."
--Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz
Photo: Michael Jackson in "This Is It." Credit: Sony Pictures.