The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Are movie theater owners playing the heavy in 'Alice' DVD controversy?

February 12, 2010 | 12:40 pm

Disney's plan to release "Alice in Wonderland," its latest Johnny Depp-starring movie, on DVD only three months after it opens in theaters next month has caused the usual flurry of doomsday predictions from theater owners around the world.

Variety quoted one U.K. exhibitor as saying that "Disney has acted in an absolutely mercenary fashion. There is no compromise, no discussion being offered .... Our business model is under attack." And according to a story in the Times' business section, the head of an exhibition circuit with theaters in 13 states said he would yank "Alice" off his screens as soon as it reached DVD, complaining that Disney's move to shorten the DVD window "encourages people to wait for the DVD to come out."

Allice_in_wonderland_poster But does it? That's the intriguing unanswered question at the core of one of biggest fault lines in today's movie industry: If Hollywood studios tighten the traditional four-month DVD window, will it encourage moviegoers to stay home in droves, waiting to see a film on DVD or video on demand?

My feeling is that it's really an unanswerable question, since it completely depends on the movie. To use a current example, Universal is releasing "The Wolfman" in theaters this Friday. I haven't seen it, but the early buzz has been awful, as have the reviews, with the film earning a lowly 31 at Rotten Tomatoes. If fans knew that Universal would be putting out on DVD in early May, they'd be happy to wait, since the movie has no must-see vibe.

On the other hand, if you have a well-reviewed movie that needs a long theatrical window to find an audience -- like "Crazy Heart," which has great buzz and a 93 rating from Rotten Tomatoes -- you're happy to push back the DVD window as far as possible, not wanting to endanger any of the film's theatrical grosses.

Disney's calculation with "Alice" is that the film has such a huge contingent of die-hard loyalists -- Johnny Depp fans, Tim Burton fans, and parents eager to share a family-friendly film with their kids -- that its core fan base won't be willing to put off seeing the film. In fact, a big chunk of that audience will willingly pay to see the film twice, first in the theaters and again when the DVD is released.

What I think theater owners fail to grasp is that most moviegoers treat filmgoing as an impulse purchase, a relatively last minute, instinctual decision (especially on the part of teenagers, who tend to head off to a multiplex and pick a movie to see only after they've arrived). And only after they've seen a picture do they make that semi-conscious economic calculation: Did I enjoy the film enough to want the DVD or was I so disappointed that I never want to see this movie again?

Of course, there are plenty of potential moviegoers who see the ads for a film and say to themselves that they'll wait for the DVD -- but that's a decision where the relative attractiveness of the marketing campaign far outweighs any concerns about how far away the DVD release is. 

In other words, I think theater owners are misreading the whole psychology of moviegoing. It's not about the distant DVD horizon as much as it is about the immediate prospect of sensory pleasure. So when I gaze outward at the upcoming releases, based on having heard buzz and having seen trailers, I look at the prospects with pretty firm ideas, firm enough to put the DVD window way, way back in the back of my already over-crowded brain:

"Shutter Island": No way to stop me. Have to see anything directed by Martin Scorsese.

"Cop Out": Mildly curious to see what Kevin Smith is like as a hired-hand studio director.

"Alice in Wonderland": Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are an irresistible combination.

"Green Zone": Even though it's been much-delayed on the release schedule, for me, the team of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are right in my wheelhouse.

"Hot Tub Time Machine": You could send a limo to the house with a gift-wrapped DVD tomorrow and you couldn't get me to cut the ribbon.

But that's just my take. I'm interested in hearing what you think. Does the DVD window matter when you're making up your mind whether to see a film? Are there certain types of films that you have to see in a theater -- or others that you'd automatically wait for the DVD release? Let me know where you stand.