Commentary by Scott Donaton


Demand for Simultaneous Screen and DVD Release Increases

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The most important story on the front page of The New York Times on May 27 wasn’t the move by Senate Democrats to block a vote on John Bolton or the Gobi desert water shortage.
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

Nope, the piece with the most significance appeared below the fold, in the bottom left-hand corner, under the headline, “With popcorn, DVDs and TiVo, moviegoers are staying home.”

A single sentence stunner
The trend itself wasn’t news -- the Times is notorious for waking up to such things months after the rest of the media pack (next week: cellphones -- they’re everywhere!). What transformed the story into a stunner was a single sentence, a quote from a college student on why he’d rather read a book, surf the Net and watch canceled TV shows on DVD than stand in line at the movie theater.

“I want to do things that conform to my time frame, not someone else’s,” he said.

That one line jolted me like a triple shot of espresso. It packed as much hidden power as the earlier revelation that consumers spent more money on Internet services, cable TV, magazine subscriptions and the like than advertisers spent on media last year.

Those of us who toil in, or cover, marketing and media have long paid lip service to the transformational potential of consumer empowerment. But it’s one thing to speak about the end-user revolution in closed conference sessions and over cubicle walls. It’s quite another for consumers themselves to wake up to the power they yield.

The secret is out
The quote seals it; the secret is out.

At the start of May, Ad Age published a story on a plan by rule-breaking rich guy Mark Cuban and Oscar-winning moviemaker Steven Soderbergh to simultaneously release films in theaters, on DVD and pay TV. The decision on how, when and where to watch the movies would be left to filmgoers. The scheme “could rewrite Hollywood’s business model and shatter movie marketing conventions,” we wrote.

Sure there are hurdles, notably resistance from theater owners, many of whom would simply refuse to show such films. But -- to quote a bad movie line (and this is a theme I’ve sounded before regarding those who would try to block change) -- resistance is futile.

The consumer is boss, and the boss will have her way.

We all know parents of young children who complain that they never get to see new films anymore; they have to wait for them to come out on DVD. Why shouldn’t they be able to see the movie when everyone else does, only on the small screen -- even if they have to pay a premium price? Many would, especially if they have a home-theater setup, while others would still want to experience movie thrills on the big screen with a crowd’s reactions.

Complicated economics
The economics are complicated. The potential for lost revenue is real -- imagine someone paying a small fee to watch a new release at home and inviting over 20 friends, each of whom would have shelled out for a ticket at the box office and then $20 more for popcorn and Coke. In such an environment, many theaters would probably go under even if the remaining ones prospered.

It’s not for me to judge whether it’s a good thing. My point is simply this: There’s no choice. If they’re in charge, you have lost control.

Make them like it
The same week Ad Age reported the Soderbergh story, I found myself in conversation with a bunch of entertainment types. When I suggested that simultaneous release of a film on multiple platforms could be the future model for Hollywood, I was met with looks clearly meant to convey doubts about my sanity. No, someone said, the answer is to remind people how much they love the theater-going experience.

Try telling that to the college kid.

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