One single tweet was the final nail in the coffin of the cinema exclusivity window, given added poignancy by being in French; “100 000 locations en une semaine, rien ne sera plus comme avant” (’100,000 viewings in a week, nothing will be as it was’). This was the message from Vincent Maraval, Co-Founder of Wild Bunch, the French production and distribution outfit behind the controversial “Welcome to New York”, which was released on video-on-demand without first screening in French cinemas.
In a country (France) that counts cinema admissions rather than box office takings for a film (something that sets most of Continental Europe apart from Anglo-Saxon markets like the United States and United Kingdom), this tweet added insult to injury for what was truly a milestone for the industry in slaughtering its last sacred cow.
The day-and-date release of films in cinemas and on-line is nothing new, but we have now reached a point where the sacrosanctity of the exclusive theatrical window is well and truly dead for the vast majority of films. The recent Cannes Film Festival and the release of the report “Circulation of European Films in the Digital Era” (funded by the European Parliament and European Commission) has thrown this into sharp focus, yet there are many other factors to consider.
Fighting Day-and-Date for Years
“It’s the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today,” is how John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), put it in 2006 in response to the day-and-date release of the Steven Soderbergh directed “Bubble”, which was released simultaneously on DVD, pay-per-view and in cinemas. Or rather, in a handful of cinemas. In Landmark Theatres alone, to be precise, the sister company of Magnolia Pictures, which produced and distributed the film, both owned by Mark Cuban.
Commenting on the experiment six years later, Steven Soderbergh opined:
On “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”, we really weren’t able to find out if the experiment worked because frankly, we were blackballed by all the chains. We couldn’t get any screens outside of Landmark, even though we offered to cut them in on some of the VOD and video revenue. They just blackballed us. Part of the point of going day-and-date is that somebody who lives in a place where that kind of movie wouldn’t typically open could watch it through VOD because they’ve read about it, because this whole thing of having to sell a movie multiple times is really f–king boring. We never got to find out if that worked or not because what does Landmark have, 75 screens or something? The movie was not allowed to be shown outside that group of theaters so I don’t know how day-and-date works.
Fithian was skilled in rallying his members to boycott the film, even though he knew that releasing a small independent film with no stars on DVD the same day as it plays in a few art-house screens was not the same existential threat as, say, releasing “Oceans 12″ (also directed by Soderbergh) on all platforms on the same day. But what it did represent was the thin end of the wedge, which is why Fithian was willing to risk coming up with a Jack Valenti-VCR-Boston-Strangler-type of quote.
The key word in the Fithian quote is ‘today’ and where his greatest success lies was in killing off the discussion and experimentation for another half decade. Fithian is neither a technophobe nor is NATO blind to the direction in which the industry is heading. In response to Soderbergh’s interview, Fithian wrote, “Over the past two years NATO and our members have stated publicly that distributors should sit down privately with their exhibitor partners and their creative partners in dialogue about how the industry moves forward together.” But everything changed in early 2014.
The most serious threat wasn’t “Bubble” in 2006 but the MPAA-FCC exchange in 2009, known by the exhibitor-baiting headline, “MPAA Seeks FCC Okay For Transmission of First Run Movies Directly To Consumers”. While seemingly about day-and-date, we wrote at the time that “the MPAA may simply be hiding behind the concept of protecting content during shortened release windows as camouflage for their true motive; securing high definition digital content as it is distributed into the electronic ether of the home by controlling which devices can playback and display the content.”