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The Collapsing Theatrical Window for Films

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

As Anthony D’Alessandro notes in Deadline, theatrical release windows for movies are in jeopardy.

There’s been a lot of talk recently that film distribution is moving away from theaters, and towards PVOD – Premium Video on Demand – viewing a film at home on the day of release for as much as $50 a pop. It’s been tried before, and except for big ticket sporting events, it hasn’t really worked out. But that may be changing.

As  D’Alessandro reports, “The urban myth feared by many is that if the per-title rental price in the PVOD window drops down to $20, consumers ultimately will realize that it’s cheaper to watch a movie at home then in cinemas, forgoing costs that come with a night out, i.e. babysitter, parking, dinner, etc. Some studio executives claim their talks with exhibition over PVOD aren’t contentious, but many insiders say that both parties’ working relationship is best described as ‘frenemies.’

Says one distribution veteran: ‘Exhibitors are freaking out. They can’t make money unless they grow their companies, and it’s hard to build these $40M multiplexes. If you have your investors hearing about windows closings, what incentive is there for them to hold on to their stocks?’ The former executive adds that PVOD, if not managed properly, could cause ‘a slowdown in exhibitions’ luxury-seat remodeling and force the mom-and-pop theaters out of business.’ Some also forecast that the domestic supply will shrink, that moviegoing will be relegated to tentpoles with mid- to low-budget fare relegated to in-home streaming.

However, these are doomsday theories, and there’s some positive evidence that the majors aren’t going to cannibalize their own business. Here they are:

The Theatrical Window Will Be Protected: ‘The last thing studios would want to do is threaten that lucrative revenue stream by encroaching on the theatrical window,’ says Tony Wible, Media & Entertainment Senior Analyst at Drexel Hamilton. ‘Theatrical plays a role in pricing the TV licenses for films, and there’s an incentive for studios to maintain the theatrical window.’

Despite Their Bullishness, Studios Haven’t Figured Out a PVOD Formula Yet: There’s buzz that Warner Bros. will come to terms on a PVOD solution by Q4 or Q1 2018, but they’re not going to act alone in the marketplace without another studio. In addition, there are too many moving parts to the PVOD equation, and the whole notion of it goes beyond the Monday-morning haggling between a distributor and exhibitor to hold a film on screens. Other windows like electronic sell-through [EST, when the consumer purchases a permanent video download, either in the cloud or on their computer] would be impacted, and that’s another discussion studios need to have with digital partners including iTunes and Vudu.

If PVOD Becomes a Reality, It Will Face Its Own Challenges: Home consumers already have committed their [money] to cable bundles, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. When it comes to content in the home, they have way too much of it, not to mention VOD menus are already crowded. So, where’s the incentive to rent one title for [as an example] $30? ‘If you have a $30 VOD product, it’s going to be too expensive for the home consumer when it’s priced against these services,’ says Wible, ‘There’s a value trade-off.’

In Addition, Exhibition Claims That In-Home Streaming Services Aren’t Their Direct Competition: According to Alamo Drafthouse and Neon label chief Tim League,’Theaters are more in competition with restaurants and comedy clubs and the types of entertainment that gets you out of the house.’ Currently, exhibitors such as Regal, Cinemark and AMC are barreling forward with luxury modeling and food/alcohol amenities, and these efforts have led to increased capacity and B.O. revenue upticks, with increased cash-on-cash returns.

Mid- and Low-Budget Movies Can Remain in the Theatrical Space: Some have screamed that economically budgeted fare doesn’t have a chance going forward in an event-driven theatrical marketplace, but the success of Get Out, Split, Fifty Shades Darker, Hidden Figures, John Wick: Chapter 2 and even La La Land have proved otherwise; that’s all about how a studio positions and sells a film. ‘There’s not a clear delineating line of what is meant for theatrical and what’s intended for streaming,’ says Amazon’s distribution and marketing chief Bob Berney.

Whether a mid-budget or indie film winds up on streaming or theatrical has a lot to do with a film’s financiers, and when there’s a company like Netflix willing to pony up big bucks for the smaller screen, money talks. In addition, mid-level and low-budget films ‘need to be event-ized,’ says Berney. Whether they thrive on the big screen boils down to several factors, i.e. a distributor’s passion for the film, how far they’re willing to go with it, a pic’s critical and festival reactions. Not to mention, as long as there are Oscars, there will be smart, upscale specialty movies on the big screen.”

There’s much more to this excellent article; you can read the whole piece by clicking here.

Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ’19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

TCM and Criterion Launch FilmStruck Video on Demand

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

TCM and Criterion are launching a new streaming film service, with a great selection of titles.

As Todd Spangler writes in Variety, “Turner is set to launch FilmStruck — its first subscription video-on-demand service, stocked with hundreds of arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films along with a host of additional related content — on Oct. 19. FilmStruck, which Turner execs have said is an opportunity to test out the direct-to-consumer SVOD segement, is developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in collaboration with the Criterion Collection.

FilmStruck will be available only in the U.S. initially. It will have three pricing tiers: the entry-level service is $6.99 per month; FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel is $10.99 monthly, offering everything in the base FilmStruck subscription plan plus unlimited access to Criterion’s entire streaming library of films and special features, along with exclusive original programming; and an annual subscription of $99 per year for FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel.

FilmStruck’s rotating selection includes films from such indie studios as Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, Milestone, Zeitgeist, Film Movement, Global Lens, First Run Features, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Shout Factory, along with movies from major studios including Warner Bros. and MGM.

‘By combining the expertise at TCM and the Criterion Collection – two of the leading authorities in film preservation and history – we have created something really special that is a must-have for passionate film lovers,’ said Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck. Turner commissioned a research study of 2,000 film fans across the U.S., conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, and drew from that an estimate that there are 15 million people 18-49 in the States who would be interested in a service like FilmStruck . . .

The challenge for FilmStruck will be to capture a share of consumers’ wallets against a myriad of other SVOD offerings in the market, including mainstream players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as more directly competitive services tailored to film buffs, including Fandor and Tribeca Shortlist, a joint venture of Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises.

Titles to be featured on FilmStruck include Babette’s Feast, Blood Simple, Blow-Up, Breaker Morant, A Hard Day’s Night, Mad Max, Metropolis, Moulin Rouge, My Life as a Dog, Paths of Glory, The Player, A Room with a View, Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stardust Memories, The Trip to Bountiful, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Woodstock.

In addition, beginning Nov. 11, FilmStruck will become the exclusive streaming home to The Criterion Channel, offering what the companies say is the largest streaming collection of Criterion films available, including classic and contemporary films from around the world, interviews and conversations with filmmakers and never-before-seen programming.

With the FilmStruck deal, Criterion films are rolling off Hulu, which had been the exclusive streaming partner for Criterion’s library in the U.S. since 2011. FilmStruck will be available on the web, Android and iOS devices, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, with additional platforms and devices coming in the future. As with Netflix, Hulu and other services, FilmStruck offers only video streaming (with no downloads for offline viewing).

The FilmStruck service will feature over 70 curated and constantly refreshed programming themes, along with exclusive bonus content like hosted introductions, originally produced pieces, interviews and rare footage.” Sounds promising, and also exclusive, as the highlighted section above demonstrates. If you want Criterion versions of these classic films – the best on the market – as streaming media, then FilmStruck will be your one and only choice.

In addition, as TCM itself uses an ever-tighter playlist of classic films, this will be a welcome opportunity to move beyond the televised offerings and program your own film festival, so to speak. But as Spangler notes, the real problem will be gaining market share in an already crowded field, but for the dedicated movie buff, the Criterion “exclusive” angle will more than solve that problem, I would think.

All in all, everything is moving to the web – streaming, with no downloads and physical media. This is both a good and bad thing; I’m a diehard physical media person, and if possible, I like to get the films that I really want to see again and again on DVD or Blu-ray. But there’s no denying that there’s vast market to be tapped here, and if TCM and Criterion can do it with FilmStruck, more power to them. With the collapse of the art house circuit worldwide, everything is moving online.

Starting October 19th – FilmStruck – the new destination for streaming classic films.

Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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