Hollywood studios have an immense amount of control over their products. In contrast to television programming, the economic value of a motion picture itself — not advertisements or merchandising or cultural impact, but the revenue it generates purely as entertainment, through ticket sales and movie rentals — is something its creators are hesitant to give up. Amid viewers’ technological shift from physical home video distribution to digital video distribution, the studios are thus eager to capitalize on new services and stay ahead of the consumer.
In my adolescent obsession, I accumulated a list of every movie — yes, every movie — I had ever seen, in order of preference, and started a home video collection from number one onwards. Each movie was an event, the type of thing I would build up all day towards — even if I couldn’t recreate the theatrical experience, I could recreate the spirit of it in my outlook.
At a certain point, I stopped collecting DVDs. And when Blu-ray became the next generation format of choice, even though I had the capability to play the discs, I limited myself to only a few purchases, and even fewer rentals. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t interested in watching movies at home. The shift in my thinking simply mirrored the shift in the collective: I evolved to desire a quicker, smoother home video experience. The effort of a trip to Blockbuster or the price of a DVD became too great; as we get lazier, so do our activities change.
This shift has perfectly positioned cable services like Comcast and satellite providers to allow subscribers to rent films directly through the On Demand function on their cable boxes, often at the same time as their physical home video release. Such distribution allows for low marginal-cost production compared to the DVD rentals of old (“old” being represented by your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster store).
Netflix also has one of the most popular digital rental services. Its instant streaming function, which allows subscribers to build up a queue of digital titles to watch on their computer, TV, video game console or mobile phone, is easy to use and plentiful.
Instant Netflix streaming allowed me to watch “Empire Records,” “Jarhead” and three old Tom Cruise movies on my Xbox last Wednesday, so there’s no denying that it’s perfect for those who can’t get enough of the past. But is it a legitimate release medium for new home video releases?
The studios don’t think so, because they simply just don’t make enough money off the deal. And they aren’t risking it — actual new home video releases are only available via Netflix’s physical distribution branch. And even then, they’re constrained by a studio-imposed 28-day window between the store release and Netflix release. The reason? The marginal revenue from a single Netflix rental just isn’t high enough to grab their immediate partnership.
That partnership is much more common in on-demand digital services that avoid subscriptions but instead charge per rental — cable, satellite and some newer Internet-based services like CinemaNow and VUDU (which are partnered with Best Buy and Wal-Mart, respectively) are among these. Both offer brand-new releases at about five dollars per rental.
All of these services are advanced in their own right, but one has to examine the potential effects of the trend. The type of distribution that ultimately wins out will be based on which brings the studios the greatest revenue. But how might the evolution of digital distribution change the face of movies in general?
It’s likely that you have, in some form, experienced early — albeit already wide-scale — forays into digital distribution. It’s inevitable that these will become, probably very soon, more than a service for the tech-savvy, and expand to become main distributors of high-quality home video.
Beyond the commercial concerns, there are underlying social effects of the impending shift in home video; for years, traditionalists have feared the deterioration of theatrical film-going, and in some ways, digital distribution may make those traditionalists fear even more. With sites like Hulu successfully attracting TV viewers away from the television itself, what’s to stop film from undergoing a similar evolution?
The answer is that the theater isn’t static. The room may be the same, but behind the scenes, theaters are advancing quickly in their own right. They are undergoing a digital remodeling, shifting from expensive film-reel projection to less bulky, ultimately cheaper digital distribution. Though home video is making strides toward matching theater technology, theaters are running away from them by establishing even greater capital-intensive projection technology that consumers can’t yet hope to duplicate.
Digital distribution may, however, threaten our sense of ownership over films. My old DVD collection will be a thing of the past, replaced by a collection of digital titles stored in a cloud; pulling a box off the shelf will be replaced with a click onto a thumbnail of a movie poster. To “own” a film wouldn’t be a physical state at all, but rather the sign of a digital contract.
The technological trend towards new distribution channels will be largely influenced by the tendency of the Internet as a whole, and is only predictable to a point. Technology will evolve every day. But the only sure thing in the future of home video distribution is this: The studios will do what they need to do to make the most money possible. Even when faced with a threat, they’ll find a way to make it their own.