On November 4, the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy action-comedy Tower Heist will begin playing at a theater near you. Just three weeks later, if you happen to live in either Atlanta or Portland, Ore. – and happen to have 60 bucks burning a hole in your pocket – Tower Heist could begin playing on a TV screen in your living room. As first reported by The Los Angeles Times, in an unprecedented experiment, Universal Pictures will make Tower Heist, one of its biggest holiday-season releases, available on-demand just 21 days after it hits theaters. The VOD offer will only be available to roughly 500,000 Comcast subscribers in those two markets (Universal is now owned by Comcast), and it’s anyone’s guess how many of them will actually shell out the $59.99 rental fee for the convenience of watching a movie that’s still in theaters. But what’s certain is that the move will reopen the bitter debate over release windows that has driven a wedge between the major studios and the nation’s movie theater owners.
This past spring, a public feud broke out between studios and theater owners over a plan to make some films available on-demand in people’s homes as little as 60 days after their big-screen release. Given that the traditional window before a movie’s home video release is roughly 90 days, Universal’s experiment with a 21-day VOD window for Tower Heist could signal a major shift in the way studios do business. The studios contend that, at a time when DVD revenues continue to plummet, they’re simply exploring new potential revenue sources. The exhibitors counter that, with domestic attendance figures already sagging, premium VOD further undermines moviegoing and represents a direct threat to the film industry as we know it. In April, Tower Heist director Brett Ratner himself was one of almost two dozen filmmakers – including James Cameron, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson, and Todd Phillips – to sign an open letter protesting the narrowing of release windows.
A Universal spokesman says the Tower Heist VOD test will simply “allow [Universal and Comcast] to sample consumer appetite for this film in this window at this price while allowing the film to achieve its full potential at the box office.” Thus far, the National Organization of Theater Owners has not commented on the plan, but it’s safe to say many exhibitors won’t see it as just a harmless experiment.