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The Homecoming Dance

Comcast, the country's largest cable operator, ruffles theater owners' feathers with a proposal to release new movies on pay-per-view the same day they hit theaters

Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, ... | NIGHTY ''NIGHT'' National Amusements was not amused when Fox International tried to shorten the window between the U.K. theatrical and DVD release for ''Night at…
Image credit: Doane Gregory
NIGHTY ''NIGHT'' National Amusements was not amused when Fox International tried to shorten the window between the U.K. theatrical and DVD release for ''Night at the Museum''
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The Homecoming Dance

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Imagine being able to see Shrek 3 on opening day — in the comfort of your own home. No ticket lines, no overpriced candy, no sitting next to a guy giving a scene-by-scene recap of the film into his cell phone.

That is the scenario Stephen Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast, essentially presented on May 7, during the annual cable operators' convention in Las Vegas when he announced that Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, wants to offer Hollywood blockbusters as pay-per-view events on cable TV the day they arrive in theaters, a release strategy referred to as ''day and date.''

Sounds great, right? Not to theater owners who are justifiably concerned that collapsing the three- to four-month window between theatrical and home video release could send movie theaters the way of the spotted owl.

''The truth is, going day and date doesn't benefit anybody but Comcast,'' said Shari Redstone, president of National Amusements Theaters as well as vice-chairman of Viacom, the parent company of Paramount Pictures. ''The revenue streams for movies begin in the theaters. This proposal would hurt the studios overall, and the quality of movies would go down. Filmmakers don't want to make films that are made to be seen at home.''

Theater chains have already demonstrated their mettle when it comes to the issue of day and date. Many of them, National Amusements included, refused to play one of last year's highest grossing films' Night at the Museum in the U.K. because Fox International was trying to shorten the window between theatrical and DVD release. And the top movie theater chains, including Regal, AMC, and Cinemark, all have policies that forbid them from screening any film that debuts day and date in any other medium.

While no studio would confirm that they are talking to Comcast about releasing their blockbusters on pay-per-view the same day they hit theaters, five of the six of them are partnering with Comcast on a two-city test experimenting with collapsing the window between a DVD release and pay-per-view. (Currently that window is about one month.) The studios are quick to point out that this is only a test and that there is a major difference between DVD windows and the window between theatrical release and pay-per-view. But some believe it's a slippery slope and that once they're on it, the studios may find it difficult to get off.

''Nothing in these tests is good for the studios,'' said one studio executive who claims that Hollywood is playing ball in order to maintain a healthy relationship with Comcast, which carries cable channels owned by the studios' parent companies. ''Comcast absolutely sees this as the play of the future, with the first step being day and date with DVD; the next step is creating a window prior to DVD, and the ultimate step is theatrical. [Burke's] statement jumps to the end game. The question is, do any of the studios really feel this is the future and are they in for that?''

Redstone added that these tests have been ''unimpressive'' on both sides. Comcast declined comment for this article.

According to Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, Dan Fellman, his studio is not interested in making the theatrical moviegoing experience an endangered species. ''We support the exhibition experience and we'll continue to do so,'' Fellman said. ''Why take the position on losing a successful window? The theatrical experience is the engine of the train.''

Bob Iger, Disney's CEO who was lambasted in 2005 for supporting a smaller window between DVD and theatrical release, responded quickly against the Comcast proposition during Disney's quarterly earnings call on May 8: ''We are not in discussions to sell movies to cable in the same window as theatrical,'' he said.

Comcast's comments may be wishful thinking, or perhaps these conversations are taking place out of the public realm as the heads of studios continue to try to reign in costs. Either way, theater chains will do everything they can to stop a day-and-date release from happening. ''If a studio decides to go day-and-date, you wouldn't see that movie in our theaters,'' added Redstone.

Originally posted May 16, 2007
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