Alice in Wonderland and the shrinking cinema window

No big surprise to see that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has become a major cinema success, helped by the current popularity of 3D. The widely publicised dispute between several multiplex chains and Disney over the early DVD release does not seem to have had any significant impact on the general public’s decision as to whether or not to see the film in the cinema.

But it was never likely to. Alice was always going to be OK, and the cinemas knew that. What they’re concerned about is not the odd blockbuster slipping out early, but the effect on cinemas of a general ongoing erosion of that period of exclusivity. There will always be a handful of films which absolutely demand to be seen at the cinema, be they of the Avatar school of spectacle or the Mamma Mia-style shared experience; but these are relatively rare.

At the other end of the scale to Alice, there have been some experiments with window breaking in the arthouse market; Artificial Eye have released several titles simultaneously in cinemas and through Sky Box Office, and titles from other distributors like The September Issue have had similar releases without the sky falling in on anyone’s heads. But these are films with a limited market, and that market likes to support its local arthouse venue. Given the choice between watching the film with an audience (or at least the right kind of audience, ie people like them) and watching it on telly, they will actively opt for the former.

A bigger question mark is over middle-ranking titles; the likes of Up in the Air, The Blind Side etc. Films which can do well in multiplexes, but need a bit of heat behind them in order to do well, whether it comes from award nominations, a popular star, or both. Will people bother making the effort to see these films, if they know the DVD/download is only a few weeks away? And once that happens, will the people who currently only visit the cinema a few times a year lose the habit altogether?

One possible effect is that we may see fewer films given a cinema release. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there are certainly too many being released right now. Anything up to ten titles come out on any given Friday; there just isn’t room for all of them to find an audience. Look at something like Everybody’s Fine – a perfectly watchable film, which lasted barely a fortnight on general release. Nobody went to see it, but there was no reason for them to. It’s a film that works just as well on TV; there is no impulse to go to the time and effort and making it to the cinema. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to go straight to DVD? The only benefit of a cinema release for a title like this is the potential publicity from the reviews, and perhaps avoiding the stigma of the direct to video stinker. (Whether distributors actually worry about this, I have no idea. Perhaps it’s more of a contractual obligation than anything else.)

Either way, once the theatrical window becomes a thing of the past – and it seems as though ultimately it will – are cinemas living on borrowed time? There’s bound to be a contraction in the market; one or two of the major chains may contract, or give up their theatres altogether. Or maybe they will diversify, presenting more alternative content – big sporting events, more live comedy, opera, theatre. Smaller, locally based cinemas and chains may also be able to weather any contraction in the market, if they can focus on their specific local audience.

But while I don’t see cinemas as being in any way doomed – however threatened their current business model may be – I still regret the loss of the special nature of the cinema experience. I still love seeing films in a big room, and sharing that with a large group of other people. And I wish the people running the studios felt the same way.

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