The distribution of a film (or movie) is the process through which a movie is made available to watch for an audience by a film distributor. This task may be accomplished in a variety of ways; for example, with a theatrical release, a home entertainment release (in which the movie is made available on DVD-Video or Blu-ray Disc) or a television program for broadcast syndication and may include digital distribution. For commercial projects, film distribution is usually accompanied by film promotion.
The standard release routine for a movie is regulated by a business model called "release windows". The release windows system was first conceived in the early 1980s, on the brink of the home entertainment market, as a strategy to keep different instances of a movie from competing with each other, allowing the movie to take advantage of different markets (cinema, home video, TV, etc.) at different times.
In the standard drill, a movie is first released through movie theaters (theatrical window), then, after approximately 16 and a half weeks, it is released to DVD (entering its video window). After an additional number of months it is released to Pay TV and VOD services and approximately two years after its theatrical release date, it is made available for free-to-air TV.
A simultaneous release takes place when a movie is made available on many media (cinema, DVD, internet...) at the same time or with very little difference in timing.
Simultaneous releases bear great advantages to both consumers, who can chose the medium that most suits their needs, and production studios that only have to run one marketing campaign for all releases. The flip side, though, is that such distribution efforts are often regarded as experimental and thus, do not receive substantial investment or promotion.
In the course of the years simultaneous release approaches have gained both praise, with Mark Cuban claiming movies should simultaneously be made available on all media allowing viewers to choose whether to see it at home or at the theater, and disapproval, with director M. Night Shyamalan claiming it could potentially destroy the "magic" of moviegoing.
Cinema owners can be affected seriously in case they have to share their opportunity window, specially at the beginning of the movie lifecycle, since, according to Disney, about 95% of all box office tickets for a film are sold within the first 6 weeks after initial distribution.
A straight to video (or straight-to-DVD or straight-to-Blu-ray depending on the medium upon which the movie is made available) release occurs when a movie is released on home video formats (such as VHS, DVD, etc.) without being released in theaters first, thereby not taking into consideration the "theatrical window".
Internet research is still new when it comes to the film distribution platform. The volume of downloaded movies is difficult to find but none compares to the even more problematical discovery of their origin.
Shrinking of the theatrical window
While originally conceived for a six months duration, the theatrical window has today been reduced to little more than four months. Movie studios have reportedly been pushing to shrink the duration of the theatrical window in an attempt to make up for the substantial losses in the DVD market they've been suffering from since the 2004 sales peak.
These attempts have encountered the firm opposition of theater owners, whose profits depend solely upon attendance and who, thus, benefit from keeping the movie available on the silver screen.
In early 2010, Disney announced it would be putting out the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland 14 weeks after the movie's release date (instead of the usual 17) in order to avoid competition from the 2010 World Cup. In response to such statements, theater owners made threats not to show the movie on their screens, but later reconsidered their position before the movie was released.
Other strategies are also being deployed in order to make up for slow DVD sales. Most major studios have considered making movies available to VOD services shortly after their theatrical release for a premium price. In July 2010 Netflix secured a deal with Relativity Media in which the latter agreed to distribute a number of major movies to the aforementioned VOD service before Pay TV.
Makers of smaller-budget movies are also putting to the test new release strategies. In 2009, the movie The House of the Devil premiered on VOD systems on October 1, and received a limited theatrical release one month later. In August 2010, it was announced that the movie Freakonomics would be released on video on demand services on September 3, one month prior to its theatrical release. The British sci-fi movie Monsters has also undergone the same release drill.
- Lerman, Laurence (September 17, 2001). "Independents' 'Bread and Butter'". Video Business 21 (38): Section: Video Premieres
- Edited by McDonald, Paul and Wasko, Janet (2008) "The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry". Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. p. 238