Film distribution is the process of making a movie available for viewing by an audience. This is normally the task of a professional film distributor, who would determine the marketing strategy for the film, the media by which a film is to be exhibited or made available for viewing, and who may set the release date and other matters. The film may be exhibited directly to the public either through a movie theater or television, or personal home viewing (including DVD-Video or Blu-ray Disc, video-on-demand, download, television programs through broadcast syndication etc.). For commercial projects, film distribution is usually accompanied by film promotion.
When a film is initially produced, a feature film is often shown to audiences in a movie theater. Typically, one film is the featured presentation (or feature film). Before the 1970s, there were “double features”; typically, a high quality “A picture” rented by an independent theater for a lump sum, and a “B picture” of lower quality rented for a percentage of the gross receipts. Today, the bulk of the material shown before the feature film consists of previews for upcoming movies (also known as trailers) and paid advertisements.
The identity of the first theater designed specifically for cinema is a matter of debate; candidates include Tally’s Electric Theatre, established 1902 in Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh’s Nickelodeon, established 1905. Thousands of such theaters were built or converted from existing facilities within a few years. In the United States, these theaters came to be known as nickelodeons, because admission typically cost a nickel (five cents).
Historically, all mass marketed feature films were made to be shown in movie theaters. The development of television has allowed films to be broadcast to larger audiences, usually after the film is no longer being shown in theaters. In 1967, videocassettes of movies became available to consumers to watch in their own homes. Recording technology has since enabled consumers to rent or buy copies of films on VHS or DVD (and the older formats of laserdisc, VCD and SelectaVision – see also videodisc), and Internet downloads may be available and have started to become revenue sources for the film companies. Some films are now made specifically for these other venues, being released as a television movie or direct-to-video movies. The production values on these films are often considered to be of inferior quality compared to theatrical releases in similar genres, and indeed, some films that are rejected by their own movie studios upon completion are distributed through these markets.
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The movie theater pays an average of about 50-55% of its ticket sales to the movie studio, as film rental fees. The actual percentage starts with a number higher than that, and decreases as the duration of a film’s showing continues, as an incentive to theaters to keep movies in the theater longer. However, today’s barrage of highly marketed movies ensures that most movies are shown in first-run theaters for less than 8 weeks. There are a few movies every year that defy this rule, often limited-release movies that start in only a few theaters and actually grow their theater count through good word-of-mouth and reviews. According to a 2000 study by ABN AMRO, about 26% of Hollywood movie studios’ worldwide income came from box office ticket sales; 46% came from VHS and DVD sales to consumers; and 28% came from television (broadcast, cable, and pay-per-view).
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 therefore 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 on September 3, one month before its theatrical release. The British sci-fi movie Monsters has also undergone the same release timetable.