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How long does it take for films to appear on DVD?

by Guido Henkel

One topic has heated the minds of the video industry recently and I thought it may also make a good topic for my ongoing series of articles that I write for the trade publication “Media Line” - formerly known as Replication News. The hot topic surrounds day and date releases and especially in the light that Dreamworks’ Oscar winning American Beauty is not making its DVD debut day and date with the VHS rental release, the fire has flared up once again.

Before I cover the strategies and timings behind new releases, I just want to make sure everyone understands that the reason “American Beauty” is not being release day and date has nothing to do with the studio’s unwillingness to support the DVD community as many want to have you believe. There are much more practical reasons at work which lie in the fact that a DVD production takes a lot of time and effort and no one involved in “American Beauty” has had much of either over the past weeks. Now that the hype begins to die down, I am sure work on a DVD version will get under way - bit it still takes months for such projects to be completed as all readers of our acclaimed Production Diaries certainly know. The main issue I wanted to cover this time is a slightly different one, so let’s move right ahead. Here is a reprint of my article as it appeared in the February issue of “Media Line.”

Recently I have noticed that more and more of my readers ask me about an impending DVD release of movies that have just played in theaters - in certain cases, the issue even came up with a movie that had not yet started its theatrical run. If you take a look at the message boards on our website, you will also quickly notice that many questions surround titles that have just seen their box-office opening. Understandably people want to see movies they watched in theaters at home, and if it was a great movie experience in theaters, of course the more they burn to bring this particular movie home to revisit the experience. I am sure most

DVD fans would love to go out and buy a copy of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” on DVD to re-experience the film at home. No such luck however, none of the Star Wars movies is anywhere on the horizon. But others are, and it is important that they come out on a regular basis. Important, not only for consumers, but also for the studios, and the DVD platform in general.

The health of the home video market is maintained by a steady flow of new releases

The health of the home video market is maintained by a steady flow of new releases. Although this includes catalog titles, direct-to-video releases and all-time favorites, the first-time releases of theatrical films is certainly the most important aspect of the market, as it keeps attracting people to rental and retail stores. Given the history of video rental and the fact that many of us have in vain been trying to find brand new releases on sold-out shelves at one point or another, is a clear indication how strong these hot releases drive customer traffic into stores.

For the studios it is important to release these titles on a timely basis for several other reasons. First of all, if a title turns around on video fast enough, the studio can directly cash in on the marketing money they spend on the theatrical release, as the buzz for a title is still ongoing. But even if the title has to be re-promoted, it will significantly help studios to amortize movies by increasing revenues from the film at a fast pace. This means, the faster they can make millions of dollars on a movie, the faster it shows in their books. Many films that were box-office bombs do very good business on home video - and vice versa. As a result home video has the ability to level out the performance of films across the board, much to the delight of the studios’ stockholders.

Of course there are still circumstances where it may or may not make sense to withhold a product form the market. If a film keeps generating good revenue from its uninterrupted box-office run, a release on home video may be delayed in order to maximize the

Exactly how quickly are movies making it from theaters onto DVD? As you would expect, this question does not have a straightforward answer.

revenue of this film’s theatrical release. At the same time sometimes the home video release is simply beyond control of the studio and another Force - please excuse the pun - takes control, withholding the film from release. This however is only the case in very few and selected instances. These days we see day and date commitment on VHS and DVD from virtually every studio for practically every one of their releases, making the DVD market somewhat more calculable than it was only a year or two ago.

Of course there are still circumstances where it may or may not make sense to withhold a product form the market. If a film keeps generating good revenue from its uninterrupted box-office run, a release on home video may be delayed in order to maximize the revenue of this film’s theatrical release. At the same time sometimes the home video release is simply beyond control of the studio and another Force - please excuse the pun - takes control, withholding the film from release. This however is only the case in very few and selected instances. These days we see day and date commitment on VHS and DVD from virtually every studio for practically every one of their releases, making the DVD market somewhat more calculable than it was only a year or two ago.

To get back to the original intent of this article, so exactly how quickly are movies making it from theaters onto DVD? As you would expect, this question does not have a straightforward answer. In order to examine this question, we have to look into the details of individual publishers. Although you can usually apply a six to seven months rule-of-thumb to get in the ballpark of an expected home video release of most theatrical movies, this window varies dramatically between studios.

We certainly all remember the yahoo surrounding Artisan Entertainment’s very short turn-around on “The Blair Witch Project”. Faster than any other title before, this film made it to VHS and DVD in as little as 100 days. Hardly surprising, Artisan Entertainment is leading the field with an average rollover time of 165 days on all their theatrical releases to DVD, followed closely by Warner Home Video with an average window of 167 days. Universal usually turns its films around in 199 days while Columbia movies take an average of 218 days to appear on DVD. USA Entertainment - formerly Polygram - is next in line with a window that

is usually 238 days long, followed by MGM Home Entertainment who tend to debut their theatrical films after 245 days on average. Especially in the case of MGM it is notable however, that their high grossing films seem to appear much faster than average grossing ones. Their box office successes usually show their faces on DVD after less than 150 days.

New Line prioritizes high profile films for release on DVD to actively drive the success of the format

From there the list continues with Dreamworks displaying a theatrical window of 279 days. In the case of this studio however, it is notable that their successful assets usually take much longer to be released on DVD. 303 days is the average on titles that grossed of $25 million, that is almost a full month longer than their remaining films. Next up is New Line Home Video, a very DVD friendly publisher. Although their average release window is at 285 days, which is over 9 months, the studio usually releases its most successful titles in almost half the time. This is a clear indication that New Line prioritizes high profile films for release on DVD to actively drive the success of the format.

Finally, with average delays of well over 10 months, Buena Vista Home Video, Paramount Home Video and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment are obviously in no hurry to rollover their assets at a fast pace. Even with these long theatrical windows, these studios oftentimes stretch the release of their most successful films to up to 410 days! “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” is a perfect example of this practice, as the movie finally hits video almost one full year after its theatrical run by the time it finally sees the light of home video on April 4. Not that it will have lost any impetus after all this time, but fans of the movie would certainly have been appreciative of a faster turn-around, and a DVD version of course.

To get back to the rule of thumb I mentioned earlier, across the industry the average theatrical window for movies before they are released on DVD is currently at 252 days if you balance the number of releases against their average rollover rate. So if your next customer comes in and asks you when he will be able to buy a copy of the latest blockbuster on DVD, tell him that in an average of 252 days he will have the opportunity to own the film on home video.

Information and data for this article were gathered and made available to us by Technicolor.

This article has originally been published in “Media Line” and is reprinted here by permission.

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 April 3, 2000

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