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Movie Studios Are Thinking of Shrinking Theatrical Release Windows—Again

Movies studios are again kicking around the idea of releasing new films digitally for at-home viewing only a few weeks after they first appear in theaters—rather than the industry's traditional months-long wait.

It's been a rough summer for Hollywood, with the season's box office grosses falling more than 12% short of the same period last year. With in-theater ticket sales slipping in recent years and movie studios also suffering from declining home entertainment revenue (DVDs, Blu-ray, etc.), some entertainment giants are reportedly warming to the idea of shorter theatrical release windows as a means of combating the rise of streaming services like Netflix.

Bloomberg cites anonymous sources in reporting that some of Hollywood's biggest studios, including Time Warner's Warner Bros. and Comcast's Universal Pictures, are having ongoing discussions with potential distributors Apple and Comcast about how to offer earlier digital rentals of new films, even if theater chains refuse to approve the idea. The report claims that the various sides have been negotiating for two months, but they do not yet agree on "a mutually beneficial way" to offer a premium streaming movie service that would cost customers $30 to $50 per film.

Part of the remaining disconnect seems to have to do with the exact timing of home releases, with the earliest online releases (17 days after a film is released in theaters) costing more, while those that are delayed four to six weeks for download falling on the lower end of the price range, Bloomberg notes.

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Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on similar rumors in Hollywood, though at the time the major studios were in talks with movie theater operators about finding a way to release new movies at home in under 45 days without significantly damaging anyone's business models. Not surprisingly, movie theater chains are wary about the idea of a premium product aimed at replacing (to some extent) the moviegoing experience. Theaters are already at odds with the increasingly powerful streaming entertainment players, including Netflix, which famously eschews giving its original feature films any significant theatrical releases.

Theater chain owners have been skeptical that the industry needs to develop a premium video-on-demand in order to catch the rising tide of streaming media while offsetting declining DVD sales. Last year, cinema owners were among the opposed to the idea of a startup by Napster co-founder Sean Parker, called Screening Room, which has not yet debuted—though, it would seem that major players like Apple, Comcast, and Time Warner could have more luck developing a finished product, should they be so inclined.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, movie theater operators faced another possible disruption in the form of MoviePass, the startup that now offers monthly subscriptions that allow members to watch one film daily for a monthly fee of only $9.95. AMC Entertainment, the country's largest movie theater operator, dismissed MoviePass' model, calling the price level "unsustainable" while accusing the company of trying to "turn lead into gold."

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