The world is littered with stories of new technologies, ideologies and innovations getting snuffed out of existence by the competition before they even have a chance to make a go of it. The funny thing with history is, eventually, the new technology takes over one way or another because as time progresses, the old ways start to feel, well, old. In the mid to late seventies, laser discs came on the scene, as seen in the 1977 cover of Popular Mechanics to the right (click to enlarge). But they were expensive, hard to market and you had to flip the disc over like a vinyl LP to see the whole movie, part two of which was on the other side. Video tapes with their ease of use and much lower cost won the market by 1982 as video stores began to dot the suburban landscape and VCR sales headed north (and even within the VCR market there was a battle staged between VHS and Beta with VHS emerging the victor). Videotapes didn't have the proper aspect ratio, wore down quickly, had to be physically rewound or fast-forwarded to watch a specific scene which had to be located via the 'stop and watch every 10 seconds to see if you're there yet' method and on top of all of that, the visual quality left much to be desired (although the average VCR owner didn't seem to care a whole hell of a lot in that area).
After a couple of decades of domination though, videotape fell to digital laser video. It was no longer the bulky laser disc but a smaller compact version, a video sister of the audio compact disc. It was the DVD and it didn't take long for the average VCR owner to suddenly want what they finally realized they had been missing, that is, clear picture, proper aspect ratio and special features. And that's often how it happens: Resistance, which forces the new technology to hone itself, edit itself and make itself more appealing and more needful in the eye of the consumer, followed by acceptance. Business models usually work this way too.
Starting in the early days of Hollywood and going through the seventies, movies slowly opened across the nation, sometimes taking as long as six months to make their way to every state. The average movie would get a two week release date in several big cities and eventually get two week release dates in progressively smaller cities and towns along the way. If the movie proved popular, it would be "held over," meaning it would be booked for longer than its initial two week run. Moviegoers in their forties and up probably remember seeing marquees announcing "Held over for the 17th week!" or "20th week!" or "35th week!" depending on the popularity of the movie. I remember seeing such a marquee for The Godfather in my childhood with the held over number being somewhere in the upper forties.
It was a sound business model based on decades of tried and true practices. There were, however, studios and producers who broke the model, notably Walt Disney, who tried to get his movies into as many theatres as possible as quickly as possible. Somehow, Disney's success didn't clue in the other studios to what he had. It was assumed that this was something that would work well for kids movies but not other movies. After all, Disney was trying to sell toys and albums and games along with the movie (he really was the father of the modern movie marketing campaign model, wasn't he?) while grown-up movies needed "word of mouth" advertising to get the adults into the theatre. Then, in 1973, William Friedkin had it written into his contract that he would have approval over how The Exorcist was released, which he wanted because he believed the slow release model would fail for The Exorcist. He didn't want "word of mouth," that which the slow release depends upon, ruining the shock of the film for most moviegoers. He wanted it shown to as many people as possible as soon as possible. The studio agreed and on December 26, 1973, The Exorcist opened on multiple screens all across the nation. It was a hit and slowly, the old model started to break down. In 1977, with Star Wars opening on some 400 screens across the nation (a paltry number by today's standards) the slow release model was all but dead. By 1979, the success of such non-kiddie fare as Kramer vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman, both given wide-release shortly after their premiere dates and both enjoying great success, set the new model in stone. Wide release was the way to go. Slow release was dead.
In part, it died because the technology improved for producing prints at lower costs to theatre owners, partly because theatres expanded beyond single screen palaces and partly because both theatre owners and movie studios realized there was one hell of a lot of money to be made in wide release. Today, movie viewing technology is at the point that many cinephiles and average moviegoers are expecting, but not yet demanding, that the model change once again. The new model is called Simultaneous Release*, and it's only been tried with a few low-profile pictures, to very limited success. Basically, it goes like this: With the quality of home movie entertainment systems and the remarkable ability in the modern world to get the movie of your choice into your home without ever leaving it, why not release a new movie in the theatres, on DVD and on instant streaming all on the same day?!. Or, at the very least, release it in the theatres by itself for its big "Premiere Week" and then, the following weekend, release it to DVD and instant streaming. Currently, the model followed is oddly reminiscent of the old slow release model for movies in the seventies and before, only except being a slow release around the country, it's a slow release around the different types of media.
Not everyone agrees this a good idea, most notably, and understandably, cinema owners who fear they'll lose money. But I submit, circumstantially mind you, based solely on being a parent of teenagers, that the core audiences for multiplexes will not change. My kids don't want to watch movies at home, they want to go out, with their friends. My adult friends, on the other hand, want to stay in and see that new movie everyone is talking about without having to get a babysitter for the youngest, pay for parking, etc. And guess what? If they don't have a choice, they're still not going to see it. I can count on two fingers the number of friends I know that have been to a multiplex in the last year. "I'll watch it on DVD" is the mantra of the new age.
I venture out into the theatre fairly often myself but mainly to the AFI to see older films on the big screen with wonderfully appreciative audiences and can tell you, as a result, that I am a full convert to the notion that seeing a classic film on the big screen can redefine it for you. A recent example would be La Dolce Vita, which my wife and I saw at the AFI last month and which was an extraordinary experience. Before, I had liked the movie, after, I was absolutely floored by it. I realize the power of the big screen so I'm not cavalierly suggesting we should do away with the experience altogether. Simply saying that in this day of modern digital conveniences it may be time to switch to a simultaneous release model to get more people in on the action. How many more older movie lovers would give a look to the new blockbuster everyone is talking about if they could, easily and conveniently, right from their home? But they can, you say, when the DVD is released. True, but the excitement is gone. Let me explain.
Often I find myself curious about some blockbuster in the theatres. Is it really as bad as everyone says it is? Is it really as good? Is it a fun popcorn movie or an overblown noisemaker? In the biggest success stories, like an Avatar, I plop down my money and go see it. More often than not, I don't. And even more often than not, when it's released on DVD I've already read everyone's reaction and no longer care and never bother seeing it. If simultaneous release were in play that wouldn't be the case. I believe the cinema owners would make the same money they're making now and the distributors would make even more as simultaneously released movies would rake in far more than delayed release DVDs do now.
I believe the time has come for simultaneous release to become the standard model, giving every movie, especially adult fare, the chance to have a wider audience. We're almost there. I've already noticed what I call the "Netflix Instant Effect" more and more on the movie blogs. That is, when a new movie or classic movie becomes available on Netflix Instant, suddenly there are a lot of blogs writing it up. We all want to be a part of the same conversation and simultaneous release would allow more of us, especially us cinephiles, to enjoy the feeling of seeing the same movie together, no matter how far apart we are.
*click on the link to read a rather hyperbolic reaction to simultaneous release from M. Night Shyamalan. It's funny because I can't think of a director who would benefit from it more.