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Cinema Only on DVD

The Release Window and Significant Shrinkage: Only on DVD Part 2

Continued from Part 1

This might seem obvious, but the business of moviemaking has and will always remain a for-profit enterprise. Starting with the very first Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh, PA, entrepreneurs smelled financial opportunity in the moving pictures business. In a few short decades, moguls like Louis B. Mayer (MGM), Adolf Zukor (Paramount), Daryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox), and Harry, Jack and Albert Warner (Warner Bros.) had capitalized on that latent potential. In 1929, just before the Great Depression, industry revenues eclipsed $720 million (and wouldn’t match that number again until 1941). It might sound obvious, but as much as we look at films as an artistic product of the creative filmmaking process – they have and forever will be a big business run by moneymen, fueled by numbers, slave to the ledger.

But… let’s discuss new business before going back to old business.

Only on DVD Part 2: The Release Window and Significant Shrinkage

Streaming has become the industry’s latest uncharted revenue source. In a few short years, streaming and video-on-demand has supplanted physical media as the go-to method of viewing movies at home. While the pandemic accelerated the transition from physical to digital, the shift began way back in 2007. 

2006 represented the most lucrative year for DVD sales, with approximately $16.3 billion in revenue, but the medium began a rapid decline in the years following. Two major factors caused the downturn. An economic recession triggered a cut in entertainment spending. Without a Blockbuster on every corner, video-on-demand (VOD) became an increasingly more attractive option for remote, penny-pinching consumers. VOD costs about $4 for a rental and $10 for purchase compared to a $15 DVD or Blu-ray disc. Digital also offered more immediate gratification – buy and watch a movie without ever leaving your couch – and there’s very little that the average American likes more than cheap and instant.

The tentative embrace of VOD ushered in the first wave of subscription streaming services. Netflix tripled its subscriber base between 2007 (7.48 million subscribers) and 2011 (23.53 million). Digital consumption rose as physical media fell precipitously. The two mediums crossed paths in 2014, around the $5 billion mark. Without diving too deep into the numbing numbers, we’ll summarize the trends with this fact: physical media revenue accounted for less than 10% of the home video market in 2020, the year COVID rewrote the rule book.

And Then the Theaters Went Dark

Streaming media received a substantial boost from the pandemic, pulling money from the closed and incapacitated theaters. Projections of $5 billion in losses hung over largely idle exhibition chains. Variety called 2020 a “dumpster fire” for theatrical exhibition, and while 2021 and 2022 have shown some box office vigor, business is still down approximately 60% from pre-pandemic 2019 levels. The most alarming statistic: 50% of pre-pandemic moviegoers said they had no plans to return. 9% said they’d never go back – COVID or not. For an industry already on the ropes, these numbers are a poor harbinger of things to come.

The abrupt closure of theaters forced Disney to come up with a creative solution for Onward (2020).

When the theaters closed during the pandemic, studios scrambled to find a way forward. In the absence of the tent, what does one do with tentpole movies? Disney/Pixar’s Onward opened on March 6, 2020, days before the shutdown. Disney responded by sending the film directly to VOD to recoup some of its $180 million budget. Paramount pulled Top Gun: Maverick from the schedule, ultimately releasing it in May of 2022. For James Bond, April 2020 turned into November 2020 turned into October 2021. Warner Bros. used Wonder Woman 1984 to launch HBO Max, making it one of the first “day-and-date releases” of the pandemic – a movie released on simultaneous platforms (usually theatrical and streaming) on the same day.  

If you’re keeping score at home, “day-and-date” means there’s no release window, the time between the release of the film in theaters and its appearance on home video platforms. Studios surveyed the income resulting from VOD and streaming distribution and promptly went about negotiating their theatrical agreements. Studios knew they needed theaters less than the theaters needed the studios. 

But studios still need theaters for big openings. They need theaters because they still need that big-top tent. Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The Batman. F9: The Fast Saga. What do all of these movies have in common?

They’re among the few that bathed like Scrooge McDuck in theatrical money during the pandemic – and they’re also all franchises. Due to the overwhelming success of just a select few megamovies, the news media has cautiously celebrated the phoenix-like resurgence of the theater. Tom Cruise filmed a pre-movie introduction to Top Gun: Maverick thanking us for returning to view his movie as it should be seen. Big and loud. He’s gracious – but he’s a savvy businessman. As arguably Hollywood’s last true movie star, he understands perfectly how to commoditize himself and sell movie tickets. So, no, the value of the theater isn’t lost on Hollywood – but the reason Hollywood needs the theater has morphed into something that’s less black and white than straight box office totals.

The Barriers to the Zero Release Window 

I saw Ghostbusters (1984) in the theater four times during its original theatrical run. Pulp Fiction (1994) five. Popular movies became cultural phenomena in part because they would linger in theaters for months, sometimes a whole year or more. We saw the movie and then we dragged our friends to the movie and then we dragged some other friends to the movie and then it played in the second-run theater and we went back with whomever wasn’t sick and tired of us talking about it. 

Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) dominated 1982, more than doubling the box office of second place Tootsie (1982). 

Let’s look at the case of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) as ground zero. Released on June 11, 1982, the movie set a weekend record for ticket sales in its fourth week of release. It was the #1 movie in the U.S. as late as December and remained a top ten box office earner uninterrupted until March of 1983. It wasn’t made available to purchase on home video until 1988 when it was released simultaneously on VHS and laserdisc and sold 15 million VHS copies, contributing to a gross of more than $250 million in revenue. 

Once sell-through VHS tapes became more common during the late 1980s and the home video market became more lucrative, the theatrical window narrowed significantly to capitalize on all theatrical buzz, thereby reducing marketing costs. Fast forward to 2019. The massively successful Avengers: Endgame dominated the pop-culture landscape. It opened on April 26 with an almost incomprehensible $473 million but fell out of the top ten in its seventh week of release and basically disappeared from first-run theaters by the middle of July. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 13, 2019. Release window: 4 months. 

Six year release window became six months became six days. 

Studios consider opening-weekend box office the final word on a film’s marketability. As soon as attendance dips, they’ll shuffle the movie along to be consumed via physical media, VOD, and streaming customers. If a film doesn’t open big, it’s not offered the opportunity to build word-of-mouth; another movie opens in its wake and the cycle continues. The industry churns through content because it assumes that the opening weekend makes the money, the rest of the weekends a movie just takes up space. This shift happened over the course of more than 30 years, but I’m compressing time to prove a specific point. A movie’s theatrical release still creates expectation and momentum – even when nobody goes to see it. It differentiates this movie from the hordes of direct-to-streaming movies that get lost among the insurmountable volume of content. 

The forgettable Tower Heist (2011) may not have been the power play Universal thought. 

Universal tried to force a narrowing of the theatrical release window to 30 days for the movie Tower Heist (2011). Theaters threatened to boycott the film and potentially other Universal releases. The studio recanted and returned to the standard 90-day window. 

The pandemic, however, removed the theater chains from the equation, and the studios seized their opportunity to change consumer behavior. If they changed consumer behavior, that could change the rules of the game. When the pandemic forced theaters to shutter, viewers had no other way to view the movies they most anticipated. With no other exhibition alternative, the studios began feeding the movies directly to our televisions through streaming services and VOD, thereby bypassing the shuttered and stubborn theaters who were no longer standing in the way. The threat to boycott theatrical releases rendered suddenly toothless. 

It was once again Universal that pushed the envelope by releasing Trolls: World Tour (2020) directly to VOD instead of pushing back the release date to wait for theaters to reopen. This would be the ultimate test. Trolls: World Tour made more money in three weeks on a digital release than the original Trolls (2016) made during its entire theatrical run.

Without hesitation Universal CEO Jeff Shell declared this to be “the new normal.” “As soon as theaters reopen,” he said, “we expect to release movies on both formats.” Without open theaters to exhibit their movies, it makes perfect sense that studios would do whatever they could to recoup production expenses on their product. Shell went one stop further, declaring that even after the theaters return, this is now standard operating procedure. He stopped short of adding, with the uproarious cackle of a true supervillain, that there was nothing the theaters could do to stop him. 

But other than the pandemic what changed between Tower Heist and Trolls: World Tour? I’ll give you a hint: it involves the Supreme Court. 

Tune in Next Week to Find out in Part 3: The Lawless Digital Frontier

Only on DVD Recommendations:

Part of the struggle is wanting to watch a movie or a TV when it is available. Offerings change according to unseen financial whims and scheduling eccentricities. Today’s list, similarly, has been cobbled together through a most unusual grammatical lynchpin. Add these movies and TV series featuring a prepositional phrase from Netflix DVD today because you won’t find them anywhere else (legally and that I know about). 

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Southern gothic melodrama and a choice prepositional phrase. Where is it written? On the wind. Familial dysfunction. Alcoholism. Oil and money grubbing. Based on a true story. It’s soapy daytime TV – except exquisitely shot by cinematographer Russell Metty (Spartacus, Touch of Evil) and acted by Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone. Malone would go on to win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. Of course, a Douglas Sirk production establishes a certain tone. Written on the Wind exaggerates and satirizes through a solemnly serious gaze. Some miss the humor entirely. Some consider it kitsch. For my money, however, it’s just a delicious confection that highlights the strengths of one of the great American auteurs. This one occasionally pops up on the excellent Criterion streaming service, but as of this post, it’s nowhere to be found. 

Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990)

Did I just highly recommend this movie in a post about “The Full Circle of Christian Slater”? I certainly did – but maybe if you knew it’s not currently available to stream (it was on HBO Max and then it suddenly wasn’t and then it was and then it wasn’t) it’ll inspire you to finally take action and watch this overlooked gem of a teenage drama. Shy high school student by day, shock jock Hard Harry by night – Mark Hunter (Slater) causes a stir by inspiring teens to speak up and act out against authoritative hypocrisy. He’s forced to deal with the real-world effects of his inflammatory words as the principal makes Hard Harry the scapegoat for everything wrong within the community. Even though it’s a 1990 time capsule, Moyle’s film has never felt more relevant. 

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)

I’m told we’re living in a new golden age of television programming, so maybe you’re feeling more like dabbling in a few seasons of HBO’s classic anthology horror program hosted by everyone’s favorite cackling sack of bones, the Crypt Keeper (from the Crypt, obviously). Except there’s one little problem. Tales from the Crypt has been relegated to that HBO purgatory in which Dream On, Spicy City, Not Necessarily the News, and The Hitchhiker now reside. There’s a wellspring of classic HBO programming that we just can’t watch… unless the powers that be saw fit to release episodes on DVD. 

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Cinema Only on DVD

Physical Media Nostalgia, the Value and the Detriment: Only on DVD

When I started this project, I thought I’d write a fun and light column about movies available to rent from DVD Netflix that are unavailable to stream anywhere. A physical media nostalgia checklist of essentials. The list of titles grew longer and exceeded my expectations. Not all were good… or even worth renting, but as a result I was inspired to do more research. I wanted to investigate the specific reasons why movies like these only lived on physical media. I don’t know why I thought this would take a quick afternoon of reading.

The search took a different shape. I started to dig into the business of physical media and the history of film distribution going back to the earliest days of cinema. I interviewed the Preservation Manager at the George Eastman Museum to discuss the treatment of old prints Pre-U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures. I saw some parallels between the old studio vertical monopoly and the current distribution environment. (Spoiler: He didn’t disagree.)

Instead of dropping this into your laps in one fell swoop, I’ve decided to break it apart into multiple installments – and at the bottom of each recommending a few titles that you can’t watch anywhere else on the Internet. This way I can clog your queue with more movies to watch and you’ll get all of my thoughts… and I have many. Consider this the ‘director’s cut’ without the unnecessary studio interference. 

Only on DVD Part 1: Physical Media Nostalgia, the Value and Detriment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a victim of physical media nostalgia. I miss flipping laserdiscs. (Is anything more directly related to illogical physical media nostalgia than flipping a laserdisc? Comment below.) I regret throwing away a few of my dubbed VHS tapes (SLP, baby!) with three movies recorded from broadcast TV, commercials included. I purchase all my new music on vinyl because I like holding the physical record in my hand, noting a clearly delineated A- and B-side, and seeing the cover art bigger than a Spotify thumbnail on my phone. Storage could become a problem, admittedly, but maybe that just prevents me from hoarding music to which I won’t actually listen. 

Some of this is healthy, proof that not all nostalgia is evil. Forward progress isn’t always progress – it might only be forward.

I am also a lifelong student of film. I received my undergraduate degree in Film Theory during a time when laserdiscs and 35mm prints made up the bulk of the movies we watched for class. I didn’t appreciate the rarity of these experiences at the time. I’d just begun to scratch the surface of foreign cinema and couldn’t comprehend how rare it was to watch a 35mm print of a Grigori Kozintsev film. (On a side note, I’m almost positive the Coen Brothers have seen Kozintsev’s King Lear adaptation based on their The Tragedy of Macbeth.)

I became something of a bootleg junkie for European trash cinema when I learned about websites that could send me VHS copies of movies unavailable anywhere else in the United States. There’s a particular visceral thrill associated with showing your friends a gory Italian-language horror movie featuring only burned-in Japanese subtitles. 

And before you think I’m daring to champion the wonders of bootlegged VHS tapes or cassette tapes (I do miss the 60-minute cassette mixtape – I’m not going to lie), this is my segue into the most wonderful aspect about streaming media – forgotten movies, obscure movies, foreign movies are available at the click of a button. Some pristine, from superior sources than we’ve seen on physical media, and some hacky bootlegs, hardly better than those mail-order VHS tapes. In this regard, streaming media has opened Al Capone’s vault for a generation of cinephiles restricted by limited availability and DVD region coding. Truly—there’s more to watch than we could have imagined twenty years ago. There’s more to watch than we could accommodate in a lifetime.

That is, if you can find the thing you want to watch when you want to watch it. Streaming has quickly become a blessing, but it’s also become a curse in more ways than one.

The avalanche of movies available has transformed most of our viewing lives into rote content consumption. How much can we watch in a short amount of time? We’re putting our eyes on a movie or a television series so we can check a box and move onto the next thing on our list. The question has become: Will we remember it tomorrow or will it be lost among the torrent of other content we’ve digested?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Instead of finding and playing exactly what I want to watch, I’ll scan a service’s pushed content. I’m relying upon the streaming algorithm to tell me what I want to watch. And sometimes, I let it. My wife and I recently came across a movie on Netflix – we read the description and decided to give it a shot. Except we’d already seen it. It had made such an impression that it took us fifteen minutes to recognize the repeat performance. 

Caption: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) received a significant boost in viewership because of its Oscar buzz and easy accessibility. 

I don’t mean to dismiss the value of accessibility in service of holy physical media nostalgia. I’m happy that more people saw Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) – whether they liked it or not. There are plenty of examples where a streaming movie has become an event, but I’m willing to wager that most people click on their Netflix icon just to see what’s on in the same way they used to surf through the television channels for hours and never actually watch anything.

When you’re handling a physical disc, it’s making an impression on you. The cover art, the landing menu – these are all part of the experience. They’re not necessary – but watching every intro to a TV show I’m enjoying isn’t essential either. I find it to be part and parcel of the whole experience – just like putting a disc in the player and listening to the hum as it queues up. By making definitive, conscious choices about the movies we’re watching, we’re disrupting the ceaseless flow of time and tide. The want and the experience. Taking the time to consider double-feature theme nights and mainlining movies made by a particular actor or director. You’re going to remember these experiences, these choices you’ve made – unlike the streaming movie that I forgot I watched less than nine months ago.

For the record that movie 0n Netflix wasn’t bad, but I just wish I’d used that time to check off another box on my Cinema Shame list, something sitting right behind me on the shelf or in my DVD Netflix queue just begging to be watched. 

Coming soon… Part 2: The Release Window’s Significant Shrinkage

Only on DVD Recommendations

For my first set of picks, I wanted to highlight a couple of more popular movies that might surprise you. These are movies that feel like they’re everywhere—or should be everywhere—just to illustrate the point that you never know when a movie might disappear online for a spell… or forever.

The Cannonball Run is not currently available to stream.

The Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981)

Call me superficial, call me a simpleton, but I adore The Cannonball Run’s brand of irreverence. It doesn’t care about being a movie and seems to have been made so a bunch of famous friends had an excuse to get together over a long weekend and drink. Nobody did this brand of comedy better than Burt Reynolds, the ultimate movie star of his era. The man mugged and winked his way through even some of his legitimate cinematic productions.

Based on an actual 1979 road race, the all-star cast speeds from Connecticut to California. The characters remain purely one-dimensional, and the gags are almost exclusively low-hanging fruit. Burt, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Terry Bradshaw, Jackie Chan, Adrienne Barbeau, etc. just have fun trying to entertain us.

Its non-existence on digital platforms likely has something to do with its co-production between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and 20th Century Fox. After the recent sale to Disney, the mouse has locked up many 20th Century Fox catalog properties in its vault. Without reason to give it away on Disney+, the title will likely remain a title in limbo for the foreseeable future. 

The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985)

This iconic teen movie of the 1980s starring John Cusack (in his breakout role) and Daphne Zuniga represented Rob Reiner’s first proper narrative film after his resplendent debut, the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984).

High school seniors Walter and Lance head off to college. Walter to New England and Lance to UCLA. When girfriendless Walter finds himself in a seasonal funk, Lance invites him out to California for Christmas break. He’ll fix him up with a girl (“the sure thing,” aka Nicolette Sheridan) and Lance will get some California sunshine. Walter signs up for a ride-share to make the trip west – only he’ll have to inhabit the back seat with Alison, a girl who already hates his egotistical guts. Their bickering causes the driver to strand them on the roadside. Cross-country obstacles result in Walter and Alison developing feelings… until she discovers the real motivation for the trip.

Stephen L. Bloom’s screenplay doesn’t resort to base teenage grotesqueries to tell its story and Reiner handles the material with the perspective that films about teenagers don’t have to be juvenile. Walter and Alison do some growing up and learn how to connect with other people as humans rather than culturally reinforced stereotypes.

I don’t know if it’s true—but I remember this being a staple on basic cable. The Sure Thing (or One Crazy Summer always seemed to be on. Of course, I’d watch a bit. In 2022, however, you’re going to need to own the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.

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Cinema Cinema Shame

2023 Cinema [Shame] Statement

I turned the calendar over to January, which means two things. I posted my Top 100 songs of the past year on Spotify, and it’s time to take stock of my year in moviewatching for Cinema Shame.

I’m sure it should signify something else, too, like committing to being more patient with my kids or vowing to do yoga at least once week. I’ll work on those, too. I will. (I really would like to do more yoga because my back is a mess and I have to clean out the basement for some home renovation.)

That’s a post for another day. I’m redoing the home theater setup and all my physical media is currently living in boxes and I only kinda sorta know where everything is and I kept some stuff out, like stuff I needed to keep out for Cinema Shame podcasts and manuscript research but mostly I feel empty, like the bookshelves that used to house all my DVDs. [Exhale.]

I’ve gathered some old Shame that I never got around to watching and I’ve merged it with some new Shame and presto bango I’ve got a new list for 2023. Check out the 2023 Cinema Shame call for Shame here.

Old Business

2022 cinema shame statement
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, Michael Rooker

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1990)

It’s been on the list since 2018 and at this point not watching it might be the point.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Not even the 1972 Shamedown prompted me to put this DVD in the player.

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)

Since I need to write a blurb about this one for a DVD Netflix article I’ve got in the works, it’s time to watch the 4K disc I purchased last year. Seriously, guy.

Can’t Stop the Music (Nancy Walker 1980)

My co-host on the Cinema Shame podcast will probably club me like a baby seal for this one.

Tarzan, the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1933)

The variety of Shame in which I’ve watched the other Tarzan movies of the period (because pre-code swimming nudity!) but not the original? Here’s a video I recorded at the 2019 TCM Film Festival about the creation of the Tarzan yell.

The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)

Many people consider this the best movie of 1983. I just see a very long space melodrama without any pew pew pew. I’m sure it’s good, but my boosters aren’t firing.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

You can still count the number of non-samurai Kurosawas I’ve seen on one hand.

Once again I’ve consulted my favorite guide for new entries on this list. The Entertainment Weekly Guide comes out once a year when I mark off movies I’ve watched and add movies I need to watch to this list.

New Business

DODSWORTH, Walter Huston, Mary Astor, 1936

Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1946)

It’s the next man off the bench in the book’s list of Best Dramas, checking in at #30.

Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944)

I honestly can’t remember if I watched this one. It checks in at #42 on the Comedy countdown, so we’ll give it a spin. If it turns familiar, I’ve got Adam’s Rib waiting in the wings, another movie I think I might have watched at some point or another.

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

The second Wyler comes to me courtesy of the AFI list. It’s a movie I studied in film school, but never watched all the way through. Despite that, I knew it really well. There was never a sense of discovery about it. Time has passed. I’ve forgotten everything I knew.

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

BFI says. I’ve started this one twice, late at night during Hooptober Horror marathons, and fallen asleep. Not the movie’s fault. Now I’m staring down the 1973 Shamedown episode in a month or two.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Sight & Sound made a statement by making this their #1 film in 2022. That I haven’t seen the #1 movie on Sight & Sound cannot stand.

The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973)

It’s so much a movie I should have watched by now that I have to remind myself that I haven’t actually.

Slaughterhouse Five (George Roy Hill, 1972)

Noah Baumbach adapted my favorite novel, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for the screen. I anticipated it eagerly. This made me wonder why I haven’t watched the cinematic adaptation of my other favorite novel… a movie that’s been available to me my entire life. It’s just right over there waiting to be watched.

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Own up, friends. Let’s make a promise to watch some excellent movies in 2023. Not much is going right in the world, but we can definitely tend our own gardens, watch great movies and talk about them on the Internet.