Upcoming Film Could Be Litmus Test For Theater And On-Demand Release Strategy

As we all know, movies tend to come in two varieties: in-theater and straight to video. There’s a grey area around indie flicks and festivals, but generally it’s one of those two. When you think about it, that’s a rather old-school and unnecessary limitation. It’s in place because for a very long time, home theaters offered poor viewing environments. Nowadays that’s not as true, and people spend thousands to replicate that theater feel. So why keep the old model?

There have been a few experiments on this front, but one is about to take place that is perhaps the most serious attempt yet to break the release strategy mold. Tower Heist, an action-comedy starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, will be released to on-demand video just three weeks after its theatrical debut. If it’s a success, they can tweak the formula and break the “blockbuster” rut that Hollywood has been in for decades.

There’s a catch, of course. It wouldn’t be the movie industry if there wasn’t a catch. In this case (not surprisingly) it’s the price: $60. Yes, $60 to rent a movie. They are hoping to catch families and groups of friends who don’t want to go downtown to the movie theater and buy popcorn. It’s being offered in Atlanta and Portland to half a million Comcast subscribers (people with other providers are out of luck).

My prediction? Total failure. Pricing failure, positioning failure, content failure.

First, the price is too damn high. It makes going to the theater look like a bargain, and that’s not something you want to do. Hell, I didn’t even think it was possible. Seeing this price will make your target audience get off their couches and eat the parking fee and concession stand pricing. $30 would make sense, since that’s three tickets and people will feel they’re saving money by seeing it at home, people who might have never paid for your movie at all. But $60? Please.

Second, this kind of thing needs to be all-out or people aren’t going to care. People are confused enough about movie rollout dates, first run and second run stuff, staggered releases to DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, download, etc. It’s coming to two limited markets, on Comcast only? I realize the cable companies are risk-averse, but if you’re going to do this, go big. Advertise it from the start with the movie, offer it nation-wide, license it to other cable providers if possible, and eat the loss if it doesn’t work out. Can’t be more than ten million in lost ticket sales and setup costs, right? Universal probably spent that much on catering during production. By dipping their toe instead of just diving in, Comcast is going to get inaccurate results and put off the real thing another few years.

Third, this is the wrong movie to launch this idea on. People want to go to theaters to see action comedies. You laugh with the other people, you go with friends from school, the sound is super loud. It’s a blockbuster movie, not the kind you want to rent on video at all. Who really doesn’t want to go to the theater? Parents with kids. Driving the kids down, buying them candy, dealing with them crying and monkeying around — it’s a nightmare. The only reason they do it is because there’s no other way to see Kung Fu Panda 2 and all the other kids at school are talking about it. This model should have debuted with a high-profile kids movie. Put the home availability thing right into the preview and ads. Give the theaters the two or three weeks they need to get their initial ticket sales, then drop it into living rooms at $30 for a single viewing. Parents around the country would be ecstatic.

I could be wrong, but this just doesn’t look like it’s going to work. Still, they’ve been beating around the bush for so long that even this poor effort counts for something. The hybrid release model is going to happen sooner or later — it’s inevitable — but Tower Heist isn’t going to set the standard.