For the traditional theatrical window, the lines continue to blur

Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation."
Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation.”

It’s a debate that has raged in the movie business since the era of VHS tapes — how long should studios wait between releasing their movies in theaters and putting them out on home video?

The issue of “windowing” releases has long been one of the biggest sources of tension in the movie business in recent years. Theater owners, ever protective of their business model, rely on their exclusive access to new movies to preserve ticket sales. But consumers generally want to be able to see movies on DVD, Blu-ray or video on-demand soon after the films are in the multiplexes.

In today’s culture of instant, virtually unlimited access to entertainment, waiting three months after opening weekend to stream a summer blockbuster can seem like an eternity. Movie studios’ attempts to toy with the delay have sometimes been met with swift backlash from theaters.

This conflict has been bubbling up for years, not just for those in the industry but for audiences as well — for example, whenever Netflix picks up a movie to stream as soon as it hits theaters. Or when Napster co-founder Sean Parker proposed a new way to watch new movies at home.


Trying to understand the arguments on both sides of the release issue can be tricky for consumers. Here, The Times offers a primer on the conflict, the players and what’s at stake.

What is a “window,” exactly?

The “theatrical window” is industry jargon for the gap between when a movie first hits theaters and when it goes on sale at places like Wal-Mart, iTunes and Amazon. Typically, that window is about 90 days long. It used to be significantly longer but has shortened as studios and theaters have faced pressure to adjust to consumer demands.

OK, but who cares?

The group with the most to lose — directly, anyway — is the theater owners. The biggest chains, like AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment, along with the mom-and-pop shops, have generally resisted efforts to shorten the window. If people can just watch movies at home immediately, the companies argue, why would they bother to go to the local theater and buy popcorn and soda?

How do movie studios feel about it?

Film companies generally support the traditional way of doing things. Restricting movies to theaters means a bigger box-office gross — still a big source of studio revenue — and that leads to more money down the line. With a bigger theatrical splash, studios can generate higher sales from home video, merchandise and licensing to television networks and streaming companies like Netflix. But studios have also tried to experiment, with limited success. Universal in 2011 had to reverse plans to release the movie “Tower Heist” on demand early. And Paramount Pictures last year tried out a new strategy by fast-tracking two of its horror movies to video-on-demand.

What about filmmakers? Do they have a say in this?

Most directors and producers still support the traditional model, saying that the best way to see their movies is on a big screen in a dark, otherwise silent room. But some, including “Star Trek’s” J.J. Abrams, have voiced support for people who want to experiment. Some major players, including Peter Jackson, have praised Sean Parker’s yet-to-be-launched start up Screening Room, which plans to sell a set-top box that will let people pay $50 each for new movies.

And how is that going?

Theater owners have loudly taken umbrage with the idea of having a “third party” come in and tell them what’s best for their business. Virtually every major studio has also made some kind of vague statement of support for the current model, and it became a rallying cry at the recent CinemaCon industry confab in Las Vegas.

Is there any room for compromise?

Maybe. Some theater chains have been willing to schedule screenings for movies with shortened windows, as long as they get a cut of the home video sales. That’s how Paramount was able to get a couple major circuits on board for its experimental release of “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” and “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.” Then again, those movies didn’t enjoy much of a box-office haul.

What about Netflix? Didn’t it have a movie in theaters?

Yes, Netflix released the critically acclaimed “Beasts of No Nation” and the less-acclaimed sequel to “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” The movies became available for streaming and movie theaters at the same time. That’s called a day-and-date release, for those keeping a glossary. But neither got much support from the theater industry, and they did little business at the multiplex. The vast majority of chains refused to screen the films.

Sony did an online release for that Seth Rogen North Korea movie, right?

Yes, “The Interview.” But that was different. After Sony was hacked in 2014, someone started threatening violence at theaters that decided to play the movie. Sony gave the theaters the option to cancel their screenings, and cancel they did. So then the studio put the movie online and showed it at about 300 willing independent theaters.

So far most of the questions have been about relatively small releases. Will we ever see a day-and-date release for a “Star Wars” movie?

That’s hard to imagine at this point. Big spectacle movies like “Star Wars” and “Jurassic World” are the exact kind of film that movie theater owners live for, and it takes huge worldwide ticket sales to justify the costs of producing and marketing them. Plus, people are clearly still willing to fork over their cash to see a $250-million sci-fi saga play out on the big screen. It’s probably safe to assume they’ll stick to indie flicks and low-budget horror movies for now. But never say never.

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder