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Scattered Thoughts on Imported DVDs and Theatrical Distribution

 

Exhibit A: a few months ago Magnolia Pictures released the Steven Soderberg film BUBBLE in theaters while simultaneously premiering it on pay-per-view TV, and on DVD a few days later.  The action attracted quite a bit of controversy, seeing as how it was apparently the first such release, and hardly set the box office on fire (although BUBBLE did well in the home arena, raking in around $5 million).  Does this prove the validity of BUBBLE’S release pattern?  According to a recent Ain’t-it-Cool-news.com piece, “that question remains unanswered until they try it with a film people actually want to see.”  On the other hand, John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, claims it proves audiences will stay away from theaters if they know the films being screened are already available on DVD. 

     For my part, I believe Mr. Fithian is right...and my opinion is based on documented evidence.  Consider: bootlegged DVDs prevalent in mainland China and Hong Kong have decimated quite a few movie releases in those countries, and all-but wiped out the local film industries.  The reasons aren’t difficult to discern: why shell out to see a movie when you can buy a DVD copy for as low as ten cents (as one entertainment reporter reported paying for a copy of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA on the streets of China while the film was in general release)?  However, putting aside the specter of copyright infringement, there is another threat facing theatrical distributors. 

     Exhibit B: the Russian horror/sci fi blockbuster NIGHT WATCH, recently released on these shores by Twentieth Century Fox, to limited success.  This comes after a long gestation period during which it was initially supposed to be unveiled in the summer of ’05, complete with an expensive publicity blitz.  As we know, that much-publicized release didn’t occur, and NIGHT WATCH was eventually granted considerably scaled-down distribution on the arthouse circuit during a less-than-ideal time of year.  What happened?  I’m not sure, but have a good guess. 

     Could it be that Fox somehow got hip to the fact that much of NIGHT WATCH’S potential audience had seen it already?  The film, after all, was completed back in ’04 and released on DVD in its homeland shortly thereafter--and, in deference to Russian émigrés living in the US, an NTSC coded region free version was put out late the same year, copies of which made their way into the eager hands of genre buffs across the US.  I can assure you they weren’t difficult to track down: the region free NIGHT WATCH DVD was (and still is) all-but ubiquitous on ebay, and I know of several commercial retailers in the LA area who sold copies.  Is it any wonder the film’s US theatrical release was a bust?  As exhibitor Gary Meyer said about BUBBLE, “The public's perception is, why pay $10 to see it when we can get it at home?”  Or, in the case of NIGHT WATCH, “Why pay $10 to see it when we can get it off ebay months in advance?”

    
Furthermore, NIGHT WATCH is hardly the first example of this trend.

     Exhibit C:  The French gorefest HIGH TENSION, released by Lion’s Gate in the US in July of ‘05.  It was a wide release and, ultimately, a disastrous one, barely eking out a measly $1 million at the box office in its opening week.  The reason?  Well, aside from the fact that the blonde-chick-brandishing-a-barbed-wire-stick ad slick wasn’t quite as compelling as Lion’s Gate’s publicity department apparently believed, the fact was that, once again, everyone had already seen the damn thing!   

     That’s right, imported HIGH TENSION DVDs (initially released around Europe back in ’02) have been around for some time.  There were at least two separate NTSC coded DVDs, one from Hong Kong and the other from Thailand, available long before the film hit US screens.  And once again, the DVDs in question were not particularly difficult to get a hold of. 

     Exhibit(s) D: DOGVILLE, GOZU, IMMORTEL, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY, PULSE, WOLF CREEK, EVIL.  More examples of the above.  I won’t go into particulars, but will reveal that all were foreign films released on DVD in Europe and/or Asia months and even years before making it to US screens...where all, needless to add, had less-than-successful runs.  If you’ve read this far then you get the drift. 

     Why does it take so long for US distributors to release foreign flicks on these shores?  I’d need a book’s worth of space to fully answer that one, but I know one important reason is the monetary issue.  Distributors like to wait for the films’ copyright holders to drop their prices before snatching up the US release rights, which often takes a year or two.  This brings us to...

    
Exhibit E: the legendary ’00 Japanese film BATTLE ROYALE, which has yet to be released in the US, reportedly because its owners are demanding too much moolah.  Just as well, because it seems that by now everyone and their grandmother has seen it and its sequel (which is likewise MIA on US screens).  Many Asian companies manufacture DVDs of this title expressly for importation into the US; by now BATTLE ROYALE DVDs, available in several different editions, are so common it’s difficult not to find one.  Somehow I don’t think an official release of this film would have much impact, as damn near everybody has viewed the film, digested it and moved on.     

     Perhaps the BATTLE ROYALE situation outlined above represents the future of movie distribution, with films’ owners importing and exporting copies to various countries without bothering to secure official releases.  In this none-too-far-off future world, theatrical distribution would presumably be concentrated solely in the hands of the major studios...which, truth be told, wouldn’t be all that different from the way things are now.   

     So what does this mean?  A problem, both for American exhibitors daring enough to release fare like NIGHT WATCH, HIGH TENSION or any of the other films listed above, and for those of us who like to see those kinds of movies.  I realize that, as a died-in-the-wool horror/cult movie fan, it’s uncool to obsess about box office receipts, but as they say, it ain’t called show business for nothing. Distributors decide what films to import and/or export based on box office receipts, while foreign movie companies tend to gear their product--NIGHT WATCH, for example, or HIGH TENSION--toward the US market, all the while keeping a close eye on box office receipts. 

     Seen in this light, the failures of NIGHT WATCH and HIGH TENSION in the US are not the ho-hum events so many of us appeared to take them as, but unsettling harbingers of things--and films--to come.  We moviegoers vote for what we want to see with our feet, and the vote is in: NIGHT WATCH and HIGH TENSION were both box office flops, meaning, in the eyes of distributors, that people don’t want to see such films... 

     Exhibit F: But, as import DVD sales indicate, people really DO want to see them!  (Not much of an “exhibit”, admittedly, but please stay with me...)  Someone should really do a study tabulating how many imported DVD copies of HIGH TENSION and NIGHT WATCH have been sold, and then compare those numbers with the film’s US box office receipts.  I have a feeling the results might be interesting. 

     There’s no easy answer to this problem.  Horror fans are going to continue to buy imported DVDs if and when they can get ‘em, regardless of when American distributors decide to release their films.  I’ve heard talk of laws being passed to forbid the sale of foreign DVDs within the US, but haven’t been able to find any verification.  (One ebay seller told me about a supposed ruling that okays the selling of import DVDs but disallows advertising for ‘em--if that’s true than I know of several dealers who’ve broken that law many times over!)  I’ve been saying this for some time and I’ll repeat it here: a change is needed in this country’s tried-and-true movie distribution pattern, and soon.  (If you manage to figure out what that change might be, drop me a line!) 

     In the meantime I’ll say this: simultaneously releasing a film in theaters and on DVD is clearly NOT the solution!

  

--5/15/06
 


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