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Crosscut tech blog: First-run major studio movies on your home TV ... so very close

DirecTV brings major studio films to your home, in HD, less than 30 days after theatrical release. Not everyone approves.

There is no end of sources these days for watching movies on your home TV, but the one area eluding avid movie watchers has been first-run major studio films.

All that may start changing if Home Premiere, a new service from the DirecTV satellite service, is successful. It delivers selected films only 60 days from their initial theatrical release in 1080p HD for $29.99 per showing. The service was scheduled to begin last week (4/21).

Four major studios — Sony, Universal, Fox, and Warner Bros. — are cooperating with the service (experiment?). The first movie to be shown is “Just Go With It,” starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The film wasn’t a critical favorite but performed respectably at the box office, grossing about $45 million according to the-numbers.com. (Here’s The Seattle Times' less-than-enthusiastic review.)

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the plan is the latest idea from Hollywood studios to make up for falling DVD sales, off about 40 percent from the market high, and a theatrical box office down about 20 percent. While the Times notes that DirecTV reportedly has 19.2 million subscribers, Engadget reports that only those with DirecTV’s high definition digital recorder — about 6 million viewers — will have access to the films.

Coming next on the schedule are “Hall Pass” from Warner Bros., Universal Studios’ "The Adjustment Bureau," and Fox Searchlight's "Cedar Rapids."

According to a spokesperson for the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the average national cost of a ticket in 2010 was $7.89. In Seattle, I checked out the Regal Meridian 16 cineplex on Seventh Avenue: Tickets for “The Source Code,” the new film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, cost $11 after 4:00 p.m. Figuring in the typical $10- to $15-per-person concession costs, the $30 figure for home viewing by two or more people doesn’t look so bad.

Other home-entertainment operations, including the Comcast cable system, are rumored to be looking into providing the same service. Comcast’s Seattle spokesperson would not comment, saying only, "We are continuously looking at new ways to bring our customers the best content anytime, anywhere.”

* * *

Not everyone is happy with this concept. On Wednesday, roughly two dozen of Hollywood’s top directors, including “Titanic” and “Avatar” director James Cameron and 2010 Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), protested the plan via an open letter. The directors noted that a release plan that affects the current theatrical window "could irrevocably harm the financial model of our film industry."

The directors pointed out that today's $30 on-demand price could be discounted to about $10 in a few years. The "cannibalization“ of theatrical revenue could lead to losses in the hundreds of millions, the closing of theaters, and a competition for remaining screens that could foreclose all but the most commercial movies from being screened theatrically. “Specialty films whose success depends on platform releases that slowly build in awareness would be severely threatened under this new model," the letter said. "Careers that are built on the risks that can be taken with lower budget films may never have the chance to blossom under this cut-throat new model.”

The dialog continues.

* * *

DirecTV may be in the spotlight for running major-studio first-run films so close to their initial release date. But it's not the only company playing in this ballpark.

IFC Films, the company that is simultaneously a cable channel and a film producer/distributor, has been allowing cable companies to run films that are currently playing in theaters. Comcast On Demand, for example is offering among other first-run films the new “Super,” starring Raine Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon, on-demand for $6.99. The film is still rolling out to theaters nationwide, although Seattle does not appear to be on the list.

And lest we think that cable companies are not watching this movement with intense interest, consider the latest information from Comcast, greater Seattle’s major cable service provider.


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