Film company Roadside opens new "window" for films

LOS ANGELES Tue Jun 17, 2008 7:31pm EDT

Canadian singer and director Neil Young addresses a news conference to present the film 'CSNY: Deja Vu' running at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 8, 2008. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Canadian singer and director Neil Young addresses a news conference to present the film 'CSNY: Deja Vu' running at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hoping to widen the market for a low-budget anti-war film, one distributor is testing a strategy of releasing "CSNY: Deja Vu," directed by rocker Neil Young, not just in theaters but on pay TV and the Internet on the same day.

Roadside Attractions, 40 percent-owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp, is in "final negotiations" to release the film July 25 in theaters, on TV video-on-demand services and via Netflix Inc's "Watch Instantly" Web streaming, said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside.

"It's a big experiment to release this film simultaneously on all these media, with big expectations for all of them," said Cohen of the film, which chronicles a 2006 tour of the Woodstock generation band of David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Young against a backdrop of anti-Iraq-war protest.

This untraditional strategy may help Young's movie after several other anti-war films, like Universal Pictures' "The Kingdom" ($47 million U.S.) and Paramount's "Stop-Loss," failed to reach box office expectations, industry analysts said.

And faced with an ever swelling pipeline of Hollywood movies and stagnating theater attendance and DVD sales, Hollywood studios are mulling more and more experiments like this in hopes of finding ways to maximize audience exposure, technology and profits, industry sources said.

But to date, the major studios have only dabbled with changes to their release strategies, hesitant to threaten relationships with partners and abandon the old formula of distributing movies in staggered "windows" of opportunity -- first in theaters, then premium TV services, DVD and lastly, basic TV, generally speaking.

Major studios for the most part declined to comment, although opinions vary among executives and analysts as to when these companies, which spend upwards of $150 million to promote and release big budget films, will defy the system.

Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said he believes the next two years could see change. "By 2010, there should be one major summer release in which a studio will break the mold and try simultaneous platforms," McQuivey said.

Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, believes film distribution will be vastly different in 10 years.

"We live in a world where technology enables consumers to get content wherever they are," he said, calling the current system "incredibly inefficient" given the new alternatives.

But at least two executives at major Hollywood studios said they see the status quo remaining for a long time, at least for 10 years.

"People who sound the death knell of theatrical windows have no knowledge of the business," said one of the executives, who asked not to be identified. "We're talking about an industry that generates a lot of money just about every weekend of the year on a consistent basis," the executive said.

On a typical weekend in Hollywood's lucrative summer season, all movies in distribution can generate $150 million or more at U.S. and Canadian box offices.

Cohen and others say experimentation will likely be driven by distributors of small films like "CSNY: Deja Vu," made for under $2 million.

"For most studios, DVD and theatrical are still golden. But if you're working on a smaller film, with lower costs, it's not the same economies of scale," Roadhouse's Cohen said.

Mark Cuban's HDNet is another company that has experimented, releasing Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" in 2006 with almost no windowing.

And IFC Entertainment, which makes and buys movies for its Independent Film Channel cable TV network and for release in theaters, uses simultaneous distribution to reach fans who may not otherwise be exposed to low-budget and festival films.

"Our model is designed to expand audiences for independent film lovers and reach them where there may not be an art house," said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC. He added that the strategy boosted ticket sales for films such as British director Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley."

(Editing by Gary Hill)