Curiouser and Curiouser – Odeon refuses to show “Alice In Wonderland”

One of the year’s biggest cinema releases – Tim Burton’s much-anticipated take on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” – may not be shown in the UK’s biggest cinema chain after a dispute broke out between Odeon Cinemas (part of the UCI Group) and Disney, the studio behind the film, over its DVD release.

Disney has told the chain that it intends to release the film on DVD only 12 weeks after its theatrical release (rather than the usual 17 weeks) as part of a long-term strategy to focus more on the home entertainment market as a distribution channel rather than Cinemas, which has led Odeon to announce that it will not show the film in UK, Ireland and Italy as this is where Disney intends to “fast-track” the DVD and Blu-Ray release.

The fact that Disney is looking move to the online and home entertainment market to generate revenue from new releases is no real surprise, but commercially speaking this may well be a case of them playing hardball with Odeon for the wrong reason.

The main reason why films and their subsequent DVDs or Blu-Rays are more often than not released worldwide on the same day is fairly simple – to combat piracy. If a movie is released in the US or any other specific territory first, then poor-quality camcorder versions tend to make their way onto the Web fairly quickly and it may well be the case that both box-office takings and DVD or Blu-Ray takings suffer. 20th Century Fox is familiar with this problem, having to deal last year with a DVD-quality leak of summer blockbuster “X-Man Origins: Wolverine” and this year with a leak of “Avatar”, now the highest-grossing film of all time. Over the course of the past week or so, an American “Cammer” received a prison sentence for copying (amongst a slew of other titles) Warner Brothers’ “The Dark Knight”.

Filming a movie on a camcorder and then making it available over the internet or via unauthorised and poor-quality DVD copies constitutes copyright infringement, both for whoever copies in the first place and again for anyone involved in getting those copies to the public. This is the other reason that Disney wants to release a DVD or Blu-Ray version of the movie as soon as possible – to reduce the need to buy illegal copies of the movie by making an official version available.

The window of time between the theatrical release of major studio films is becoming shorter all the time as technology becomes more available and the public becomes more willing to get hold of illegal copies to avoid having to pay a fairly high retail price for a DVD or Blu-Ray. However, “Alice In Wonderland” is a slightly different case as it is one of a growing number of “event” movies being released in 3D as well as conventionally. “Avatar” has already shown that 3D releases can now make up a large part of a movie’s opening weekend box-office gross, taking over $54 million of its $242 million total as of 21st December last year through 3D showings.

Whilst it is understandable that Disney will want to get the home entertainment version of the movie into retail stores as soon as possible, sacrificing five weeks in cinemas may well end up hurting its overall profits given that Odeon are the largest cinema chain in the UK with a large number of 3D screens. Leaving it in cinemas for another 5 weeks would allow Odeon to charge higher ticket prices for longer and may serve to build anticipation for the home entertainment release. At least one other cinema chain has said that it will show the film.

Odeon may well back down eventually, not wanting to lose out on one of the biggest releases of the year so far. However, it does have a number of other 3D releases this year to look forward to in the shape of Warner Brothers’ “Clash Of The Titans” and Paramount’s “Iron Man 2”. This stand-off may end up demonstrating exactly how many film lovers will be willing to pay to see a major release on the big screen when they know that DVD releases get closer and closer. In any event, both the theatrical and DVD releases will be “very important dates” for the industry.

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