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Why did "Serenity" Movie go to DVD so quickly ?

Thursday 8 December 2005, by isa

Question: Is there any special reason Serenity is available on DVD so quickly? Not that I’m complaining, but it seems as though it was just in theaters. - Sara

FlickChick: Serenity did come to DVD especially quickly for a major studio release: Roughly seven weeks separate the Sept. 30, 2005, theatrical opening and the Dec. 20 DVD release date. But to put that turnaround in context, the window between theatrical and DVD/video has been shrinking steadily for several years. While I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of how various parties make money from movies, certain factors have a direct bearing on why studio producers and distributors are putting movies out on DVD (and, to a lesser degree, video) faster than ever before.

When movies play in a theater, the theater owner and the distributor (which is often also the same company that produced the movie, in whole or in part, or paid a significant sum of money to acquire it) split the ticket-sale revenue. The distributor bears all of the not-inconsiderable cost of prints and advertising; theater owners keep all the money from concessions (candy, soda, popcorn, nachos, hot dogs etc), which bring in far more than admissions. The percentage of the box-office proceeds that goes to the distributor is highest in the movie’s opening weeks and subsequently drops steadily. I’m sure you can see where this is going: The longer the movie plays, the greater the proportion of revenue that goes to the theater owner and the smaller the proportion that goes to the distributor. Once upon a time, before secondary markets like broadcast/cable TV and, later on, video and DVD emerged, there was no reason to pull a movie out of theaters: The money a movie made during its original theatrical run was, with few exceptions, all the money it was going to make. But now there’s plenty of afterlife in movies, and the best way to get it is to bypass the middleman. You may remember that movies used to be priced for rental when they first came: They’d cost $100 or more dollars, so almost all the sales were to video stores, who recouped the price in rentals. Later, if a movie proved an especially popular rental, it would be reissued at what was called a "sell-through" price, usually in the $15-to-$20 area. By the time DVDs came onto the scene, home-entertainment distributors (which, in the case of major studio films, are divisions of the same company as the theatrical distributor) had learned that the sell-through market was huge, and that selling three million DVD and VHS copies of a movie at $19.98/$9.98 a pop to consumers on the first day it was available was infinitely more lucrative than selling to tens of thousands video stores at five times the price. And the smaller the time gap between the theatrical release and the DVD/video release, the bigger the payoff from the millions spent on theatrical advertising and promotion. Advertising is paid for directly, while promotion, which includes magazine and newspaper articles, TV appearances by the stars, coverage on shows like Access Hollywood and the like, isn’t. Still, the publicists and marketing people who secure nonadvertising placements have to be paid, and events like the recent Times Square premiere of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake come with a significant price tag, from airfare and accommodations for stars and filmmakers to the cost of renting a theater, renting arc lights, paying private security personnel, and building giant Kong and parking him in the middle of Broadway.

Serenity, which cost $39 million, opened modestly on September 30, taking in a little more than $10 million on almost 2,200 screens in three days. That was good enough to make it the second-highest-grossing film that weekend, but it fell off almost 50 percent the following weekend and dropped to No. 8 on the chart; by its third week it was out of the Top 10 and had lost 500 theaters and by its fourth it was careening down the chart and playing in fewer than 900 theaters. It wound up making about $25.3 million. My read is that despite strong reviews (I came to it cold and thought it was great), it never broke out beyond the core audience of sci-fi fans loyal to director Joss Whedon ’s short-lived TV series Firefly. It made total sense to get it out on DVD for the holiday season.