“It is no longer the distribution windows but rather reception modes that shape the media landscape. When a film is released, it has to be available everywhere, very quickly, to be able to benefit from ad campaigns and maximum exposure on all screens.”
When we were young, we had to deal with a certain degree of scarcity which, although it could lead to some frustration, also helped to whet our appetites and fuel our dreams. The latest film from Disney could only be seen in the cinema at Christmastime and only in morsels – always the same ones – the rest of the year on our TV screens. These fleeting and much-loved images filled our imagination, and we had to wait until we were adults before we were able to see these movies again, by which time they’d lost some of their mystery. We also had to wait for a new system of TV broadcasting rights to emerge, and a new video economy that created a coherent and very profitable distribution system, for the major studios and distributors to come around to delivering their products over these new media.
It was on the TV in fact that the idea of a distribution sequence gradually took shape. As the television became ubiquitous in people’s homes in the 1960s, set against the simultaneous and steady decline in attendance in movie theatres, broadcasters agreed to wait a long time before airing films on TV. For five years in France, for as long as TV was publicly-owned and there were only a few channels to choose from. It was the arrival of VCRs in the home that forced the government to get involved in changing the rules in the early 1980s.
The technological and industrial developments gradually refined the system and made it more complex. In 2005, people had to wait six months between a film’s release in theatres and its release on DVD, 33 weeks for it to become available in VoD, 9 months on TV in pay-per-view, 12 months on pay-TV and 24 months for it to be shown on a free-to-air channel. This wonderfully, entirely French order of things, structured by the Law and codified in the European Union in the late 1980s, had a loose counterpart in the United States where distribution windows were governed by contracts, negotiated on a film-by-film basis by the interested parties.
Whatever system was used, stakeholders were forced to adapt very quickly, round about 2010, to the new scheme of things that was created by the digital revolution. From then on, distribution windows were negotiated directly by the industry’s representative bodies, without government involvement. The first concession, after years of debate, was to make the timeline more flexible, shortening it by two months and simplifying it, which included allowing simultaneous releases on VoD and DVD. The new system had only just been put into place when the way people actually watched movies forced a further rethink: a growing percentage of the population had already experienced access to a steady stream videos and TV programmes outside the grid, which completely altered there relationship to content. Like with music before it, users were quick to adapt their viewing habits to the possibilities opened up by new forms of time-shifted viewing on the many screens of all sizes that were now available to them.
They were well ahead of the legal solutions that took some time to get going. The Megavideo website was to video what Napster had been to music: an illegal service that became hugely popular with users thanks to a huge selection of content that was easy to access, and which became available soon after it was initially released/aired, accessible in streaming and, of course, for free… Even filmmakers themselves contributed to the trend with a growing number of experiments aimed at breaking down the old system: in 2010, Jean-Luc Godard broke the law by making his film, “Socialisme” available in VOD the same day it showed at Cannes, and two days before it was released in cinemas.
The old distribution sequence was soon dismantled, or at least it became invisible to most users. What is available on TV and other distribution platforms has by now adapted to users’ habits, and media companies now have a free and a paid offer, and it is no longer the distribution windows but rather reception modes that shape the media landscape. When a film is released, it has to be available everywhere, very quickly, to be able to benefit from ad campaigns and maximum exposure on all screens, from the most sophisticated cinema to a tiny handheld device. When a TV series is programmed, the network that owns the rights to it must be able to capitalize on its first airing on catch-up TV and on any licensed products. The bywords today are exclusivity, special events, appointment viewing and brand equity. Despite which, time has not been abolished and distributors have had to learn to manage, monetize and make their catalogue accessible to viewers by fine tuning the principles of handling what Chris Anderson coined “the long tail” back in 2004.@