How the DVD and Blu-ray market is facing a very tricky winter

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It’s no secret that physical media has been facing tough times – and it’s going to be up to catalogue releases more than ever come the end of the year.

Much of the conversation when it comes to the shutting down of cinemas back in March, at least with regards films, has centred on the continuing delay to big releases, and the impact on the industry. Even in the last week, as some cinemas have started to open up, we’ve been reading about a debt facility being provided to stop Odeon-owner AMC from going under in the US. And, of course, there’s the uncertainty over just what big films are going to be released, and when.

One area of the industry that’s been overlooked in the midst of all of this is the already under pressure home entertainment sector.

It was, once upon a time, set to be a bumper final quarter of the year for home formats releases. No Time To Die would no doubt have brought with it another posh James Bond boxset for a start, and was set to be a gigantic seller. Tenet, Wonder Woman 84, Black Widow, Minions 2 and such like wouldn’t have been too far behind. Scoff all you like at the thought of sitting through Peter Rabbit 2 as well, but the original film shifted a lot of discs and downloads.

Yet whilst the home formats release schedules haven’t been fully released for the last three months of the year yet, the early signs are – for new releases at least – they’re going to be on the barren side. After all, every major cinema release pre-lockdown is already available on disc (save for Misbehaviour, and that’s due at the start of September). The first movie star-headlined film to be released post-lockdown will be Russell Crowe in Unhinged, and the end of July date that was scoped out for that film remains under a slight cloud of uncertainty.

Increasingly, it’s looking like we’ll do well to get a major release in cinemas until the end of August. Then, in the UK there’s an agreement between distributors and cinema chains that those major releases will have a 13-week exclusivity window before they’re allowed to be released on home formats. It’s not hard to see the problem stacking up. Let’s for a minute assume that Tenet, still scheduled to be the first big release in UK cinemas, hits its August 12th release date (which is looking less and less likely). On the current arrangement, the earliest Warner Bros would be allowed to release the film on disc – without going against the cinema chains – would be November 11th. As that’s a Wednesday, let’s push that back to November 16th.

It’s no secret that the last three months of the year are by distance the most lucrative for home entertainment sales, when the gifting market is in full flow. As such, studios over the past years have made sure that their core titles are pretty much all out by the end of October (the biggest film of last year, Avengers: Endgame, was on sale on disc by the end of August, giving it a four month run-up to Christmas).

Here, in the best case scenario, the first big new disc release won’t be until mid-November. Something like Wonder Woman 84, now due in cinemas at the start of October, won’t under the existing agreement be able to be released on disc in the UK until January 1st 2021. And by then, most of us have put our credit cards away. Add in the impact of a global recession expected to take a firm grip, and it’s all a bit melancholy.

Still, a few variables.

Firstly, the agreement is shorter in the US, so imports tend to arrive a good month before. Secondly, in extraordinary times it may be that cinema chains are willing to chat about exceptions to current agreements, at least for the time being. Going against that, the furore between Universal and Odeon-owner AMC isn’t far out of minds, where – after Universal hinted it was considering premium video on demand releases for more titles following the success of Trolls World Tour – the chain fired back that it would refuse to show Universal’s movies.

That may ultimately turn out to be the metaphorical storm in a teacup, but it’s indicative of how raw the topic is of shortening the theatrical window. Any agreement that’s brokered – and it’s a long shot one will be – is likely to be on the short term side.

Ultimately, as things stand, at the most lucrative time of the year for home entertainment, the barren landscape of cinema releases at the moment is going to be reflected with the films available on shop shelves. This, at a time when even in lockdown, DVD sales have continued to decline (even if sales of DVD players have spiked). Physical media is still big business, just nowhere near as big as it was.

There is a flipside to all of this, though, and we’re getting hints as to where the assorted home entertainment companies are heading with the releases we know about so far. Because more than ever, those companies are going to be reliant on catalogue titles to get us spending. To lure people into people a DVD, Blu-ray or 4K as a physical gift to someone this Yuletide.

At the expensive side of things, Disney has already announced a 50-disc Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray set of the Marvel Cinema Universe Infinity Saga (above), for instance. It’ll cost you a cool £399 if you want one, and for that price you also get a letter from Marvel boss Kevin Feige as part of the package (although, as we’ve pointed out before, for that kind of money we’d want an invite to his Christmas party too). HBO meanwhile is putting together a complete boxset of all eight seasons of Game Of Thrones on the 4K format, the premium end of home entertainment, and that too comes with a price tag north of £200.

Studios aren’t being shy. Warner Bros is reissuing Beetlejuice, The Goonies, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films and reportedly Full Metal Jacket on the 4K format, with Blu-ray releases alongside some of those. Universal, meanwhile, is due to reissue the Back To The Future trilogy in October to salute the original film’s 35th birthday, and it’s readying new Hitchcock releases too. Paramount is bringing its line of premium Blu-rays to the UK exclusively through HMV, with Pretty In Pink, Ghost and Flashdance kicking things off. Sony is rumoured to have 4K plans for Whiplash, District 9, the Jump Street films and more.

As is increasingly the case, though, it’s the third party labels who are doing lots of the heavy lifting. 88 Films for instance is releasing a bunch of Jean Claude Van Damme movies at the end of September. Arrow is yet to announce its full autumn schedule, but we already know of a deluxe Cinema Paradiso set in November. StudioCanal, meanwhile revealed at the start of the year that new editions of films such as Total Recall, Serpico, Breathless, The Red Circle and Three Days Of The Condor were amongst its catalogue releases planned for the year, and we await the date they’ll arrive.

But of course, those creating extra supplements for catalogue titles this winter are likely to have found themselves heavily hit too, and it won’t be until September at the earliest where we get a proper flavour as to the titles looking to prop up the home entertainment industry – at least on the film and TV – this Christmas.

The trickle down effect of cinemas closing for so long, of a lack of new big films to get people through doors (had those doors been open) and of the pressures already exerted on the industry is going to be felt for some time to come. And the cash injection provided by the end of year gifting season is already a cause of real concern.

We’ll keep you posted as we hear of new release announcements. But the truth is there’s not that many to talk about yet…

Image: BigStock


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