20 years ago, our choices were simple - watch a movie at the cinema, wait for the VHS to buy or rent, or wait for it to be shown on TV. Each step was in most cases years apart, and cinema was far and away the best format to watch your movie so making choices was easier based on how quickly you wanted to see it and how good you wanted the experience to be. Fast forward to now, and the choice is much harder.
In most cases, it all still begins at the cinema - the VOD simultaneous releases are not common enough to consider right now. There has never been a better time to watch movies at the cinema in terms of the sensory experience. The trouble with this is good things come at a cost, and with the average cinema ticket around £10, most people have to be selective over what they go and see on the big screen. For many, the experience is also somewhat affected by less-polite members of the audience who decide that talking and texting is ok.
What comes next varies depending on the film - for most we now have VOD retail along with the Bluray/DVD/Digital Copy, closely followed by the VOD rental. Unlike years gone by, the window between cinema and home viewing is now a matter of 3-4 months, and given the improvement in home technology, watching from your own sofa is no longer the big hit in sensory experience it once used to be.
If having your media on demand is not important, Sky is the next tier, with most new releases available around 6 months after their on demand release. This is where the predictable releases tail off, as with Netflix or Lovefilm, not only are you not guaranteed when they'll arrive, you don't know if they'll even arrive, even if you do have both services.
Finally we end up at the old faithful terrestrial television - I must admit I have no idea the timescales involved in these releases anymore, so inundated are we with the previous levels that I struggle to understand why terrestrial stations are at all interested in showing movies outside the usual popular holiday timeslots. Perhaps they're not or they're just so cheap it doesn't matter.
So what does this mean to the average film viewer? Surely choice is good? Well it is, but only if you're smart. The various tiers are all owned by different people, with each pushing to make you spend your hard earned cash on getting the latest film now and from them. But let's look at it from the point of view of something like a big-ish movie from last year, Jack Reacher. You could have seen it in January 2012 for £10 at your cinema. Or you could have seen it in April 2012 for £13 on Bluray or VOD retail. Or you could have seen is in May 2012 for £3.49 VOD rental. Or you could have seen it in October 2012 for on Sky Movies as part of your monthly sub. I imagine in the next couple of months it'll surface on Netflix or Lovefilm, and then maybe this Christmas on BBC/ITV?
The point is this is no different from any normal purchasing decision lifecycle - the longer you can wait, the cheaper something will be. But I don't think there is a product on the market that is so predictable as to when those price points will change, meaning film watchers can be clever if they can be strong enough to beat the marketing ploys. Take me for example (and I am often not smart enough!) - this year I will almost definitely see Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the cinema. But 12 Years a Slave is likely to be a home viewing for me - if I can hold out, £3.49 rental seems smart. But can I resist the steelbooks/special editions/retail offers? Who knows. It's about balancing your price points so that you're never out of something to watch - this is what film companies rely on because then you'll pay anything for anything.
I haven't even touched on things like repeat viewings, and the difference between owning a film and only renting it (a division which is blurring the more we move into a digital-only world) but have a think next time you "really must see that film" - if you're sensible you can probably save money and still see just as many films as you would have anyway.
by Marc Burrage