Within the last week there have been two seismic eruptions in the world of film distribution. First, Warner Bros. and other studios have once again begun talking to theater owners about early rental windows, seeking to shrink the period of time between a movie’s theatrical run and when it’s available on-demand. From the other end of things, Apple has been applying pressure to studios to make iTunes the preferred provider of on-demand movies available earlier than they currently are.


In both cases, the studios are of course wary of honking off the theaters that still account for the lion’s share of movie revenues. That’s a big golden goose and while consumers certainly want the convenience of on-demand movies, it’s unproven if they’re willing to pay the premium prices – $25-50 per rental – that would likely come with early access. Theater owners have put the kibosh on other efforts along these lines and otherwise held their breath in protest, as they did when Netflix wanted to release Beasts of No Nation last year. It’s why Amazon original movies don’t hit streaming for months after their theatrical release.

So if distribution is going to change (it may not at this particular moment but it will eventually within the next five years and the theater chains can decide to be part of the solution or be left on the sidelines), marketing will need to fundamentally change as well, right? Thankfully there are two systems already in place that provide some useful guides as to how things might look in the not-too-distant future.

First, there are plenty of smaller independent movies that are available simultaneously (more or less) in theaters and on-demand. The sites for these movies usually contain links to either buy tickets after determining if it’s playing near you or to get it on Amazon, iTunes or another VOD platform. That’s an easy model to replicate, but it’s one that’s only been applied at this time to a handful of films and none that are at the top of the general public’s “must see” list. That’s not a knock on quality, just awareness.

What might be more instructive is how you can pre-order on iTunes movies that are currently in theaters. So I can already get Moana, Trolls and other movies that are still playing on the big screen now and they’ll be delivered to me as soon as they’re available.

What’s missing from that second example but which could be added if things change is a prompt to get there.

See right now on the smaller indies of the first example is that the site has a link that takes you directly to iTunes and lets you buy or rent the movie. That link is missing from the site of something on the scale of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I need to go to iTunes myself and see if it’s available for pre-order.

If that prompt/link were available on the site during the theatrical marketing window, when awareness is highest, you have to think it would result in a significant number of conversions. People could then make the decision for themselves which works better for them, planning to buy a $15 ticket for each individual going to the movies or spend $50 for everyone to see the movie in the comfort of their own home. The calculus is going to be different in most every situation. But it at least creates a level playing field.

It’s not that far afield from what’s in place now. Which is to say the marketing changes very little when a new system is in place. An additional prompt or two online and verbiage in the ads to call out the movie’s availability now is largely the extent of it. But the whole dynamics of the marketing change from one of trying to prompt a largely untrackable action to one where click-throughs and ROI on the campaign become much easier to measure because the conversion is instant.