Simultaneous film debuts set

Comcast gets movie same day as theaters


PHILADELPHIA -- In a move likely to shake up the movie business, Philadelphia's Comcast Corp. says it signed a deal to present independent films on its video-on-demand service on the same day they hit theaters.

The deal announced yesterday with IFC Entertainment, best known for such movies as Boys Don't Cry and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, creates a new On Demand channel called IFC in Theaters, to be launched March 22.

Customers will be able to choose from four or five films a month, and two new movies will be added each month. The cost will be $5.99 per movie.

The deal represents Comcast's latest attempt to capitalize on its On Demand technology, which lets customers choose what they want to watch and when. Last year, Comcast's 9 million digital customers watched 1.4 billion programs on demand. Comcast is the dominant cable company in the Baltimore region.

The agreement put the country's theater owners, already suffering from declining ticket sales this year, on notice. John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners in Washington, said his members were not worried yet because the movies involved are small.

"We are confident that simultaneous release is an idea that will not grow beyond these little movies," Fithian said. He acknowledged, however, that if the movie industry moved to simultaneous release of films in theaters and on television or DVD, "it would have a very big impact."

The new feature could expand the market for independent films, which often are released only in large urban markets.

A Comcast executive said it was talking to other content producers about similar deals.

"It's too early to say whether this will start a trend that will break down some of these windows," said Matt Bond, Comcast's executive vice president of programming.

Bond also said he thought consumers would continue to go to theaters.

"I think that going to the theater is a social situation. It's young couples going out on a date or kids going out with friends," he said. "Conversely, there are people who either can't or don't go out to the theater."

IFC in Theaters is also offered on Cablevision, which is a part-owner of IFC Entertainment. Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, said demand for the product had been good, but he would not discuss numbers.

Sehring said IFC in Theaters was intended to expand distribution for smaller and more challenging movies.

"This isn't designed to take the place of the traditional theatrical model," he said. "It's really designed to supplement it."

The program includes titles such as CSA: The Confederate States of America, executive produced by Spike Lee, and American Gun, starring Donald Sutherland, Forest Whitaker and Marcia Gay Harden.

The first movie to be released simultaneously was Bubble, Steven Soderbergh's low-budget murder mystery set in a West Virginia doll factory. It opened Jan. 27 in theaters and on cable channel HDNet.

Just four days later, instead of the typical six months, it was released on DVD.

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