The Rental Window Virus

a commentary by Dean McIntosh


    Consumers have a right to be upset about DVD rental windows. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most commonly cited one is the desire to own the film now instead of in six months time. Funnily enough, this reason is also the least significant of those we have against the rental window. If you've already read my article about The Future Of Cinema, then you will be aware that rental outlets are a part of the grossly outdated distribution system of the past, one that is now living on borrowed time.

    The film studios originally did not want home video to emerge, and they went so far as to take court action in an effort to prevent this. The situation was problematic to both the film studios and to Sony, the inventors of the VCR. On one hand, the film studios were concerned about the loss of revenue they would experience as a result of their films being freely available in the home. On the other hand, Sony and their supporters saw the video cassette recorder as an opportunity to extend the period over which film studios earned revenue from their product. So, partly in order to keep both camps happy, the business model of rental windows was conceived. The rental outlets would buy copies of a film on VHS (or possibly Betamax at the time) at a hundred dollars a piece, and rent them to the public at a fee of several dollars a night. The fact that video cassettes by nature are not a long-lasting product, chiefly because they degrade in quality with each subsequent viewing, helped business in this regard because only the most dedicated collectors would want to spend twenty or thirty dollars to buy a film in this format.

DVD Changes All The Rules

    DVD-Video, on the other hand, is a collector's medium, geared in design towards the viewer who wishes to experience the film exactly as it was presented in the theatres, and multiple times at that. DVD-Video's chief advantage over the VHS format, in a commercial sense, is that the consumer can buy a film they treasure and watch it numerous times without fear of the storage medium being degraded. This is one area where DVD significantly changes all of the rules. DVD users don't merely wish to watch a film once and then be done with it, they want to be able to watch the film again and again, as well as be presented with some tidbits about how the film was made. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh describes DVD-Video as being the best film school in the world, with the information imparted by directors through this feature being priceless. Even the most casual of collectors will prefer to spend thirty-five to forty dollars to own a film of interest to them, rather than spend five dollars renting it and only viewing it once. The picture-perfect clarity afforded by DVD-Video when pausing the film even allows the film buff to hunt for subtle mistakes made during the filming process.

    This is just one major reason why Australian collectors would prefer to pay fifty-odd dollars, in spite of the currency problems, to own a film now rather than in six months time. It is also a lot easier to buy films from overseas outlets via the Internet than it is to buy them from the local retailer, as buying over the Internet does not even require the effort of leaving your home. With the current bitterness over being made to wait six months for a sell-through version of Fight Club, only to find three commentaries and one deleted scene missing, and not for the oft-quoted reasons of PAL disc space, either, rental windows ring like a prophecy of doom to the collector. Not only have we been asked to wait six months to buy a title that generates untold levels of curiosity and controversy, but the version we were given the option of buying contains an incomplete set of extras. Under these circumstances, it is hard to trust that the local distributor will do the right thing by the consumers in six months time for future rental window releases.

Rental Windows Do Not Benefit The Consumer Or The Film Studio

    In the film business, there are really only two parties that deserve anything in a commercial sense when buying a film. The people who created the film and have expended the effort to bring it to the consumer deserve to be paid for their efforts, and the consumer who pays their money deserves to be given the best and most complete version of the film and its supplements that their country's censorship laws will allow. If one of those conditions is not met, and the film studios who rely on rental windows seem to be having the most trouble meeting the latter, then we have a problem. The situation is not helped at all by the complex network of distributors and commercial outlets that were once necessary in order to achieve orderly dissemination of the product.

    The use of rental windows in this age of the Internet and digital video does not benefit the consumer at all, and it does not help the distributors at all to impose it. Since the rental window will not reduce the price of the eventual sell-through product at all, consumers can rightly see no benefit in waiting for six months to buy the film if they would rather own it now. Since distributor practises are also currently forcing the relatively draconian and absurd laws of the BBFC upon a country where classification is emphasized in preference to arbitrary censorship, it is little wonder that Region 1 DVDs turn up in the hands of the Australian consumer with increasing frequency. In an ideal world, the consumer would rent or purchase a film on DVD directly from the film studio that was responsible for putting it together. This would allow the consumer to view or own the film in question, and ensure that all of the profits rightfully go to the studio.

Rental Windows Won't Work If They Are Only Applied To One Country

    If a film studio is going to apply a rental window to a release in this day and age, it has to be applied to all countries, not just one. Not only does it frustrate the consumer quite deeply to put a rental window in place, but asking a consumer in one country to wait six months for a DVD when a consumer in another country can buy it now will cause a great deal of resentment. As previously mentioned, this can only be made worse by omitting features from the sell-through product. This is an extension of the basic rule of preventing parallel imports: treat customers of all Regions equally, or suffer the consequences.

    Chopper is an excellent example of what happens when this theory is not put into practise. The film was made with Australian funding, entirely with Australian actors in Australian locations, and it was released theatrically in this country first. Australian consumers have every right to expect to be able to buy the film on DVD before the rest of the world, and every right to be angry when they are denied the opportunity. This film has already been made available for addition to the film buff's collections in England, and it will in all probability be made so in America before it is finally made available for sale in Australia. It seems Australians can't even get a fair bite of the sales schedule with a film that was made on their lands.

Rental Versions and Cinematography

    Another issue that is that the current rental product is weakening DVD-Video's credibility with the consumers who don't understand cinematography. The number of films that have been released to the rental market as full frame or pan & scan versions only is a major step backwards for the format. Explaining to the average user that the image they see in theatres is not the same square shape of their television screen is a difficult enough exercise without rental-window supporting distributors pandering to their ignorance.

In Closing

    Rental windows are not an ideal business model for DVD-Video for numerous reasons. While VHS was a medium used by those who merely wished to see a film and be done with it, DVD-Video is specifically geared towards those who want to collect films and enjoy them for a lifetime. DVD is not a medium that most of its users will simply want to look at a handful of times and throw away, especially with the presence of commentary tracks and other such extra features which can educate the user about about how the film was created to an unprecedented extent. The amount of time it takes to view the entire content of a DVD frequently runs a lot longer than the single night a new-release rental title can be obtained for. This is one of the many reasons why consumers such as myself would rather pay twice as much money for a DVD: forty dollars for a feature-laden disc actually represents far better value for money than ten or twenty dollars for a VHS tape that won't survive anywhere near as many continuous plays.

    With those features in mind, there is little to make a consumer see any advantage in waiting for six months in order to own the local version of a DVD. The factor of medium-degradation, previously a strong incentive not to go to the additional expense of importing, is not there. In the specific case of Chopper, the only thing to worry about when importing the PAL-compatible disc from the UK is the BBFC's notorious inability to acknowledge that adults watch films. The only thing that rental windows can accomplish is encouraging Australians to spend their dwindling funds in other countries, thus depriving local distributors of revenue and further jeopardizing the viability of the local market.

    One thing you have to think about when questioning whether rental windows are a good or bad thing is that the rental outlets are putting huge amounts of pressure upon distributors to release more products with rental windows. The only people who lose out from the non-usage of rental windows are rental outlets, and their thuggish behaviour towards distributors and the format in general reflects this.

    Rental outlets are just going to have to get used to the fact that they are a part of the outdated business model used in the past, and stop being a thorn in the side of both the format and the consumer.

© Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
March 29, 2001