The plain answer, I'm told, is revenue to the studios. But I believe there are other factors at play - factors relating to tradition and how movies are sold.
What would happen, for instance, if what most agree is the inevitable were to occur tomorrow, and any new film release could be viewed simultaneously in theatres, or via DVD, on-demand, or download?
Undoubtedly, a large portion of theatre chains, already struggling, would fold. Beyond putting people out of work, this would also send a blunt message to society at large: since increasingly movie audiences are staying home to watch movies, the tradition of film as shared public experiences, and the cinema as "church", is inexorably fading. How could this happen?
Actually, the reasons are fairly self-evident: home theatre technology is better and more affordable than ever before; watching movies at home is more convenient; and given the economy, the most relevant point: it's a whole lot cheaper.
This is not to suggest that all movie houses will eventually disappear, but we should prepare ourselves for a major consolidation. Multiplexes do not provide the quality of experience that traditional cinemas once did, yet the public pays an arm and a leg to see a movie on a large screen, at often deafening sound levels. And what's the real benefit? Getting out of the house-perhaps, but beyond this, only that viewers saw the film early, and can talk about it with their friends. It's a matter of timeliness.
I myself co-founded a restored arts cinema in Stamford, Connecticut: The Avon Theatre. It's a circa 1939 not-for-profit movie house, deriving its revenue from both ticket sales and membership dollars. It provides added-value both in atmosphere and special programs. (For instance, at special Avon member events, I've hosted the likes of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Lasse Hallstrom, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, and Tim Robbins.) I'm convinced the Avon's business model will help keep movie theatres alive for generations to come.
Some of the folks mentioned above will doubtless excoriate me for this, but the conventional thinking that a movie is best appreciated on a huge screen and in an assemblage of strangers no longer holds true when compared to a state-of-the-art , high-definition home theatre.
Indeed, accustomed as I am to watching films in my own (none-too-elaborate) screening room, I often find going to theatres a headache-inducing experience. And only part of this has to due with what's actually up on the screen.
But back to the central question. I cover DVDs and the home viewing market. I know that DVDs have allowed the industry to survive over the past decade, that they represent the lion's share of profits to studios' bottom lines. Yet I, in a real sense Hollywood's most valuable and reliable customer, still have to wait months to see first-run movies. Is this not counter-intuitive?
The current reality represents a subtle form of coercion. If you want to be "au courant" on films, you must get in your car, consume the gas, slap down the ten dollars (per head!) at the theatre, and in the process, hopefully buy some overpriced popcorn. Otherwise, to paraphrase "Casablanca", you simply have to wait...and wait...and wait.
And waiting exacts its own price. I cannot help but feel that my reactions to this past year's top Oscar-nominated films were at least somewhat influenced by the lag-time in my seeing them.
Prime example: when I finally screened "Slumdog Millionaire" on DVD about a month ago, I'd experienced so much hype about the film that I was somewhat let down by it. I admired its originality and pure entertainment value, but I expected to be more emotionally invested. I found its more improbable aspects - and somewhat calculated nature - got in the way of that.
More recently, I watched "Rachel Getting Married", which I thought pretty odious. This was a wedding you'd need to pay me to go to. The whole undertaking felt like an attempt at contemporary realism that managed to feel forced and manufactured (not easy to achieve when the story is based on fact). I also hated the jerky, pseudo-documentary shooting style, which seemed consciously manipulative and worse, made me nauseous. And though she's a reasonably talented actress with very pretty eyes, I still don't understand all the fuss about Anne Hathaway.
"The Reader" I also found to be good, not great, another example of a decent film elevated by one star's performance (Winslet is admittedly terrific). "Changeling" was fairly diverting, but I did not think Angelina's turn was remotely Oscar-worthy-in fact, she seemed miscast to me.
Compounding this mystery of timing and perception is that certain other top entries still blew me away on DVD after great word-of-mouth and an equally long wait: "Doubt", "Tell No One", "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" and "I've Loved You So Long" fall onto that list. (I'm quite certain "Milk" would too, though I confess to having seen that one at the Avon.)
As for "Gran Torino", "The Wrestler", and "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button", I'll just have to let you know later, since as someone who covers that ever-expanding (but under-served) home viewing universe, I haven't been able to see them yet!