Movie studio Universal Pictures and its new parent, cable TV giant Comcast Corp., will try giving film buffs a chance to watch a movie that's still in theaters from the comfort of their living rooms. But the price tag for a single movie could have consumers spitting out their popcorn: $60.
The test involves "Tower Heist," a PG-13 rated comedy caper starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller due out Nov. 4.
Subscribers to Comcast Corp.'s digital cable service who have a high-definition TV and live in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., will be able to rent the movie starting Nov. 23 and watch it unlimited times in a 48-hour window. The test is available to about 500,000 people.
The cities were chosen because they are Comcast markets in which a significant number of people pay for digital cable and an HD channel package, a requirement to participate. Such services combined cost about $60 a month.
The two cities' residents also regularly go see movies in theaters, making the cities perfect petri dishes for testing whether people take up the offer without cutting back on theater-going. The idea is to target families who might pay just as much on tickets, popcorn and a babysitter, but have chosen not to because they'd rather stay at home.
Studios are looking for ways of generating new revenue as DVD sales sag but want to avoid hurting box office revenue. The test includes copy protection measures so it doesn't end up spurring a new wave of piracy.
Offering the watch-at-home product so soon after a movie's release will allow customers willing to shell out the money to take part in whatever cultural zeitgeist the film creates. The price is close to what sports fans have paid to watch exclusive live boxing or mixed martial arts matches at home.
"This experiment will allow the two companies to sample consumer appetite for this film in this window at this price while allowing the film to achieve its full potential at the box office," a Universal spokeswoman said in a statement.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It's not the first such experiment and it won't be the last.
Earlier this year, several studios, starting with Sony Corp. offered movies for rent to DirecTV subscribers for $30 in a 48-hour window 60 days after they were released in theaters.
Movies usually take much longer to get to the home market — on average, a little more than four months — and people can rent those via set-top boxes for about $5 apiece.
The earlier test at DirecTV, dubbed "Home Premiere," created a backlash from big-name directors like Michael Bay of "Transformers" and James Cameron of "Avatar" who felt it would jeopardize theater-going.
The economy itself might be to blame for this year's declining box office take. So far, attendance at U.S. and Canadian theaters is down 5.4 percent, and ticket sales revenue is down 3.4 percent at around $8 billion, according to box office tracker Hollywood.com.
U.S. spending on renting and buying home videos, including paying for subscription services like Netflix Inc., was down 5 percent in the first half of the year compared to a year ago at $8.3 billion, according to the studios' Digital Entertainment Group.