Analyst: ‘Star Wars’ Release Could Change Digital Game

While Hollywood films and TV shows have been available digitally for a decade, three out of four consumers today still buy their home entertainment only on DVD or Blu-ray Disc, according to data from research firm The NPD Group.

But if there’s a film with the right combination of a tech savvy fan base and box office power ($2.05 billion to date globally and still counting) to buck that trend, it’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, according to NPD analyst Vincent Moy. The Walt Disney Co. announced an April 1 early digital release for the film, ahead of its April 5 disc release.

“Clearly, The Force Awakens has the gravitas to change the video release game,” Moy said. “Previous early digital windows tried coaxing buyers from discs to digital, but a two-week long lead time isn’t needed for the tech-savvy Star Wars fans. Many of them will buy the film digitally, early release or not.”

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Disney has long eschewed UltraViolet, the studios’ buy-once, play-anywhere digital cloud content service, in favor of its own service, Disney Movies Anywhere. And while most Digital HD titles (the studios’ brand for early digital releases) hit two weeks ahead of disc, Disney’s putting digital out just four days ahead of the physical copies.

The film won’t be available for TV or SVOD outlets for quite some time as Disney takes advantage of the home entertainment window. And the amount of connected devices in people’s homes and the younger fan base of the film could combine to break non-disc home entertainment records, with fans going straight for digital ownership. Vudu, Google Play, iTunes and other digital retailers have been offering pre-orders for the film since almost immediately after it hit theaters.

“April 1 is a Friday, and consumers simply have more time to shop on weekends,” Moy said. “Fans may not ‘need’ a new 4K TV to watch the Digital HD copy of Star Wars, but TVs are the most popular viewing platform by far, surpassing tablets, laptops and smartphones. Promotions with electronics stores and manufacturers can leverage the appeal of Star Wars on a new smart TV, which consumers can use to buy and watch the movie.”

After The Force Awakens’ initial street date, Moy suggested Disney could offer free catalog titles with future Digital HD purchases, to help continue to promote digital ownership. “And with the Disney Movies Anywhere ecosystem that already exists, the right promo titles with The Force Awakens could be just the push that viewers need,” he said.

Bill Hunt, editor of digital home entertainment newsletter “The Digital Bits,” offered up a different take on why Disney shortened the early digital window for The Force Awakens: “I’m guessing that the short window is due to studio fears that this is going to be the most in demand (and probably pirated) title of the year,” he said. “So there may be a fear that if they release the digital version too much before the discs, pirates will simply find a way to rip the stream and distribute their own disc version ahead of physical media street.”

Meanwhile, Adam Gregorich, administrator with online home entertainment community Home Theater Forum, called the shortened digital window “strange,” and questioned whether Disney was selling itself short by not adding more time between its digital and disc offerings.

“A wider digital release window would result in additional sales as die hard fans would probably buy both the digital copy to have a jump on seeing it at home, and the DVD and Blu-ray when that comes out,” he said. "By giving it a short window, most customers will probably wait the additional four days. Why buy the digital copy on iTunes for $19.99 when you can buy the Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy for the same price, especially with the retailer exclusives that will give you either collectible or bonus features and you only have to wait an extra four days?”