The Christmas-themed movie "Noel" most likely won't be coming to a theater near you, but if you miss it on cable, there's always the self-destructing DVD.
The movie's producers hope its "trimultaneous" roll out this month, which starts this weekend with a theater release in just five major cities, will prove the public is willing to "rent" movies that must be tossed in the trash after just a viewing or two.
Disposable DVDs look and play like normal DVDs, except that their playable surface is dark red.
Each disc contains a chemical time-bomb that begins ticking once it's exposed to air. Typically, after 48 hours, the disc turns darker, becoming so opaque that a DVD player's laser can no longer can read it. (Discs can live as little as one hour or as long as 60 hours.)
The format has been around for a few years but hasn't generated much interest from movie studios, video rental companies — or customers — despite experiments to deliver movies direct to consumers and eliminate late fees.
Enter "Noel," an emotional Christmas story starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams. The independent film was shown at this year's Toronto Film Festival but didn't attract interest from mainstream distribution companies.
So the Atlanta-based Convex Group bought distribution rights and is releasing the film on a few dozen screens. Then, starting mid-month, the movie will be available in the disposable EZ-D format for $4.99 on Amazon.com. On cable, it will air once, on TNT, during Thanksgiving weekend.
Convex owns more than 100 media patents and holds exclusive distribution rights to CD-ROMS that fit into the lids of soft drink cups. The company also owns Flexplay Technologies Inc., the company behind the disposable EZ-D.
The technology's backers see it as an alternative for video rental stores and Netflix-type mail-based subscription services. After the movie is watched, the consumer tosses it into the trash, eliminating late fees and the cost of return mail, but creating a potentially large new source of trash.
Disposable DVDs a dud?
The potential to add to landfills may be the least of reasons disposable DVDs have so far been a dud.
The discs can be illegally copied and pirated, just like regular DVDs. And while they are made of recyclable plastic, consumers would have to mail them to a special center for processing.
Blockbuster Inc. hasn't embraced disposable DVDs because it says it does not want to confuse its customers. Instead, the company has adopted a Netflix-like subscription approach to video rentals.
"We really don't see the idea going anywhere, ultimately," Blockbuster spokesman Randy Hargrove said of disposable DVDs.
That's bad news for Convex, which bought Flexplay last month. Flexplay had provided discs to The Walt Disney Co., which has experimented with the format for the past year in eight test markets.
Disney has released a number of films on the discs, including "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Bridget Jones's Diary." The movies are sold in unconventional outlets, such as convenience stores, and are generally made available weeks after they first appear on DVD.
For films with less backing, disposable DVDs may be an option.
"Noel" director Chazz Palminteri hopes Convex's unique marketing approach will generate a buzz, calling it "really the only way you can compete with the Christmas movies that have $30 million budgets."
While the novelty of a fading DVD may attract some buyers, Convex chief executive Jeff Arnold said it won't take off without studios releasing films in the format.
"People aren't enamored of technology. They are enamored of content," he said.
But Convex ran into a wall of opposition from the major theater chains, none of which wanted to show a movie that would also appear on television and be sold on DVD at the same time.
The average studio release is in theaters for five months before it is released on DVD, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. So Convex will be showing "Noel" at smaller theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Atlanta and Chicago.
Ironically, Regal Entertainment Group theaters, which refused to show the film, will be promoting the movie on soda cups and on mini-DVDs called "Lidrocks" embedded in soda caps. Regal has a deal with Convex to use its Lidrocks product.
Studios haven't given up trying alternative routes to get DVDs into the hands of consumers more quickly.
Some studios release DVDs, even of hit blockbuster films, after less than four months in theaters. Five studios operate an Internet-based service called "Movielink," which lets consumers download films, usually after they have appeared in video rental stores.
McDonald's has even installed DVD vending machines in more than 100 Denver-area restaurants, where they rent for $1 per night with a credit card.
But studios have little interest in the kind of near-simultaneous releases being used for "Noel."
"I just don't see a lot of studios rushing to do it," said Tom Adams of Adams Media Research.