John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told this week's ShoWest that release windows are the industry's top priority. He speaks for the majority of exhibitors in his alarm that the average window between theatrical and home release slipped last year by 10 days, to four months and eight days.

The consolation that windows are eroded most for under-performing theatrical releases, while bigger grossing films have much longer theatrical lives, is not taken as much comfort.

Release windows remain the most divisive issue in the distribution-exhibition end of the business. The disputes in Italy, Germany and the UK are just the most visible signs of an issue that is always bubbling beneath the surface.

This week, academic research from Bauhaus-University of Weimar (Germany), Cass Business School (London) and the universities of Hamburg (Germany) and Missouri-Columbia (US) tried to bring some science to the most emotive of topics.

The study crunched some 800-900 scenarios on different release times in the US, Japan and Germany to find the optimum release times for distributors and exhibitors.

Naturally, the headlines were dominated by the finding that a complete removal of the window between theatrical release, DVD rental and video on demand (VoD) would bring significant income benefits for the distributor - 16% revenue rises in the US, 14% in Germany and 12% in Japan.

The fact that the numbers vary is significant, says lead researcher, Thorsten Hennig-Thurau, professor of marketing at Bauhaus and Cass. 'The cultural differences are important ... What works in American does not necessarily work in Germany,' he says.

To complicate matters still further, the model does not take into account the relationship between distributor and exhibitor. Number crunching can show that collapsing windows are likely to increase distributor revenues while taking away 40% of exhibitor takings.

What it does not show is the effect of open warfare and boycotts between studios and theatre owners, or indeed the impact of closing cinema businesses - a fact recognised by the authors.

While it does not make for the same sexy headlines, the more significant area of the study - which carried out more than 1,700 consumer interviews - may be the areas of 'win-win' where revenues rise across the board.

In the US, the win-win scenario is a three-month gap to DVD retail and six months to DVD rental and VoD, while in Germany the VoD window is stretched to 12 months.

Professor Hennig-Thurau says the study showed the complexity of the issues involved.

'What concerns us is that the issue has so far been gut-driven where there has been no kind of model. We hope to bring some logic to the discussions.'

That sense of common purpose is important, says Tim Richards, CEO of Vue Cinemas, which operates more than 50 sites in the UK, Ireland and Portugal.

'My priorities are first piracy, then digital, and release windows come a distant third,' he says. 'And the first two rely on good relationships between distributor and exhibitor. We are in a partnership where we all benefit from open discussion.'

He believes the release windows problems are already in the process of being resolved, which is significant from one of the exhibitors involved in the recent UK boycott of Fox's Night At The Museum.

'I am one of those who have said that four months is the rule, but the reality is that it's not set in stone. We can all be flexible,' says Richards. 'I don't lose sleep over release windows, but I do over piracy.'