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‘Avatar’ Push Exemplifies Fan Frustration Over Double-Dipping

30 Jun, 2010 By: John Latchem

Watching the NBA Finals recently, I was struck by how many ads were being run for the Avatar Blu-ray/DVD combo. This was nearly two months since the April 22 debut of the disc, which signifies a rather aggressive marketing effort on behalf of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The commercial urged viewers to pick up the disc quickly because it would only be available “for a limited time.” This is a bit of industry speak for “we have too much product still on the shelves, and we want to clear as much of that as we can before we introduce a deluxe special edition in a few months.” Of course, the upcoming beefed up edition of the film was not mentioned in the ad.

While I can appreciate the marketing effort (after all, several retailers I visited within the past few weeks are only now downgrading their Avatar displays), I have to wonder about its effectiveness in the long run. How many people who would have purchased the sure-to-be-more-expensive special edition in five months bought the bare-bones version and now won’t buy the new version when it hits?

It’s not just Avatar. We’re already getting announces for other major films from last year that are receiving a big special-edition boost later this year, such as a new deluxe edition of The Hangover Oct. 12. This kind of double-dipping has been studio practice for years, but judging by the sales data, it seems that frustrated consumers just aren’t going to take it anymore.

With some titles, at least, the studios recognize this frustration and offer a rebate to anyone who bought the previous version. Paramount did it with Blu-ray upgrades for titles such as The Godfather, and Fox is planning a rebate with the first season of “Glee.” Given this pattern I can only assume they would do something similar with Avatar.

But it raises a question about the efficacy of good marketing in the face of diminishing returns. Is the practice of double- and triple-dipping more effective than, say, putting extra effort into the DVD or Blu-ray presentation the first time around? The Blu-ray from last year’s Star Trek movie, for example, was absolutely loaded.

I understand if some movies don’t meet expectations and studios don’t want to pay for extensive extras. But I don’t think the audience will mind if movies that make more than $200 million (or $700 million) are put on ice for a month or two to really pump up the bonus content.

I think any edition of a movie that is put on disc should be the definitive presentation of it for at least 10 years. There is something to be said about an anniversary edition because a good retrospective documentary fueled by hindsight can yield insights not available during the production (I’ve certainly seen enough bad movies in which the actors while on set talk about it as if it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done). Plus it gives studios a chance to re-release the title in a new format that may have emerged.

Even then, there’s no reason to leave off the old extras (at the very least, put a slot for the old disc in the new packaging so fans can keep their collections nice and tidy and keep all the extras from the old disc).

Of course, with Avatar that might not be much of a problem.

Update, July 1, 2010: Based on some comments I received, let me clarify a few points. First, the idea of waiting a month to release the DVD or Blu-ray would only apply to studios that get caught off guard. Since every movie is released on DVD, there should be enough lead time to prepare for the extras. If a movie becomes a bigger hit than expected, use the grace period to prepare the extras.

As for shortening the window to address piracy, well, that argument could be used to justify a one-week window, let alone 3-4 months. The people who are willing to pirate a copy of a film probably don't care about buying the DVD anyway.

However, the key issue here is double dipping. I have no problem if a studio releases a bare-bones disc and an extras-laden disc on the same day, since the consumer would have a choice. It's the idea that someone buys a disc only to be blindsided by a bigger badder edition a year later. So the solution to assuage piracy concerns is to release the bare-bones edition but make it well known that the deluxe edition is coming a month later, if the extra time is needed to prepare one.

I'll admit that Blu-ray vs DVD throws a bit of a wrinkle into the plan, but I've said before that if studios are going to include a DVD in the Blu-ray package, they might as well not even sell a standalone DVD edition. I think that's a separate issue that has more to do with ensuring the long-term viability of Blu-ray by subtly building consumer Blu-ray libraries to encourage hardware sales, and thus Blu-ray catalog sales down the road.

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