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A Sure Thing in Uncertain Times – For Now

6 Feb, 2003 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Consumer habits are puzzling. And this uncertainty certainly contributes to — nay, is primarily responsible for — the sinking feeling deep down in many studio executives' stomachs that while DVD sales continue to soar and everyone's making their numbers and then some, sorry, Charlie, it ain't gonna last forever.

My point is this: Right now, consumers are avidly collecting movies, something they never did in the VHS era. But for how long will this trend continue, and even if it does, is there a saturation point? How big is the optimum home movie library? A hundred DVDs? A thousand?

Take a look at what's happened on the music side — and I should point out that prior to my joining Video Store Magazine more than a decade ago, I was a rock critic, writing for Billboard, The Los Angeles Times and San Diego Magazine.

In the heyday of vinyl, everyone collected records. My parents had a cabinet filled with about 200 LPs, while my friends and I bought fruit crates and filled them with vinyl — with some of our collections topping out at 1,200, 1,500 or even more.

When CDs came along in the middle 1980s, the joys of collecting were diminished. Part of the thrill of record collecting was those big, flat covers, so eye-fetching and yet easy to store. With CDs, the size shrunk — and while many music fans did, in fact, rebuy their libraries, many others, me included, only selectively bought CDs. Even today, I still have about 800 vinyl LPs, but no more than 300 CDs.

The transiency of pop music that began manifesting itself in the late 1980s — the lack of any sustained superstar — further squashed the collector spirit. And with the advent of digital downloading, coinciding with the stupid refusal of the record companies to drop CD prices (for which they are paying out a class action settlement to pretty much anyone who visits musiccdsettlement.com), it was all of a sudden over. I don't know anyone who avidly, passionately, collects music anymore.

Home video is a different story. For starters, in the VHS era very few people collected movies— rental was it. You had favorite directors or actors, but there was a certain affinity between pop star and consumer that was never quite duplicated on the film front. Plus, music is inherently repeatable — I've been known to play the same song a dozen times, if not more, on the way up to work — while movies are geared toward one-shot viewing.

That's why no one, with the possible exception of Warren Lieberfarb, ever thought people would actually collect movies, at least not to the extent they are now.

With DVD, the improbable has happened. People are avidly, passionately collecting movies — and music videos, and TV shows and all the other cool stuff that comes out on DVD. The studios have gone out of their way to make DVDs collectable, chiefly through attractive pricing and the gobs of special features that make it virtually impossible to digest a disc in a single evening.

I've got about 1,400 discs and storage is beginning to be a problem. I'm continually weeding through my collection and I'm becoming a lot more selective in what I bring home.

I expect others will do the same and begin setting parameters. We've got nearly 100 years of movies in the vaults; eventually, everything that can be released will be released, and at some point consumers will have bought every old movie they want to own — or have room for. They will limit their purchases to new releases, and buy very selectively, simply because they will have run out of room. You're likely to see a resurgence in rental — and even if the studios have killed it off by then, there's always the specter of digital downloading.

At the same time, fewer new DVD households will come online, as the format becomes ubiquitous.

Therefore, logic would dictate that at some point, buy rates will drop dramatically.

That's the future — I think we can all agree on that. The uncertainty is in the time frame, which in my opinion rests chiefly on the ceiling for your typical home movie library. How big will home collections get? That's the key question everyone in this business should be asking.

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