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Blu-ray Producers Say Studios Should 'Shift Expectations' About Physical Media

13 Jul, 2015 By: John Latchem

(L-R): Blu-ray producers Cliff Stephenson, Charles de Lauzirika and Robert Meyer Burnett

Panelists warn 4K packaged media could be a non-starter if studios don’t learn from prior mistakes

SAN DIEGO — Just because the home entertainment industry has seemingly embraced a transition to digital delivery doesn’t mean there aren’t a few brave souls willing to fight for the continued role of physical media. How and why the industry found itself in this position was a major topic of discussion during the Blu-ray producers panel moderated by Bill Hunt of TheDigitalBits.com at San Diego Comic-Con International July 9.

Several top DVD and Blu-ray producers, including Robert Meyer Burnett (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” Blu-rays), Charles de Lauzirika (“Twin Peaks”, Alien, Blade Runner: The Final Cut) and Cliff Stephenson (“Hannibal”, The Hunger Games), expressed their laments about an industry that seems ready to abandon them, during a panel that quickly turned into a checklist of complaints about how disc formats have been mistreated the past few years.

“They want to get rid of us,” Burnett said. “If the alternative is to have a file that you can stream, then you get rid of all the manufacturing costs. You get rid of packaging. You get rid of everything. You just send the file and it’s out of your hair. And you get rid of us, which a lot of people would like.”

The immense success of DVD, they said, caused a huge problem for whatever format tried to follow it.

“DVD got really successful, far more successful than anybody knew it would be,” Stephenson said. “It turned people from collectors to consumers. They bought stuff just to buy stuff and that boosted all the sales numbers. Then you go to Blu-ray which became much more collector driven, so the people who didn’t want to buy every single title weren’t buying every single title, so the studios looked at that as not as successful, when the reality is it’s as successful as Laserdisc was 20 years ago, even more so.”

The conversation suggested that those responsible for content are more immersed in technical details that consumers don’t comprehend or care about, creating a gap between the content creators and the audience when it comes to their connection to the material.

“You have to have a decent home theater system to really appreciate the Blu-ray format,” Burnett said. “And most people really don’t get it. You have to really be a discerning viewer to get something out of Blu-ray. My mother couldn’t care less, and my mother is the general population. She just wants to put something on and be able to see it. If we talk about the nuances of the transfer my mother doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. So to go to Ultra 4K? Who’s going to care about that?”

“Blu-ray should never have been marketed as a mass product,” Stephenson said. “It should have been more of a collector format that could support the numbers that it would ultimately do because as all of us can attest, we would pay.”

Burnett said part of the problem is that studio investments in restoring old TV shows and movies aren’t paying off in sales.

“The restoration of ‘Next Generation’ was a $15 million herculean task,” Burnett said. “They had to go back in and get every bit of negative and transfer that. It took four years. I mean I can’t tell you the amount of time and effort that went into restoring that television series. And no one bought the discs.”

The reason, Burnett said, is that enthusiasm for a project on the studio side isn’t translating to the consumer side.

“There wasn’t an understanding of why this was important to do,” Burnett said. “If you look at original version of Next Generation, how it existed [on videotape], and then you look at the HD restoration, it’s revelatory. It’s as if God himself shined light onto the Next Generation. It’s that different. But nobody really cares. They don’t understand what they’re seeing. That doesn’t help when we want to get the ‘X-Files.’ They restored ‘The X-Files.’ Is the ‘X-Files’ out? No.”

Some in the audience complained that studios were taking their customers for granted by re-releasing content with new bonus material that collectors would want, particularly with TV shows released as complete-series sets with new bonus discs after fans already bought all the individual seasons.

“That was a problem,” Hunt said. “If you were loyal and bought each season, you paid a premium but you didn’t get the bonus disc that came in the boxed set. So a lot of people learned, ‘well, I’ll just wait.’ And by the way we’ll wait and we’ll get it cheaper and we’ll wait until Black Friday and we’ll get it even cheaper. And it’s a vicious cycle because the sales aren’t there.”

“The other problem with these boxed sets that everyone’s been talking about, is that they’ll start something and then they’ll end it,” Stephenson said. “So everybody feels burned because you bought into this thing, and I think they haven’t done a very good job of supporting the format that they created.”

Another problem according to Burnett is that rapid advancements in technology have dented attention spans of those who grew up in the video game era.

“There’s been a seismic shift in our culture,” Burnett said. “Youth culture has changed. Movies have a very different place in our culture than they did 20 years ago. They’re gamers now.”

Digital delivery, on the other hand, is no savior as far as the panelists are concerned.

“The problem with streaming that I have is that you don’t own anything,” Stephenson said. “Most of my UltraViolet stuff I redeem through Vudu, but who’s to guarantee that Vudu will be around in five or 10 years? At least with the Blu-ray, at least with the VHS, at least with the Betamax, whatever it is, you own that and you can play that as long as you can find a player that can play it, and to me that’s far more important than the convenience. To me convenience is an add-on to it. It’s this thing where I can bring ‘Star Wars’ with me on my phone. That’s fine, but I still have it whenever I want to watch it.”

“I’ve got to say, backing up to this depressing talk we’ve heard for the past 10 minutes, I was about ready to open a vein based on what you’ve been saying,” de Lauzirika joked.

The discussion prompted de Lauzirika to conduct a quick audience survey.

“How many people here still care about making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes extras, all that?” de Lauzirika asked, receiving an enthusiastic response.

“Actually put your hands down. Who doesn’t care? Raise your hand,” he asked, receiving a few replies. “You suck!”

An audience member countered that he didn’t like how extras spoil the magic of the filmmaking process, which the panelists accepted as a valid point of view.

“That’s why Spielberg doesn’t do audio commentaries, that exact reason,” Hunt said.

The transition to digital doesn’t necessarily mean the end of physical media, the panelists agreed.

“I don’t think we’re looking at the end,” Hunt said. “I just think that we’re at a pause. I think physical media is going to be the niche product, and not everybody’s going to want the nice packaging and all the extras. And streaming’s going to be the norm for most people, but I think there’s still going to be a collector for quite a while who’s going to want a better experience.”

Panelists sung the praises of independent distributors such as Shout Factory, Criterion, Olive Films, Arrow Films, Twilight Time and Kino Lorber, among others, who have continued to embrace physical media with new special-edition Blu-rays of catalog titles.

“It’s a niche business but they’re finding their audience and they’re targeting that audience and they’re delivering quality,” Hunt said. “But the studios aren’t interested in doing that. They just don’t want to be part of that niche business.”

“It’s like the Laserdisc world,” Burnett said. “There are all these specialty companies. The studios have no interest in releasing their own catalog titles, so they’re being licensed out.”

“I think the industry needs to shift its expectations,” Stephenson said. “I don’t think the customers changed so much as the studio expectations are the things that have realigned. It’s just, it’s kind of a constant battle to convince them that there are people who will buy it but when you’ve got companies like Twilight Time that only make 3,000 of something and it takes them a year-and-a-half to sell 3,000 copies of something. It’s hard to argue that.”

That doesn’t mean the studios can’t be confusing at times.

“Then they’ll release something random, like Sony will put out Troop Beverly Hills,” Stephenson said. “I don’t get what the logic is.”

Stephenson said the studios need to learn their lessons from Blu-ray as they begin to market new 4K Ultra HD products.

“You’re looking at it as if you don’t sell a million copies of something then you’re deemed a failure, and they can’t even sell 100,000 copies of something,” Stephenson said. “4K should be the same thing. They really have to look at what it really is and what it should be and not try to make it something that it will never be.”

Stephenson said stalwarts of the old way of doing things are still out there and may be the key to helping new packaged-media formats thrive, if the studios realize it.

“I find it impossible to believe that the people who were buying movies 20 years ago suddenly stopped buying movies,” Stephenson said. “I think they’re there. I think it’s the studio expectations that have shifted and that once those sort of get realigned and the resources are funneled in the right direction, I think the ship will right itself. The problem is they can’t make the mistakes with 4K that they made with Blu-ray. Hopefully they’ll make all new mistakes, but it’s like there’s things that they can learn and there’s ways to make it successful.”


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