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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: Thinking Outside the (VHS) Box

20 Apr, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

Warren Lieberfarb is not interested in making friends. As the “father of DVD” (as this observer dubbed him in 1998 upon his induction into the Video Hall of Fame), it is clear that he is interested only in making progress, at least as he personally defines that highly subjective term. That virtually everyone in the video industry who has dealt with him seems to have a “Warren story,” usually related with teeth clenched, is something he wears as a badge of honor.

Like many complex personalities, he vibrates with contradictions. He can loathe the press with a withering condescension, yet manipulate it as masterfully as anyone.

So watching Lieberfarb’s latest contretemps, played out in full view of the industry and even readers of newspapers like the L.A. Times and New York Times, surprises no one who knows him, or even of him. With relish, he takes on all comers, from the head of Blockbuster (about DVD sales vs. rentals) to the three-headed DreamWorks (about whether it’s worth Warner’s while to distribute their video product). And losing is not in his vocabulary.

Business, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And when it comes to consistently strong leadership, home video’s track record makes like a vacuum.

What this past week certified is that, like it or not, admit it or not, home video’s leadership vacuum has been filled for the foreseeable future, in a colorful and controversial way, by Blockbuster CEO John Antioco and Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb.

Both are very good at it. So much so that a wag with a playful imagination might fantasize that their public hooks and jabs at the other (see Video Store’s vivid front-page illustration in the April 22 issue) are, if not staged, then also not so spontaneous. (We direct your attention in that issue too to Seth Goldstein’s excellent analysis of the Antioco-Lieberfarb imbroglio, wherein he posits that, appearances aside, both truly have common interests.)

Those interests include guiding home video in the direction that best serves their respective shareholders – few of whom, in all likelihood, own and operate independent video stores.

So if this particular brand of leadership doesn’t inspire, for example, the rank-and-file members of the Video Software Dealers Association, that body will have to grow its own. With that in mind, the organization’s board would do well to consider extending the tenure of current chairman Tom Warren. Given the confidence and window of an open-ended mandate, he has what it takes to be an effective role model and do what’s right for independent retailers.

Mom-and-pop retailing – in any industry, whether books, groceries or laundromats – tends to be a warm-and-fuzzy business. Epitomized by Tom Warren, the people are accessible and friendly, willing – even eager – to share their trade secrets with like-minded competitors.

Lieberfarb, whose antipathy toward the rental market has become more apparent since DVD emerged as a credible successor to VHS, is not a warm-and-fuzzy guy. More like, by his own words once uttered to me, a sturm-und-drang guy.

No matter. Leadership can be warm-and-fuzzy, but it doesn’t have to be. Ask anyone who served under George Patton – or simply see the movie with one of the screen’s greatest performances ever from George C. Scott.

In home video circles, leadership is anyone who has a clear-eyed vision, with the chops and the resources behind them to convert it to reality, in the process shaping the marketplace in their image. In current circumstances, that’s AOL Time Warner’s Warren Lieberfarb and Viacom/CBS’s John Antioco.

If there are any challengers to their leadership thrones, announce yourself to the masses. And good luck. You’ll need it.

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:bapar@advanstar.com

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