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Premiere Treatment

26 Sep, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Retailers are finding a bumper crop of “special edition” DVDs coming their way, as suppliers spruce up dormant catalog titles with a digital makeover.

“They get a whole new life,” said Jeff Fink, president of sales and marketing for Artisan Home Entertainment, which is pushing special edition DVDs of Reservoir Dogs, Glengarry Glen Ross, High Noon and The Quiet Man.

“A lot of these movies were stagnating on VHS at a $9.98 price point. And now, with the growth in the DVD market and the emergence of a collector base, these same movies can be remastered, repackaged for DVD and basically presented as a brand-new release at $26.98 and sell hundreds of thousands of units or more.”

Virtually every major studio is now getting a piece of this action, following a very similar formula: two discs, with both widescreen and full-screen versions; gobs of special features, much of it found in the archives; a remastered soundtrack and digitally cleaned-up picture; and a relatively steep price tag of around $27.

Jeremiah Wehler, a video buyer with Hastings Entertainment, a 146-store multimedia chain based in Amarillo, Texas, says the strategy seems to be working.

“It may not be major numbers, but they certainly do sell,” Wehler said. “I don't know if consumers are all that excited about it -- I hear comments like, ‘I have to buy this again' -- but people who really like the movies are buying them, and sales are strong.”

Buena Vista Home Entertainment recently issued special edition DVDs of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. MGM Home Entertainment has come out with dozens of single-disc special edition catalog titles, most recently Blue Velvet and The Fog, and on Dec. 3 will come out with The Producers. And 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has a growing library of double-disc special-edition DVD oldies, from The Sound of Music to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
So does Warner Home Video, which this month kicked off the release of a jazzed-up Singin' in the Rain with a ritzy Hollywood party featuring several surviving members of the famed musical's cast and crew.

“With Warner's library of more than 80 years of high-quality films, we are in a great position to get into deep catalog and treat films with an extra effort,” said Mike Saksa, Warner Home Video's head of marketing.

Like other studio marketers, Saksa said the target audience is the new breed of DVD collector who doesn't mind paying a little more for a movie with plenty of bells and whistles.

“This is not your mass consumer audience,” Saksa said. “These special editions are a specialty product, and, therefore, with a niche marketplace, we are able to get a higher price.”

Warner is now focusing on special edition DVDs of best picture Oscar winners, such as Unforgiven, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. The high price, $26.99, is justified by the inclusion of all sorts of extras, from commentaries to outtakes, stills galleries and making-of documentaries.

“Even if they already own it on VHS, they're more likely to buy it on DVD because there's something new and different,” Saksa said.

Artisan's Fink said sales are surprisingly strong on these spruced-up classics. Artisan has already sold more than 500,000 units of Reservoir Dogs, which is packed with such unique extras as a film noir retrospective, a featurette on getaway cars and two alternative camera angles of the notorious ear-cutting scene.

“From what we've seen in the marketplace, DVD collectors make up a significant part of the DVD business,” Fink said. “So there is a significant amount of business out there to justify the costs involved.”

The costs are steep, although no one would comment, on the record or off. “They're all over the board,” Fink said.

“It takes an incredible amount of time, remastering the films, digging into the archives and getting extra footage, and also in tracking down talent, who love to be involved,” Warner's Saksa said.

“It's almost like producing an independent film -- you have to nurture it for almost a year,” he said. “It's very time-consuming, but we believe it fully pays off.”

Accordingly, Saksa said, Warner tends to advertise its special edition oldies on television as well as in print, and typically realizes strong sales -- although he would not cite specific numbers.

“Volumewise, they rank right behind new theatricals,” Saksa said. “And yet retailers do not have to price them low, so they get better margins.”

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has been one of the most prolific studios in putting out special edition DVDs of catalog titles and was honored at the recent DVD at 5 conference for “elevating the special edition.”

Marketing SVP Peter Staddon said Fox began mining its vaults for films worthy of the special edition treatment in early 2000 with The Abyss and has since released nearly 40 packages, typically bearing a suggested list price of $26.98.

“DVD has gotten a lot of people into the film-collecting mentality that they never had before,” Staddon said. “There's more of an audience for classic films now than there ever was on VHS five, six years ago -- particularly since they're restored and we can include background material that gives context to the film.”

Fox's litany of special edition DVDs includes The Sound of Music, All About Eve, Patton, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Laura.

“Most of the time, this is film history you're dealing with,” Staddon said. “Obviously, when you're dealing with titles like Porky's or Hot Shots, they probably don't merit a special edition release. We choose titles that have been nominated for best picture Oscars, that have influenced lots of filmmakers.”

Alex Carloss, SVP of marketing at MGM Home Entertainment, said his studio has ambitious plans to boost the release of special edition catalog DVDs next year, with 29 titles already on the preliminary slate. Some, but not all, will be double discs.

“It is an absolutely wonderful way for us to elevate some of our ‘best-of-class' titles,” he said. “The criteria are: one, that these films are critically acclaimed; two, that they have a cult following or cult status; three, that we actually have value-added material we can create, that talent is either available or there's footage in the archives; and, four, that from the studio standpoint we feel it's worthy of special-edition treatment.

“Those are the four criteria, and if we hit any one of those, it's a candidate.”

Carloss said a key part of MGM's strategy is generating some sort of buzz among film critics.

“By their very nature, you're offering something new for the critics to talk about, so to be able to rev up the publicity machine and give all the film writers around the world something new to talk about is a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “It's also a key marketing motivator.”

Warner's Saksa notes that the special edition DVD often complements a “vanilla” on VHS that continues to be available for less than $10.

“As a result, the retailer, with the same movie, can appeal to two different target markets,” Saksa said.

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