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Insights from home entertainment industry experts. Home Media blogs give you the inside scoop on entertainment news, DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases, and the happenings at key studios and entertainment retailers. “TK's Take” analyzes and comments on home entertainment news and trends, “Agent DVD Insider” talks fanboy entertainment, “IndieFile” delivers independent film news, “Steph Sums It Up” offers pithy opinions on the state of the industry, and “Mike’s Picks” offers bite-sized recommendations of the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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20 Jul, 2004

Rentailers Increasingly Retailers After All

From the beginnings of the sellthrough business, industry pundits have exhorted rentailers to get into selling movies. Many said they were missing the boat, while rental dealers claimed they couldn't keep up with mass merchants' loss-leader pricing and stuck to what they did best — rent movies.

What a difference DVD has made.

Compared to VHS, the cost of the little disc was lower, the consumer appetite to buy it much higher (primed by mass merchants and first-day sellthrough availability) and its format more durable and, therefore, collectable. That opened a whole new sellthrough business for the rental dealer — low-priced previously viewed titles.

As I talked to rentailers during last week's VSDA convention, I asked them if they were worried about the drop-off in rental transactions. They all said no. Everyone said PVT had more than offset the decline in rental revenue. They all considered PVT a part of rental revenue, but I beg to differ. Whether they like to term it as such or not, rentailers are in the sellthrough business. And now that they have this toehold, I think they can move on to selling new titles with more success.

Because DVD was available as a sellthrough item from the get-go, mass merchants expanded their shelves, but data shows they may have finally hit a wall. The DVD Release Report, edited by contributor Ralph Tribbey, noted that the title total for 2004 is expected to show only a small gain for the year: 5,232 vs. 5,134 in 2003. If the number of titles is to grow, so must the sellthrough marketplace absorbing them.

And that's where the rental dealers come in. They are in a strong position with independent suppliers. During the VSDA convention, budget sellthrough supplier GoodTimes Entertainment gave dealers a tutorial on selling product that isn't Shrek 2. He urged rental dealers to learn to sell stuff that discounters won't discount or won't even shelve due to space constraints. In essence, he asked them to become niche sellthrough retailers, competing in arenas that the discounters won't or can't, much as they have with PVT.

“You have to look at independent suppliers as your partners [in tackling the sellthrough business],” he said, telling them to look for evergreen catalog and other budget product that sells.

It's a provocative idea, especially if rental transactions begin to fall off so much that PVT can't make up the difference.

If indie music retailers survived selling music alongside mass merchants (before the downloading debacle), so can indie video retailers — and they'll have the cushion of the traditional rental business and PVT. In the end, though they built their business on rentals, rentailers can be in the sellthrough business after all.

18 Jul, 2004

VSDA Show Continues to Evolve With the Industry

This year's VSDA show appeared to be a success on many levels. Preliminary registration figures showed a slight uptick in attendance, and from what we heard from exhibitors, attendees and just checking out the scene in the hallways and expo hall, traffic seemed to be strong and steady. There was a strong slate of sessions, the parties were plentiful, well done and well attended, and the logistical issues of moving thousands of people up and down the elevator shafts of the Venetian hotel from one floor of meeting suites to another appeared to go very smoothly, certainly compared to the past two years.

Trying to ascertain some of the main themes emanating from the show was a challenge because in many ways, at least it seemed to the staff of Video Store Magazine, the show has several personalities and paths. Historically, of course, it has been a show about the retailing of home video, and it continues to be. In this regard, the pursuit of new business models to expand one's video store revenue base was certainly a theme as industry figures point to a rental downturn (although I hear from many retailers that they are doing just fine, thank you).

The growing sellthrough nature of the business is inviting the question, can specialty retailers find some way to participate in the new-release sellthrough business beyond the burgeoning previously viewed sales initiatives, which will account for $2.37 billion by the end of 2004?

And the introduction of the VSDA's newly created organization for independent retailers and a new name — Independent Dealers of Entertainment Association (iDEA) — formally known under its working name of the iGroup, was a sign that in some ways the association and its show were returning to its roots.

But on the other hand, what we found interesting was the almost film-market feel to this event. In this new iteration, what we are seeing is not just exhibitors selling to attendee retailers, but a whole m?lange of different types of attendees who were roaming the halls shopping their own products and looking for development and distribution deals. Independent filmmakers certainly have a big presence at the event with their own exhibit hall and seminar track, but it seemed to us that we also met a number of very interesting hybrid sort of companies who sold product direct to consumers, whether that be by direct mail, Web or even brick-and-mortar retail, and who were looking for more suppliers of a particular type, or who wanted to develop exclusive productions of their own for their particular target market.

Not to say this hasn't been going on at past shows, but it certainly seemed to us that the VSDA's Home Entertainment events continue to evolve with a home entertainment industry where the lines of retail and production continue to get fuzzier.

All in all, a very successful and interesting event to be sure.

11 Jul, 2004

The Buzz Returns Next Week

The Morning Buzz will resume next Monday when the editors return from the VSDA's Home Entertainment 2004 show.

8 Jul, 2004

Good Things Come in Twos

Remember when sequels were viewed as nothing more than crass money grabs? You had a good movie that scored big at the box office, so you made a cheapo followup and then maybe one, two or even three more, and each time a couple of stars dropped out and the story got more and more derivative.

Sure, there were exceptions — Godfather II and Toy Story 2 stand out — but for the most part, movies got progressively worse the higher their end digit. Sometimes the results were downright laughable — who can forget Charles Bronson in Death Wish 3 blowing the bejesus out of his whole neighborhood with an arsenal of serious weapons he and his neighbor just happened to have lying around? Or the absurdity of the later Friday the 13th and Halloween films?

Box office earnings seemed to parallel the sequels' quality. The films got worse, and they made progressively less money until someone mercifully decided to pull the plug.

Nowadays, the opposite seems to be happening. The shift began a few years ago, when Austin Powers II outgrossed the original by a financial landslide. But it wasn't until this summer — the summer of the sequel, Hollywood is calling it — when this turnaround became a rule of thumb. Shrek 2 was hailed by critics as an even better movie than the first Shrek, and it's earning tons more dough, as well. The same is happening with Spider-Man 2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban opened bigger than either of its two predecessors. And there's tremendous buzz surrounding upcoming sequels like The Bourne Supremecy and Princess Diaries 2. Go ahead — you already know where I'm going to place the credit. Yes, that's right — DVD.

My line of thought goes something like this: Sequel awareness is at an all-time high, because now so many of the originals are in peoples' homes. About a minute after my kids saw an ad for Shrek 2 on TV, they were watching the original Shrek on DVD. It whetted their appetite for more, and when they saw Shrek 2 in the theater two days later, they came home and guess what — they watched Shrek again.It was the same story with Spider-Man. The ad for the sequel made him want to watch the original, and watching the original made him want to see Spider-Man 2 in theaters all the more.

No one's done any definitive research on this, but my hunch is the whole thing started a few years ago when Austin Powers 2 outgrossed its predecessor in theaters while the first Austin Powers was red-hot on DVD. Someone in Hollywood connected the dots, and a pattern developed — the DVD of the first film would be used to promote the theatrical debut of the sequel, and vice versa.Along the way, the quality of sequels got better, likely a function of the studio suits who greenlight films figuring a bigger investment would lead to an even bigger return. They figured right, and we have a new phenomenon on our hands.

7 Jul, 2004

Bill Cosby Decries Slumping Urban Civility

Last week, comedian Bill Cosby sounded off once again on what he sees as the black community struggling educationally and economically.

He blames, in large part, stereotypical pop culture and entertainment, including rap music and videos, within the black community for the decline.

After lashing out in May at a commemoration of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, Cosby was criticized by some for airing the black community's “dirty laundry.”

According to a published report on CNN.com, Cosby, speaking before the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition & Citizen Education Fund's conference in Chicago, said “Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It's cursing and calling each other ‘nigger' as they're walking up and down the street. They think they are hip. They can't read; they can't write. They are laughing and giggling, and they are going nowhere.”

As a reporter whose beat includes urban fare, I empathize with Cosby's lament. The majority of movie and music videos targeted at the 18-to-34-year-old black demo are laced with profanity and riddled with stereotypical urban characters meeting unhappy endings.

In fact, the few titles that rise above the scrum often can't escape similar scenarios, but do so either through superior individual performances (Denzel Washington in Training Day) or storytelling such as Spike Lee's early stuff.

Speaking to distributors of urban home entertainment, there exists a consensus that both reiterates Cosby's concerns yet feels compelled to adhere to market demands.

It's just sad that so many young blacks can't separate entertainment from reality.

As Cosby said, “You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.”

6 Jul, 2004

Entrepreneurs Eager to Fill Holes in Rental Model

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the video store, here comes another mutation of the business model, brought to you by that salvation of the content industries, DVD.

For this week's issue of the magazine, I did a story about Web sites that let DVD collectors trade their discs like baseball cards. You just sign up, list what you have and what you want, then trade with whomever has the stuff you want and wants what you have. The sites range from free to fee-per-trade models.

It's an extreme example of what Blockbuster's John Antioco once called the DVD “share economy.” He was talking about families and neighbors sharing their stuff, but this Web site extends that network beyond even the DVDjones.com concept of tracking what you have lent to whom from your DVD library.

It seems like every day people come up with new ways to share the programming they love and ditch the stinkers. The collecting phenomenon is a double-edged sword: PVT may be keeping indies afloat, but it is also creating a market for a way around not only rental returns and late fees, but rentals.

I applaud the consumers and entrepreneurs who see the demand and fill the need. But it's an ongoing reminder that this industry is changing from one day to the next, and that other models — some of them both free and legal — are waiting in the wings to fill any holes in rental models.

4 Jul, 2004

Peer-to-Peer Trading a New Wrinkle in DVD Economy

The new DVD economy continues to spawn new transaction models, the latest of which you can read in this week's issue of Video Store Magazine.

We're talking about online portals that facilitate trading between consumers, and while it's in its infancy, the concept could certainly have appeal for the constituency of DVD owners who are not consummate collectors, but rather find themselves, at some point, with dozens of DVDs they realize they're not watching any more, but have some value nonetheless.

As Blockbuster and other major retailers develop and market their own trading initiatives, consumers will start to consider other ways to monetize their DVDs and peer-to-peer trading is yet another wrinkle.

“There is massive inventory of DVDs building up in people's houses,” says Dan Robinson of Peerflix.com. Indeed, that inventory is beginning to spill over into the marketplace.

Robinson may have only about 500 participants on his network right now, but his and other similar services are expecting that they can serve a growing population of people who aren't inclined to spend their DVDs on video store credit, but are willing to exchange their DVDs for another specific DVD they really want to watch. He actually has an elegant little model that I'll not go into here (it's in the article), but suffice to say it's not an altogether unattractive idea for consumers.

The point here is that, like it or not, the DVD has become a form of currency that a video store owner is going to have to recognize, if he/she hasn't already. There too many places now where a DVD is as good as cash money, and unless your store participates in the new DVD economy you may find yourself left out of the loop and losing business to people you have never even heard of before, not to mention Big Blue down the street.

1 Jul, 2004

Does Controversy Have Legs by the Time a Film Reaches Retail?

Controversy never hurts. There's a good chance Michael Moore's latest quasi-documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, would have never gone beyond a limited art-house run had there not been a wave of publicity over Disney's reported mandate to Miramax to keep the film in the closet. Similarly, the uproar over The Passion of the Christ probably had more to do with the film's amazing theatrical success than the fervor of believers.

Both films are scheduled to hit video later this year, and it makes you wonder — does controversy have legs? Will the same crowds who flocked to theaters for a look at Fahrenheit 9/11 out of curiosity over Disney's lockdown actually run out and buy it, three or four months later? And will The Passion of the Christ become as much a phenomenon on video as it was in theaters, now that the slings between Mel Gibson and those who believe his picture unfairly portrays Jews as brutal persecutors have been largely grounded?

As I said, it makes you wonder. It also begs the question of how our own home entertainment industry's little controversies will affect sales of upcoming DVD releases. Two specific cases stand out:

• The original Star Wars is finally coming to DVD this fall, and there's been a lot of negative buzz about computerized changes to the film, most significantly Hans Solo no longer shooting first. Is this negativity going to stymie sales? Honestly, I don't think so — at least, not significantly. Fans may grumble all they want, but in the end they're still going to buy the film.

• The much-maligned Showgirls is now out from MGM in an elaborate VIP edition, complete with such nonelectronic extras as a pair of shot glasses, pasties and a lap-dance tutorial. This film was wildly lampooned as the worst movie ever made; and yet now MGM is hoping to turn the tide of bad press into a tidal wave of interest, even going so far as to quote one critic on the back calling the film “an instant camp classic.” Will the strategy work? I believe it will — heck, I can't wait to get home with my copy, although I'm not quite sure about the pasties.

30 Jun, 2004

<I>Fahrenheit</I> Turns Up the Heat on Societal Issues

I think it's interesting that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 broke a record for a documentary film in theaters given the fact that our congressional leaders seem to think we can't make a media-consumption decision without their help.

Certainly, the film was poised to make a splash with all the notoriety and media coverage it's gotten in the weeks leading up to its release. So most people are probably aware that this film is not necessarily a balanced, gentle discussion of the issues of the day with two different sides carefully hearing one another out. Most people who went to the limited number of theaters to see this film over its opening weekend likely knew they were about to witness some rather one-sided Bush-bashing.

Funny, that fact didn't seem to stop them. I didn't get a chance to see it opening weekend, but I will go, and soon. And I think a lot of people, who for the first time in history chose a political documentary over all the other theatrical options, are looking for the same thing that I am looking for. I want someone to show me something, tell me anything, without the tepid, watered-down mentality with which our current federal leadership seems to think we need to be treated.

They're not the only tepid ones. Members of the media have been sandwiching in personal attacks at Moore during interviews with the director, or pointing out discrepancies or lack of balance during reviews of the film.

Personally, I don't care if Fahrenheit 9/11 is a balanced or objective look at its subject matter, or outright fiction. I'm just ready to hear anything that isn't the party line.

There's so much talk these days about what is “indecent” and what we need to be protected from. Sen. Brownback, R-Kan., and his cohorts would have us believe that a large part of this country is clamoring to be sheltered from indecent content on public airwaves. But it seems there's plenty of crossover between people who consume media via network TV or FCC-regulated radio and those who buy movies or go to the theater. Certainly, some of these same consumers are the ones who went to see Fahrenheit 9/11, which isn't exactly complimentary of the current legislative regime.

Also, if so many people are so concerned about indecent language and behavior, then why are sales of unrated movies so stellar? When crude comedies like Eurotrip, Old School, American Wedding or others hit DVD in the choice of rated or unrated versions, the unrated version always has the higher sales figures. Always.

Meanwhile, the government is oh-so-concerned over protecting us from hearing Howard Stern describe anatomical body parts.

Speaking of body parts, I really wish Janet Jackson had kept her top on hers. Not because I'm offended at what popped out, but because I am offended at how comfortable our legislators are at stepping right on that “slippery slope” and thumbing their nose at the First Amendment because of it.

So yeah, I'm all for anyone like Michael Moore who's willing to thumb their nose right back, and I hope the money he's quickly making from Fahrenheit 9/11 keeps him doing just that.

29 Jun, 2004

Many Ways to &lsquo;Exercise&#39; Your Rights

This is an industry built on letting people watch what they want, when they want to. It even used to be a VSDA slogan. Yet every time I turn around these days, someone is trying to limit what and how we watch.

In the most instant case, though, the “what” folks are at war with the “how” camp. In the “what” corner, we have Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who thinks people should be able to watch what they want in their own homes and not have to see things they find objectionable. In the “how” corner are several directors and their trade union, the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Apparently they think consumers should be able to watch whatever they want to in their own homes, as long as they watch it the way the directors want them to see it.

The dispute centers on technology from ClearPlay Technologies, which lets consumers set filters on an interface with their playback devices so they skip over foul language, violence, sex and other potentially objectionable content. How the courts — or the Legislature — will handle it remains to be seen. But maybe we should give the directors a little slack. After all, their concerns aren't all over allegedly derivative works.

No, in fact it looks like the directors are acting out of an abiding concern for the movie-watching public. Anyone who has not heard news reports of an obesity epidemic in the United States has to have been living under a rock for the last year. Or maybe they were so fat they could not get up to turn on CNN or replace the batteries in the remote. The directors, bless 'em, want to save us from ourselves.

I'm convinced this is the directors' way of making sure we all start getting enough exercise. Instead of skipping offensive parts of movies —£ what the heck were you thinking letting your kid watch an inappropriate, profanity-laced movie like Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat unattended anyway? — they want you to get up off your couch-potato butts and herd the kids out of the room.

Just think how much exercise we would all get if we had to shuttle the little dears into the dining area for a scene, then shoo them all back into the family room when the swearing is over. It's kind of surreal, a bit like the old Secret Word gag on “Pee Wee's Playhouse.” Remember? (For those of you who don't remember, Image Entertainment just scored a deal that will have Pee-Wee on our DVD players this fall.) Any time someone said the day's secret word, everyone had to shout. But in this case, they all have to scatter.

I applaud the directors' efforts to save us all from our inherent laziness and boorish taste. They are willing to give up countless dollars in box office revenue by making movies with content so strong that ratings shrink the potential audience, and ticket sales, in theaters. They aren't even worried about the potential lost DVD revenue from people who won't watch their movies without a sanitizing feature, the very feature they hope to quash. What a selfless bunch.

Heading into a weekend that is all about celebrating freedom, I think we should support the directors' position. Vote with your feet. Let's all get out there and get some exercise. Shut off the TV, go outside and play.