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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.


Opinion
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17 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Collect ‘em! Trade ‘em! Share ‘em with your friends!

I don't buy much stuff branded “collectible.” Even DVDs, because often the “collectible” element is packaging. I admit, I'm oodles more interested in titles that are collectible because of content than packaging. This makes me wonder what all the efforts at collectible packaging will really amount to.

I had some time off a couple of weeks ago and spent a bit of it maintaining auctions on eBay. Some of what I am selling is old dolls and, as I searched the Web for information about some of them, I found a lot of validation for an idea I've held for quite a while: There are two kinds of collectibles.

One kind is what I call the “contrived collectible.” That's anything that's collectible because the marketing department stamped it on the package. The market is flooded with them – everything from kids meal toys to sports cards to handpainted state quarters.

There is quite a market for contrived collectibles – just ask the Ty company, which makes Beanie Babies, or companies like the Franklin Mint, which seem to make any event (or even nonevent) an excuse to issue a commemorative snow globe, coin, figurine or toilet paper roller. The labeling and promotion of these special, limited edition, genuine synthetic collectibles (just check the coupon flyer in your Sunday newspaper) is enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

Then there are the real collectibles – stuff that's collectible now either because it was a goof, like a mis-struck coin, or because it was popular some time ago, because then it really was cool – so cool that most of that item was used and then lost, discarded or damaged.

Dolls are a great illustration. As I surfed for information and price comparisons, it was quite obvious the dolls I had received as gifts (most of which were immediately snatched from my preteen hands and stashed away because they were collectible and too “nice” to let a child play with) are worth no more – and in some cases less – than the original selling price. The stuff I chose for myself and played with is what rakes in the big bucks from collectors.

I think the same will ultimately be true for DVD. Some of those “collectible” packages make a nice impression as a gift, but they mess up the symmetry of your media shelf and I don't believe they increase the value of the product.

I'll be watching sales trends for collectible-packaged DVDs. Although they may do well at retail around the holidays, I'll bet that over time that fancy package is just a distraction.

But that won't hurt the bottom line, at least for a while. Because just as with other collectibles, only time will tell.


16 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: VSDA Won't Be Caught Between Indies & Chains

As the heightened impatience level of certain activist independent video retailers (IVRs) might attest, it's clear the Video Software Dealers Association is not (and for the most part never was) going to take the side of the IVR “against” the big chains that, as many IVRs are wont to blame, are responsible for their somewhat precarious business fortunes.

A house divided is sure to fall and, though the IVRs collectively have a majority of the estimated 25,000 or so video specialty storefronts in the U.S., still a handful of powerful and growing chains individually represent almost as many IVRs and they, too, are a significant membership factor and influence for the VSDA, along with a host of non-specialty retail sectors, studios and distributors.

While the association has attempted to offer a spectrum of services and education for IVRs, and invested several million dollars in the past several years in certain special programs (generic advertising test, copy depth study, etc.) that, according to the VSDA, were generated with the IVRs in mind, still, the association cannot and will not, as some IVR advocates would have hoped, take up as its major reason for being the cause of helping indies compete against their major competitors, the chains.

The association's new three-year strategic plan will call for more emphasis on legal and regulatory advocacy on behalf of the industry as a whole, including the First Sale battle looming on the electronic frontier (a return to its roots, when the VSDA was in the thick of the First Sale battle in the early 80s), as well as its usual First Amendment, free speech battles and legal battles in various states pertaining to adult content retailing.

Research is another area the association hopes to expand upon for the benefit of both chains and indies alike. And education services that include online, conferences and trade shows for both the industry and even consumers are being revamped and or created to be cost effective and provide a decent return for the association and its members. In fact the association has committed that it will be “net positive” in its operations by next year, by cutting costs and seeking to build new revenue streams to replace the ones that have fallen. Chapters are expected to operate similarly.

This belt tightening will mean significant projects that focused on improving IVR competitiveness in the marketplace will either have to be self-funding in some manner or they cannot be pursued. That, amongst other issues of long-standing irritation to IVRs, has caused some of the VSDA's more outspoken IVR board members such as Mick Blanken, to resign or not pursue additional terms in office, feeling that the VSDA is no longer attempting to fulfill a role they had hoped it would or could aspire to fulfill.

Certainly in its early to middle years the VSDA may have been accurately perceived to be the association for the independent video retailer. And while that is still a membership base the association clearly wants to continue representing and serving, it's also clear it intends to ensure it keeps its focus broad enough to be able to embrace a wide variety of interests in the home entertainment industry.

Video Store Magazine and Hive4media.com in the next several weeks will examine the current and future status of the VSDA as it seeks to re-focus on what it believes are its core capabilities, and grow not only its current membership constituencies but reach out to others (such as online providers) who also can benefit from its services.


12 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: TV Gets A New Season on DVD

There's an incredible flood of TV product coming to DVD, and you wonder if this is going to be another video craze of the kind that hits saturation and then crashes, like the erotic thriller boom of the early 1990s.

If you look back on those days, video retailers and consumers were looking for an alternative to big-budget box office hits (as they always are) and erotic thrillers, invariably made for video, fit the bill just dandy.

There was action, there was sex, there was violence, there was blood — and best of all, it could be produced on a shoestring budget. “All you need is a beautiful girl who wants to be a star and someone's nice house up in Beverly Hills,” one supplier told me at the time.

The erotic thriller boom went bust virtually overnight, a simple case of too much product flooding the market. There was so much crap that the good stuff—and there were some pretty good flicks in this genre—got lost in the shuffle, and the end result was that companies like Prism and Imperial and Academy, which had relied heavily on erotic thrillers for their income, went bust.

The furious pace at which studios are releasing TV shows on DVD — buoyed, no doubt, by the success of the populist “Friends” and cult faves The Sopranos, Sex and the City and X-Files — is unparalleled.

The TV Shows on DVD Web site (tvshowsondvd.com) lists more than 1,400 TV DVD titles, up nearly 50 percent from the summer.

Universal Studios Home Video just announced its entry into the market with “Law & Order” and “Baretta.” Columbia TriStar is TV'ing it with “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son.” MGM just came out with an absolutely stunning four-disc set of the complete first season of “The Outer Limits,” 32 50-minute episodes of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. And Fox, which pretty much launched the “TV on DVD” genre with “X Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” compilations, is now putting out the complete first season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Will this trend crumble and fall the way the erotic thriller craze did? I don't think it will, for these reasons:



  • The big studios, not struggling independents, are behind this one.

  • The target audience is collectors, or buyers, rather than renters. Nostalgia has always sold, and vintage TV shows are perfectly suited for collectors — particularly when you can get an entire season into a package no bigger than a paperback book. Our publisher, Don Rosenberg, recently took home a copy of “The Outer Limits” and the next day strolled into work with a huge cardboard box filled with individual episodes on cassette. “I cleared out a whole shelf in my garage,” he said. “And this is only half of them.”

  • There's no danger of anything getting lost in the shuffle. Unlike made-for-video erotic thrillers, there's nothing unknown about this commodity. If a TV show has a big fan base, the DVD will sell. If it doesn't, it won't.


Right now the studios are trying the shotgun approach with TV shows on DVD. They won't hit the target all the time, but I predict they'll score enough times that this boom will continue until a lot more of the shows we grow up with, as well as those we love now, will be available on DVD.

And best of all, there are no commercials.


10 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Remember, But Don't Forget to Watch the Road Ahead

I'm not going to get maudlin about the anniversary today. It saddens us all for good reason. We'll each experience it differently and nothing I could say about that day would capture anyone else's feelings about it.

I thought about it a lot, though, and had trouble deciding on the appropriate way to observe. It didn't seem right to let the day pass without mention or to stir up anyone's pain.

But I do want to remind folks to look not only at the terrible events of a year ago today, but all that has happened since. We learn so slowly.

We absolutely must fight those who would threaten our country and the freedoms we enjoy. But we must make sure to balance that with making our country a worthy place to fight for without conceding the very freedoms we purport to protect.

It's shameless that executives at some of the world's biggest corporations looted some states, their companies and even their own employees for personal gain -- even more despicable when the nation is under external threat. That's another kind of terrorism.

It's also shameless that corporations -- including media conglomerates -- are seizing on antiterrorism initiatives to create opportunities to violate citizens' privacy. A number of the antiterrorism bills on Capitol Hill include provisions the entertainment giants want to use for their own ends. Sections that let companies spy on people and twist the law.

There is a legitimate need to fight piracy, whether it's digital, political or violently physical. But we also have to preserve the liberties our Constitution promises. It's what we're fighting for in the first place, isn't it?


9 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Do people really want to revisit 9/11?

My grandmother never saw the movie Titanic, despite the hoopla, the Oscars and the fact that it was a historical epic, her favorite genre.

Why?

She didn't want to relive a horrific event she remembered from her youth. Although she was a child when the disaster happened, it still resonated with her such that she didn't want to be reminded of it even decades and decades later.

Until this past weekend, I felt much the same about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I saw no point in looking back at those events, choosing instead to push it from my mind. I would turn the television channel whenever the burning towers appeared and consciously avoided news reports about the event. I had no interest in watching video screeners of the multiple documentaries produced for the anniversary.

Many in the industry interviewed for our story on 9/11 videos felt much the same way. “It's just too much, too soon,” said Flash Distributors' president Steve Scavelli, who was at the Twin Towers immediately following the attacks and joined the early rescue efforts. Mick Blanken, owner of Super Hitz Moviez and Gamez in Delaware, Ohio, said he would not carry any videos on the event. “I am just not interested in perpetuating the horror,” he told Video Store Magazine.

That's the way I felt leading up to this anniversary week. Then I found myself mesmerized by TV coverage over the weekend. It became a kind of catharsis to look back at an event that will forever mark my life. Like those who remember what they were doing the day JFK was shot, I will forever vividly recall the sights and sounds of my daughter's first day of school, which happened to be Sept. 11, 2001.

I was getting ready to take her to school when I heard the garage door raising. My husband, who had just left for work, was returning to tell me a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Then we flipped on the television. We tried to keep my 3-year-old from watching footage of the towers, but that night she revealed she had taken a peek.

“When are they going to put that fire out, Mommy?” she asked.

I knew in my heart it would take a long time.

I think I am suddenly drawn to videos and television coverage of this event because I want to stay angry, because complacency is what the terrorists have counted on all along. I wouldn't be surprised if retailers see a sudden uptick in interest in anniversary videos this week, despite the calm before. Perhaps we are now ready to face the horror. While my grandmother could escape stories of the Titanic, I need to keep 9/11 and all its anguish and heroism in mind – because we still haven't put out that fire.


6 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Do Studios Plan DVD Obsolescence?

Built-in obsolescence is a hallmark of American industry. Technology exists to create lightbulbs that would last practically forever, but then the lightbulb industry wouldn't sell many lightbulbs — hence, the thin filament that burns out after a few months.

The same is true of car parts, refrigerators (the shelves on my Whirlpool have been glued and reglued myriad times, and the dang thing's only five years old), you name it.

In the pre-digital era, home entertainment had the perfect excuse for built-in obsolescence — moving parts and wear and tear. The mechanisms on audiocassettes and videocassettes have so many tiny parts, it's inevitable that something will go wrong — and even if it doesn't, the wear and tear to the tape eventually damages the magnetic field, meaning the sound or image start to disintegrate, say, after 10 or 15 years. The vinyl LP was even worse. There were no moving parts, but the sharp diamond needle tore the bejesus out of those poor vinyl grooves, and with each play it got worse. Diehard rock fans like myself frequently “wore out” albums that had to be replaced; I remember buying two copies, at the onset, of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town back in the late 1970s because I knew what would happen.

DVDs and audio CDs don't wear out. It's been said they last about 300 years, although no one's been around long enough to find out. Now, I don't have exact replacement figures, but I believe a fair amount of income, in years past, came from people replacing worn-out software. With those five-inch optical discs, with no moving parts and nothing touching the surface except a beam of light, the record companies and studios stand to lose a small but nevertheless lucrative stream of incremental income.

If you look at what's happening in our industry, certain things start to make sense. Why are studios so against coating their DVDs with something to minimize damage from scratches? The technology exists — I remember the VSDA as far back as the middle 1990s lobbying for this, on behalf of rental dealers who were already dealing with scratched and otherwise field-damaged game discs, and who were fearful of the same thing happening once DVD really got going.

Well, DVD really has gotten going, and the rental dealers I've spoken with tend to dismiss field-damaged discs as a fact of life. Could it be that the studios simply don't want to coat their discs? You can't really blame their reasoning — they'd be spending more money and taking in less, since there would be fewer replacement sales.

I also find it interesting that the studios most concerned about driving down the price of DVDs use flimsy cardboard boxes rather than those nice, handsome, sturdy all-plastic “keepcases”. All right, so it's not the software, but collectors want things in mint condition, so if the box goes, they're likely going to buy a new one, especially if buying another copy will only set them back $10 or $12.

I'm not saying the studios are deliberately trying to thwart DVD's archival nature, or are consciously trying to make a product that somewhere down the road will break down, like a car, and need to be replaced.

It's just that built-in obsolescence is so ingrained in our culture that doing so would be second nature. They probably haven't given it much thought; it's just the way things are done.


5 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Collect ‘em! Trade ‘em! Share ‘em with your friends!

I don't buy much stuff branded “collectible.” Even DVDs, because often the “collectible” element is packaging. I admit, I'm oodles more interested in titles that are collectible because of content than packaging. This makes me wonder what all the efforts at collectible packaging will really amount to.

I had some time off last week and spent a bit of it maintaining auctions on eBay. Some of what I am selling is old dolls and, as I searched the Web for information about some of them, I found a lot of validation for an idea I've held for quite a while: There are two kinds of collectibles.

One kind is what I call the “contrived collectible.” That's anything that's collectible because the marketing department stamped it on the package. The market is flooded with them – everything from kids meal toys to sports cards to handpainted state quarters.

There is quite a market for contrived collectibles – just ask the Ty company, which makes Beanie Babies, or companies like the Franklin Mint, which seem to make any event (or even nonevent) as an excuse to issue a commemorative snow globe, coin, figurine or toilet paper roller. The labeling and promotion of these special, limited edition, genuine synthetic collectibles (just check the coupon flyer in your Sunday newspaper) is enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

Then there are the real collectibles – stuff that's collectible now either because it was a goof, like a mis-struck coin, or because it was popular some time ago, because then it really was cool – so cool that most of that item was used and then lost, discarded or damaged.

Dolls are a great illustration. As I surfed for information and price comparisons, it was quite obvious the dolls I had received as gifts (most of which were immediately snatched from my preteen hands and stashed away because they were collectible and too “nice” to let a child play with) are worth no more – and in some cases less – than the orignal selling price. The stuff I chose for myself and played with is what rakes in the big bucks from collectors.

I think the same will ultimately be true for DVD. Some of those “collectible” packages make a nice impression as a gift, but they mess up the symmetry of your media shelf and I don't believe they increase the value of the product.

I'll be watching sales trends for collectible-packaged DVDs. Although they may do well at retail around the holidays, I'll bet that over time that fancy package is just a distraction.

But that won't hurt the bottom line, at least for quite a while. Because just as with other collectibles, only time will tell.


3 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Living on the Edge

I've never been a big fan of anime -- Japanese animation -- even though I've been aware of it for some time. I actually like some of it, and animation in general, but I just couldn't get into anime as a regular course on my entertainment diet. I'm taking another look, though.

If I learned anything as I interviewed a passel of anime sales and marketing executives last week for a story in Video Store Magazine, it was that anime is on the cutting edge of video. Not because it's a hip, cool, fly sort of style that captures college-age youth culture, but because its consumers force the suppliers to push the technical limits of delivery as well as content.

The marketing folks are an incredibly savvy bunch who know what their audience wants and how to give it to them. They've realized that for their audience, VHS is so yesterday. They're bailing out faster than you can push "rewind" and putting all their video chips in DVD.

I think DVD will be around for a while, but you can bet the anime crowd that has embraced it will be the first to abandon it for IP delivery. These people are all about mobility and traveling light. I read them as true hunter-gatherers, people who will watch hundreds of streams or downloads and only collect their particular favorites on hard storage media. Some anime is already available by stream and download.

Some days I think our world is looking more and more like Blade Runner (a world where, I expect, most anime fans would be in heaven). There are networks of wireless "hot spots," places where you can mosey by with a laptop that's set up for wireless protocols and tap into the Internet while you're sitting in your car or on a park bench. Why not watch a movie? Or a ball game? Major League Baseball drew 30,000 viewers with its first live streaming Webcast a week or so ago. I think eventually most consumers will gobble down Webcasts and store only favorites, but not until the systems are more unified and user friendly.

Anime consumers are ahead of the curve. They understand gadgets and how to make them play together, or at least how to use them in complimentary ways. (I'd love to see data on what the home entertainment gear looks like in homes sampled by favorite genre.) And they're passionate about their content -- they won't let a little technology stand between them and their prize.

That's luring me into looking into the wider selection of anime content that's become available as the genre's popularity has grown in the United States. So many people just can't get enough of it. I guess I'll have to pop in a few discs and see what all the fuss is about.

Yes, discs. I won't go selling off all my DVD yet, but I certainly plan to keep my eyes on the anime market as a herald of things to come in our industry.


3 Sep, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: DVD: The Ultimate Edition Not Only of Feature Films But of Episodic TV

DVD has become the ultimate director's medium for feature films. Buena Vista Home Entertainment positions its special edition Vista series DVDs as “definitive” versions of those films, and New Line Home Entertainment ‘s extended edition DVD of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring could likely become the definitive version of that film, as the alternate ending laserdisc of The Abyss became the preferred edition of that James Cameron film for many fans.

But, unlike laserdisc or VHS, DVD is also a handy and preferred storage medium for episodic television, which is becoming less episodic — with a beginning, middle and end in each installment — and more like a serial novel. The perfect example of this is the new series “24,” which hits DVD Sept. 17. The concept of that series – a collection of one hour periods told in real time in the life of a counterterrorist agent (Kiefer Sutherland) – lends itself to DVD unlike any other. It's almost easier to watch the series on DVD, in its proper order, than it is on television. If you miss an episode on TV, you can fall behind despite the quick rehash of past events that occurs at the beginning of each show. In an apparent nod to this phenomenon, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is releasing the season one DVD collection before the new season starts on television, allowing viewers to catch up on disc.

“24” isn't the only TV series like this. “The Sopranos” is also best watched in episode order. Indeed, my husband, an avid fan of the show, said he would not watch the third season DVD set before he's seen the first two seasons in their entirety. Retailer Best Buy has picked up on this and is offering big discounts of up to $40 when consumers purchase previous seasons in addition to the third season collection. I've had to recount many an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to friends who were puzzled by a development in the weekly series after missing an earlier episode. With DVD, they need only watch the series in order to understand.

It almost seems as if studios are making television with DVD in mind, and if they weren't up to this point, they certainly will in the future. Fox exec Peter Chernin noted in a recent earnings call that the studio earned $100 million from TV shows on DVD in the last year. One can envision a TV series made to reap DVD millions with less emphasis on its advertising take.

Yet again, DVD is proving its stripes as an improvement over VHS, not just in picture and sound quality, but in other ways as well.


29 Aug, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Updates from the wacky world of home video

Some funny things happened this week.

For starters, Sony announced it was giving finally giving up on Beta, stopping production some 20 years after it lost the battle for supremacy with VHS. I guess Sony kept on producing limited quantities of the machine for the diehards who refused to join the VHS herd (I wonder if there are still tapeheads out there who are stubbornly clinging to eight-track, swearing the sound is better than cassette). But by now, the numbers have dwindled to the point where it no longer makes sense.

A belated “good for you,” Sony – it's tough to concede defeat, particularly when the better format didn't win, but you made the right decision. In fact, you probably should have thrown in the towel, oh, back in 1982. This is sort of like Ford continuing to produce the Edsel well into the ‘70s…

I also got a chuckle about the announcement that Universal Studios Home Video was entering the increasingly lucrative TV-on-DVD market with a couple of “Baretta” packages. Gee, what a coincidence – Robert Blake, the star of the vintage detective series, is awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, and his preliminary hearing is just two weeks after the videos are coming out.

I mentioned this to another studio executive and instead of blasting Uni for exploitation, he said his studio, too, hopes to cash in on the publicity surrounding the aging actor's legal woes by releasing on video one of his forgotten ‘B' movies.

I guess any publicity is good publicity when it comes to selling videos. I'm waiting for Paramount to release a boxed DVD set of “Naked Gun” movies, starring another celebrity killer, O.J. Simpson. (Oh, he was never convicted, right? And I called him a killer! So sue me, O.J.)

And then there's the lawsuit by a squeaky clean video rental chain against 16 famous directors, in which it wants a judge to sanction its practice of editing profanity, violence and sex from films on video.

If the suit is successful and sets a precedent, allowing others to muck up intellectual property, I've got some edits of my own I'd like to make – there are some nasty scenes in Shakespeare I think could be toned down a little, and then there's all that plague and pestilence in the Old Testament. In fact, I'm thinking condensed version here – God made man, and everything man does pisses God off.

Have a great Labor Day weekend!