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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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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.

28 Jun, 2004

High Def Cannot Hope to Match the Surge of DVD

Now that some of the bluster over the competing high-def disc formats has died down, I wanted to point out a few other hurdles that may keep any future disc format from re-creating the growth wave of DVD. The stars aligned for DVD in a way the future format cannot possibly match.

Assuming the industry does agree on a common format and times it well without stepping on the current DVD surge, it will never have the advantage of building a sellthrough market the way DVD did. Before DVD, consumers couldn't own every title when it came out. Most titles were priced for rental on VHS. Indeed, a case can be made that the sellthrough pricing of the format was more important to its wide and impressive adoption than the better picture and audio. The increased value of a DVD was a no-brainer for consumers. It sported better quality AND it was available at a low price, while most titles in the established format were not.

We will never see that again. High def will not undercut the price of DVD the way DVD trumped the price and sellthrough availability of VHS. Likely, it will cost more, which could be an impediment to its mainstream adoption.

DVD also had a size advantage over the prevailing format that the proposed high-def formats will not. The little disc was a lightweight compared to the VHS cassette. That meant it could be mailed cheaply and shelved more efficiently. It also spawned Internet sales and rentals. If DVD hadn't been so easy to mail, Netflix would never have gotten off the ground. If the DVD had not been so compact, the TV on DVD genre — in which whole seasons can be put in a boxed set the size of one two-hour VHS cassette — would never have emerged as one of the hottest in the business, with millions of sales never imagined on VHS.

Again, the proposed high-def formats won't have a physical size advantage over DVD. The discs may hold more, but they won't fit any better on consumers' or retailers' shelves. They may hold a few more TV episodes on the single disc, but the difference in saved space won't match the spread between DVD and cassette.

Let's talk extras. DVD had them. Cassettes, for the most part, didn't. That was another big advantage DVD had over the format it aimed to replace.

The proposed high-def formats will offer more extras, but does the public really want them? DVD producers will tell you they can do a lot with the extra space — improve the picture or audio, add more branching, more documentaries, etc. — but I question whether that will be enough to convince consumers to switch formats.

While television's advance into high definition may push consumers and the industry into a new format, it simply won't have the pull of DVD. If the industry is looking for another packaged media juggernaut in high-def discs, it may be sorely disappointed. I don't think we ever see the like of DVD in the packaged media realm again.

27 Jun, 2004

Home Entertainment Technology Parade Continues

Technology innovation and enhancements in home entertainment in this digital era continue at a rapid pace. Some may negatively impact home entertainment software retailers, others may be a positive.

In this week's issue of Video Store Magazine, we cover two such technologies: one being the DualDisc format (DVD on one side, CD on the other), recently given a thumbs up by the DVD Forum, the other the emerging handheld video players being developed by a broad range of consumer electronics companies.

Certainly, the DualDisc format offers an opportunity for both home video and music retailers. Music DVD and the marrying of CD with DVD in two-disc sets is a growth category for retailers. Literally melding the two on one disc is seen as a completely natural new format that will appeal to a broad spectrum of consumers coming into both video and music stores. Is it any wonder NARM and the VSDA are in talks to explore ways of merging the two trade groups? Music is more and more a visual medium, and certainly the music retail business has been quickly building up their video business to offset difficult times in the music business. While music retailers are adopting the video business in a big way, I often wonder why I don't see more video retailers building up bigger music DVD sections in their stores. There is certainly no dearth of product. According to the DVD Release Report, there are almost 3,500 music DVD titles available. I think the time is ripe for video retailers to truly embrace the music DVD business in a significant way.

Meanwhile, as Americans take to the roads this summer, doubtless video retailers are probably seeing parents coming in to stock up on an armful of DVDs for their portable DVD players and car-based video systems as they drive and fly to summer vacations with the kids. “America has begun to embrace mobility,” said Amy Dalphy, manager of hard drives at Toshiba, in this week's article looking at the future for handheld video players. The conversion and compression of video files onto hard-disk drives and other storage platforms is being aggressively pursued by all sort of consumer electronics manufacturers.

The reason? A whole generation of consumers who have grown up text messaging each other on their cell phones, downloading and digitally storing music on their iPods and using PDAs for everything but dry cleaning their clothes are rapidly approaching the beginning of their serious earning and discretionary spending years. Not put off by the small-screen experience, they will be the vanguard for adoption of a handheld video entertainment. The kids now in middle school will doubtless be even more rabid consumers five to seven years from now. By that time, home entertainment retailers may want to stake some sort of position in what may be, by then, the beginning of a significant market. Whether it means offering digital downloads or the hardware itself, there may be opportunities in what looks like a possible threat to packaged media.

25 Jun, 2004

A World Without Windows

Bold moves are conspicuously absent in this business, but I wonder what would happen if some studio abolished windows and released everything on the same date theatrically, on home video and on pay-per-view.

We're already headed in that direction. Theatrical-to-video windows have shrunken from a norm of six months to an average of four months, while most big releases wind their way onto PPV about 30 days after their video debut.

What's more, research — and, to a lesser extent, experience — suggests theatrical and video are two distinct audiences. I need only point to Universal's Lost in Translation strategy, in which the film came to video while it was still in theaters. Granted, the theatrical run was extended by awards buzz, but the result is still pretty phenomenal: 600-screen expansion and 1.5 million DVDs sold — all during the exact same time frame.

So what would happen if everything went day-and-date? My hunch: A moderate increase in overall revenue, but a much-faster payoff — and significantly lower marketing costs because studios would only have to fund one campaign, not two or three.

And for a film like Spider-Man 2 or Shrek 2, the overall combined theatrical, DVD and PPV payoff could be significantly higher if all three platforms came to market at the same time. Kids would race to the theater to see Spider-Man 2 on the big screen, and then stop at Wal-Mart or Best Buy on the way home to buy the DVD so they can see it again. Studios would get the chance to strike twice while the proverbial iron's hot.

A same-day pay-per-view showing would simply give consumers a third option. And please don't float that old argument that PPV hurts video. B.S. If anything, under the current structure, PPV helps video by rekindling interest 30 or 60 days after the video is out. Watch the movie on PPV and if you really like it, you'll head out and buy it or rent it. A PPV screening has become almost like an infomercial.

Will a world without windows ever become a reality? Six months ago, I would have said no, it's too radical a concept. But you know what? Six months ago I never would have guessed that movies as well as videos typically earn 40 percent, or even more, of their total revenue their first week out.

We're in the Age of Frontloading. So we might as well put everything we've got into it.