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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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14 Jun, 2004

High-Def Debate Could Use Some Clarification

At last week's DVD Lucky 7, sponsored in part by Video Store Magazine, it became clear that one of the sticking points for the replicators is the data for Blu-ray. They'd like to test it.

Now, any politicos worth their salt will tell you that concealing a secret is often worse than fessing up (just ask Martha Stewart). At last week's conference, father of DVD and HD-DVD proponent Warren Lieberfarb was able to score some points with his Blu-ray-as-“vaporware” argument because the Blu-ray proponents would not publish their data.

While the Blu-ray team declared that their product was real, offering a demonstration, the HD-DVD argument that it may not be practical hit home because the Blu-ray team had not won over the replication community by offering specifics.

The simple revelation of such data would take a lot of air out of the HD-DVD argument. So I'm going to ask, what's the holdup?

13 Jun, 2004

Does the VSDA, NARM Merger Make Sense?

The digital era has created an opportunity for a diverse range of entertainment media to be melded together with increasing frequency as home entertainment hardware has become more convergent across platforms. Video games and DVD are finding their way together on more and more occasions. Of course, music DVD is one of the fastest-growing genres in home entertainment software. And we're seeing music play an increasingly important role in the development of video games.

So it's no surprise that the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and the National Association of Recording Merchants (NARM) have entered into formal talks exploring the idea of merging the two trade groups together as was announced last week.

Both groups recognize that their memberships have more in common than ever before. I am not able to get information on what the overlap is in membership between the two groups, but I suspect it's pretty significant. Certainly, music retailers have embraced home video in a big way. Many music retailers report that home video accounts for as much as 50 percent or more of their total revenue, and without video they would likely be out of business.

On the video retailer side, the music DVD genre is one that they are starting to embrace to a greater extent, something they share with music retailers. And, of course, the video game business is one that home video retailers have been pursuing for some years now.

The fact is that today you could safely meld not only the VSDA and NARM memberships, but also that of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association's (primarily game retailers) into a home entertainment software retailer category, since they all share elements of each other's businesses. In fact, these three groups are part of the five-member Coalition of Entertainment Retail Trade Associations (CERTA) that was formed earlier this year as a lobbying and public relations coalition that seeks to advance the shared interests these groups naturally have in delivering entertainment to consumers.

The VSDA and NARM have reportedly been dancing around the merger idea for years, at one point creating a committee several years ago to explore the options of how the groups could join forces.

Interestingly enough, the VSDA's recent creation of an autonomous division for independent retailers, the iGroup, may share a strong affinity with many of the indie brethren on the NARM side who struggle to compete in the landscape of major chains and mass merchants.

Over the course of the next several months, the two groups will be creating a list of positive and negative attributes to a possible merger, and we'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. I'd like to hear video retailers' viewpoints on the merger idea. Send me your comments and let me know if we can use them for publication in Video Store Magazine or on this Web site. I can be reached at the e-mail link at the top of this column.

11 Jun, 2004

High-Def Showdown at Lucky 7: Two Sides Face Off and a Voice of Reason Emerges

The sparks sure were flying during the Next-Generation Super Session at our Third Annual Home Entertainment Summit earlier this week. Warren Lieberfarb, the feisty ex-president of Warner Home Video and “father” of DVD, came out in support of HD-DVD, a high-definition optical-disc format favored by Toshiba and NEC. Benjamin Feingold, president of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, spoke for the Blu-ray Disc Group, a high-def format developed by Sony, his division's parent.

Both formats use a blue laser rather than a red one for a superior picture. HD-DVD costs less to make, because the manufacturing process is essentially similar to existing DVD, which means replicators won't have to undergo costly makeovers. But the capacity is a little less than Blu-ray, which advocates of the Sony camp say is shortsighted in an era where everything needs to be supersized.

Just before the session began, Lieberfarb marched up to Feingold in the lobby of the Wyndham Bel Age, where the summit was held. Extending his hand, he said, “Don't take it personally, what I'm going to say.” Feingold shot up from his seat and told Lieberfarb the same thing.

During the session, Lieberfarb blasted Blu-ray, which hasn't yet published its specifications, “vaporware,” and predicted HD-DVD would ultimately triumph “because it's right.”

Feingold and his allies, when it was their turn to speak, maintained HD-DVD is inadequate for an increasingly interactive future and twisted Lieberfarb's “right comment” to state, “HD-DVD is right now. Blu-ray is the future.”

The nine studio presidents who took the stage right after the Super Session were clearly a bit shell-shocked. Each one said he's still on the fence when it comes to choosing sides, but all agreed that a compromise had better be reached, and soon, before the actual product came to market.

But it was Disney's video chief, Bob Chapek, who spoke most passionately and eloquently, during his luncheon keynote address. Chapek warned that both sides rushing to market would only result in a fatal train wreck, which he aptly demonstrated via an animated Power Point presentation that showed two trains on a collision course.

He urged restraint and caution on both sides, and was loudly applauded. Scanning the faces in the crowd, you could almost sense the fear and apprehension of an industry that created a good thing — DVD — but now stands in danger of blowing it.

I'm as hyped on the concept of a high-definition optical disc as anyone. I believe there's a need for it, and it should come to market sooner rather than later, certainly before the networks begin broadcasting in high definition and the evening news looks crisper and cleaner than your DVD.

But there's got to be one, and only one, standard. Someone asked me, if there's a showdown, who do I hope wins.

My answer: “Bob Chapek.”

10 Jun, 2004

Next-Gen DVD: Supply-and-Demand Fodder

After emerging unscathed from this week's contentious next-generation DVD “discussion” at the Home Entertainment Summit: DVD Lucky 7, which saw DVD pioneer (HD DVD proponent) and former Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb openly challenge the Blu-ray Disc consortium to reveal its 50GB dual-layer disc, I realized that no matter which format becomes the standard, the public still has the final say.

In talking with several DVD replication companies and listening to Bob Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, address the issue during lunch at Lucky 7, conventional wisdom indicates that market desire doesn't necessarily have to translate into market demand.

Chapek's analogy to the music industry's failed attempts to revitalize sales through DVD Audio and SACD offers sage advice that just because “Lawrence of Arabia” looks cleaner in Blu-ray doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to buy it.

8 Jun, 2004

Who Wants To Survive Another Season of Faux Reality?

Stand back, Jack, we could be in for another season of stomach-turning, misnamed “reality” programming.

I guess there are a few people who never get tired of this “who-wants-to marry-a-farm-animal-that-used-to-live-in-a-Manhattan-penthouse-before-surviving-a-month-on-a-deserted-island-at-a-high-school-reunion-and-becoming-an-American Idol” programming, but with the exception of one recently concluded guilty pleasure — Bravo's “Showbiz Moms and Dads” — I can't change the channel fast enough when it comes on. In fact, the recent faux news puff pieces on those shows and expiring sitcoms are making me switch off formerly reputable news magazine programs as well.

At least one director calls this pap “dramality,” which is slightly more accurate than the absurd “reality” tag.

That moniker for the genre may encapsulate why we are probably in for more of it, ad nauseum. You see, so-called reality programming is a really cheap way to get a program on the air with a minimum of payments to writers and actors. “Survivor” pays a contestant $1 million at the end of the season. “Friends” was reportedly costing $8 million per half hour. When there is no talent involved, you don't have to pay talent.

For those who may have forgotten, surreality programming got a big boost when the movie and TV studios feared an actors strike a few years ago. The shows nearly eliminated the need for professional actors, so the content producers could scrap projects that did need them.

With the writers and directors still miles apart on DVD and Internet residuals, we could be in for another round. If that happens, someone please call me for a new show. I have a great idea.

It's called “Survivor: Living Room.” You put a group of TV viewers into a living room with no drugs or alcohol and see who can survive without killing themselves — or each other — as they watch an endless stream of shows about people making what should be the most important decisions of their lives in the shallowest possible forum and self-loathing twits having themselves surgically sculpted into Barbie dolls. No wonder viewers are deserting broadcast television in droves.

This whole scenario may have one redeeming quality: It's nearly guaranteed to send the rest of the viewing public scrambling for their DVDs.

Late addendum: As if we needed further proof, just after I wrote this column, TBS announced a casting call for its new "reality" series, "The Real Gilligan's Island." 'Nuff said.

7 Jun, 2004

DVD Expands Viewing Experience

I confess. I don't get anime. But I'm trying. Last week, while I was on vacation, I watched Akira, one of the classic anime features of all time.

I finished the film pretty confused, but luckily the DVD extras offered ample explanation, including a glossary of terms that helped explain some of the major plot points in the film.

Without those extras, I'd be left in the dark — unable to appreciate a film that influenced so many. But my curiosity was rewarded with extras that helped me understand the film better and appreciate it — even if I still don't count it among my favorites.

I've often noticed that some films get better on the second or third viewing, while others get worse. Platoon, for instance, needs only one viewing in my mind, while Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket reveals layers on second and third viewings. Both are about the same subject, the Vietnam War, but one is less accessible on first viewing.

Just another advantage of DVD. It makes film connoisseurs out of anime dunces like me.

5 Jun, 2004

Dialogue Continues on Key Issues for High Definition

This week we are celebrating DVD's seventh year in the market during the Third Annual Home Entertainment Summit, this year themed “Lucky 7.” The conference, produced by Video Store Magazine in cooperation with DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group and The Hollywood Reporter, will see a gathering of several hundred studio and retail senior executives in West Hollywood, Calif., who will spend two days talking about the state of the market and the future of packaged home entertainment.

One of the major issues sure to be explored in much detail during the summit will involve the future of the next generation of packaged media, the high-definition disc. There has been plenty of media coverage of the two major “competing” formats in the space — HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc — but not a great deal of opportunity to listen to them, virtually side-by-side, in one location, discussing the merits of their formats and addressing the valid concerns many in the industry have over the potential confusion should both formats end up entering the marketplace.

In this week's issue of VSM, in a special section devoted to the Summit (beginning on page 15), Thomas K. Arnold, group editor, put a series of tough questions to representatives from both format camps so that we can see their positions on a variety of issues side-by-side. At the Summit itself, attendees will see presentations by representatives from both formats one after the other — again, a terrific opportunity to get a stronger grasp on the capabilities of the two formats and their potential impact on the marketplace.

Certainly, there will be plenty of discussion on some of the panels that follow on the high-definition issue (I know I plan on trying to pin down studio executives on the issue on a panel I am moderating).

There is little doubt that the people who will be most influential in establishing which of these formats becomes the dominant platform for high definition are the studios. Content is still king, and the format with the most content backing is likely to win the hearts and minds of the consumers at the retail counter. So far, other than Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (for obvious reasons, due to its relationship with Sony and Blu-ray), the studios have not publicly stated their backing of one or the other. Can we expect one or more to make such a pronouncement this week at the conference? Doubtful. But the day will come in the not-too-distant future when decisions will be made, since it's unlikely studios will support both formats.

The consensus of industry analysts is that the studios aren't exactly chomping at the bit to move forward with a market introduction of high definition, hoping to maximize DVD profits before introducing a new choice to consumers.

Still, many questions and issues need to be addressed before the long process of market development for high definition can move forward and a market leader emerges. At VSM, we'll just keep doing our part.

4 Jun, 2004

T.K. Returns Next Week

T.K. Arnold's column will not appear this weekend, due to a family emergency. His column will resume next week.

2 Jun, 2004

Another Reason to Love DVD: It's the Perfect Father's Day Gift

I was browsing around a Borders location yesterday and noticed a sign in the window touting: “DVD for D-A-D.”

And it's really true, I think. DVD is perfect for Father's Day. After all, Father's Day (whether you think of it as a manufactured bogus holiday or not) has always been a little bit tougher than Mother's Day. On one hand, expectations are usually a bit lower from dads because they don't put nearly as much stock into the “holiday' as moms. On the other hand, it's harder, because what do you get for your dad to say ‘Hey, thanks for sitting in the chair by the door reading the newspaper during my flute lessons for all those years.”

With Mom it's easy: a sappy card, a lunch date, a few flowers and you've pretty much sent her to the Kleenex box.

We were kind of lucky growing up in my family when it came to Father's Day gifts. My dad didn't wear ties to work, but he was really into books and music, and we knew exactly what kinds, because he was always foisting his tastes onto us. Also, he was pretty much blas? about the whole Father's Day thing.

Now, it's all about DVD — specifically Lord of the Rings, for him and for my uncle as well. New Line's timing with Return of the King couldn't have been better. And they're always asking me “Hey Jesse, when does [insert upcoming sci-fi/fantasy/action/thriller here] come out on DVD?” So, basically, I always have some idea of what to get them for any occasion.

My brother-in-law is another one. He's a new dad, and all about the showering of Father's Day gifts, and he's a DVD freak to boot. The only problem with him is making sure I time it right and make my sister put the brakes on his DVD spending so he doesn't buy what I'm planning to give him.

For Christmas, I piled a bunch of classic films and war movies into a steel bucket with some gourmet popcorn and gave it to my grandpa.

He cried.

So, now he's getting some World War II DVD stuff for Father's Day.

There are so many genres and types of product out there on DVD that there's practically something for any dad.

And we don't have to do hardly any work for that perfect gift. The retailers help us out with plenty of signs and merchandising to offer DVD suggestions for dads.

Maybe I'll eke out a few tears this Father's Day after all.

1 Jun, 2004

Want More Proof that Rental Is Dead? Go to the Flea Market

Two topics that come up frequently in The Buzz are guaranteed to bring a hail of angry — or at least perturbed — letters: 1) VHS is dead and 2) Rental is dead.

I'm bracing for a round of slings and arrows for saying so, but methinks the rentailers doth protest too much. Face it, folks, rental is down this year. Blockbuster says 10 percent for the first quarter at its stores; Video Store Magazine Market Research says 16.5 percent across the industry. Other estimates range in-between.

I know, I'm jaded. I work in the industry like most of you, so I have access to a lot of product, and I know I was fairly early in the technology timeline to jettison VHS. I am in a bustling metro area that may not precisely represent what is going on nationwide. But this weekend's stroll around the flea market made it clearer than ever that nobody, even bargain hunters, has much interest in VHS anymore. Even at rock-bottom prices, they just sit there. But across the lot, stands selling used DVD at prices ranging from $7.99 to $13.99 each looked like little beehives with all the folks buzzing around — and buying. (One stand, by the way, was selling off rental stock. You could tell because of the hand-numbered stickers on each case. And they sell almost everything they bring to the market each weekend.)

It's funny how most of the letter writers assailing the “rental is dead” statement concede that they are surviving (and some are thriving) on PVT and used, not rentals. Even over on the VSDA discussion boards, people are talking exit strategies. The writing is on the wall, and it's discount. True, the craftier specialty dealers are coming up with ways to stay profitable and stay in business. But those new strategies are not based on rental or VHS. For the most part, PVT and used DVD are keeping businesses afloat.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it. I'm glad to see honest businesses stay in business. I just wonder about the Pollyanna mentality that says people will keep renting for $4 a night or even $5 for five days when they can buy for not much more and, in many cases, rent for much less.

I couldn't help notice an article in The Citizen News (Atlanta) that quoted a Blockbuster executive, Terri Murray, saying the chain had converted “one of its ‘most profitable’ stores to a Movie Trading Company. I'm guessing that store was one of the larger footprints in the chain, and I expect to see those stores that are big on square footage targeted for conversion first. Hit-driven rental stores just don't need the real estate.

I don't think the industry can keep going as it has for much longer. It may keep going, but it won't look much like it has in the past.