Log in

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.

Sort by: Title | Date
20 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Used DVDs Are Transforming the Retail Business

The growing development at retail of previously-viewed DVD sales is another example of how DVD's sellthrough pricing continues to rejuvenate the specialty retailer business, while at the same time driving up sellthrough numbers for new theatrical hits at mass merchants.

Not only have the lower price points on DVDs given rentailers, large and small, significantly larger margins on rental product, but they're helping specialty businesses compete with mass merchants in sellthrough.

The model for turning rental DVD product into used sellthrough product works for large and small rentailers. The key is DVD's sellthrough price point, which allows rentailers to recoup the return on their rental inventory a lot quicker and start moving some of that inventory to a sellthrough bin weeks (months?) earlier than with VHS previously viewed tapes.

Rentailers are, on average, selling off nearly one-fourth of their new-release inventory as previously viewed videos (DVD and VHS) within the first two months of a title's street date, according to Video Store Magazine market research. Anecdotally, when it comes to DVDs, retailers are pulling the sale trigger after several weeks on some titles. That's another good in-store reminder for customers who haven't bought themselves DVD players to get one. Another incentive may be the pricing of previously viewed DVDs which, according to Video Store Magazine market research, dropped in 2001. Interestingly enough, pricing on previously viewed VHS actually inched upward. As part of our 2001 Top 100 survey, our market research team found the average sales price of a previously viewed DVD dropped from $12.18 to $11.99 in 2001, while a previously viewed VHS cassette sold for an average of $8.19 in 2001 as compared to $7.98 the year before.

What price retailers put on previously viewed titles depends on many factors, including depth of inventory and popularity of the film. But because the ROI on DVD is so much stronger on the rental side, retailers have much more pricing flexibility to attract buyers to their used DVDs. Another plus for rentailers is their ability to prepromote previously viewed sales on the rental product, as we have already seen major chains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood do. In the first three months of 2002, Blockbuster's used-DVD and game sales increased by more than 31 percent compared to the same period a year ago after a major expansion of their used inventory.

It will be interesting to see how stores continue to manage their floor space in this DVD era.

18 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: It's All In the Timing

A couple of weeks ago Editor-in-Chief Kurt Indvik said something that got me to thinking (and we all know how dangerous that is!). Kurt pondered the “Disney approach” to releasing its special titles, in which the title is around for a while, then Disney puts it on moratorium and stops shipping copies for 10 years.

That model is a great illustration of how studios insist on clinging to their old media business models, even in the face of rapidly advancing new media technology.

For decades Disney's theatrical strategy of releasing its family titles every 10 years worked like a charm. The studio rereleased Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia to theaters every 10 years, each time appealing to the latest generation of parents to share those warm, fuzzy memories of Disney magic with their own offspring.

This was a successful strategy for the studio. Its animated feature releases became special events timed to hit a new audience and generate sales of licensed products to a new crop of youngsters each decade.

Disney transferred the strategy to home video, letting supplies of each rerelease dwindle – and advertising the fact weeks in advance to create the illusion of scarcity and, with any luck, a video gold rush leading up to the moratorium.

While Disney is still a force to be reckoned with in the family video arena, I can't help thinking British supplier Hit Entertainment has a wiser approach for packaged family media: Get it released and keep it out there. As the supplier's CEO said in a recent CNN interview, “we have a brand new audience every 18 months.”

Anyone who's not sure about that approach need look no further than Bob the Builder, the Tim Taylor for Go-gurt gobblers. At least one of Bob's songs even went to No. 1 on the British music sales charts not long ago, another testament to the power of family product. There are Bob the Builder books, music, videos, clothing, toys, games and just about anything else that appeals to tots. Bob has his own aisle at Toys ‘R' Us.

The management at Hit realizes Bob has a narrower window – that children will outgrow him at an earlier age than, say, a Scooby-Doo or Pocahontas. But much of Disney's “family” fare is really children's product with no more endurance than Bob has in a child's life.

Controlled rerelease is a great strategy theatrically and maybe even with a medium like tape that can break down, unravel or deteriorate under the weight of PBJ fingerprints, but it's a big mistake with digital media.

As Disney's profits from big-budget animated features shrink and media storage becomes more durable, the old strategy looks increasingly foolish. For all those years that Snow White or Cinderella is out of circulation, Disney is leaving money on the table. Money I'm quite sure Hit is happy to collect in exchange for Bob the Builder items. Even the good news for Disney is a lesson from Bob, embodied in his theme song: “Can we fix it? Yes we can!”

Disney's moratorium strategy is a relic from a bygone age. If the studio doesn't start to wise up, the mouse ears will end up in the same scrap heap with all those TV rabbit ears and for the same reason – they stopped picking up the signal.

14 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Where Does Competition End and Antitrust Begin?

The industry's attention is squarely focused on the retailer-led antitrust lawsuit in San Antonio and its various tangents, from Sumner Redstone's testimony that Blockbuster never demanded exclusive deals to the judge shutting down the plaintiffs' attorney's Web site play-by-play of the controversial case.

What gets me is that back when the studios first began cutting revenue-sharing deals with Blockbuster in the summer of 1997, none of the Hollywood executives ever thought things would get to this point.

I remember the mood at the studios at that time. Rental revenues were slipping, sellthrough growth was slowing and there was the widespread panic studio executives are given to.

To be sure, studio executives spent a good deal of time pooh-poohing concerns that the industry was tanking. Warner Home Video even went on the road with a presentation tracing the business slowdown to a lack of theatrical hits coming to video, a presentation that ended with the upbeat assessment that the upcoming slate of potential theatrical hits would likely revitalize the business.

But privately, there was still a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching going on. “I have to answer to my shareholders, and my shareholders are concerned,” one home video studio executive told me that summer. “We're going to have to do something.”

Part of Hollywood's concern was triggered by the sagging fortunes of Blockbuster, which was reeling under the “one word, one world” approach of soon-to-be-ousted chief Bill Fields. Fields was trying to pattern Blockbuster after his retail alma mater, Wal-Mart, even though everyone was telling him the two operate under completely different business models.

When Fields got the boot, Blockbuster's Redstone and his new charge, John Antioco, played hardball – as any good retailer would who found himself in these gentlemen's shoes.

And that's where things get hazy. Was Blockbuster trying to save itself, or put the competition out of business? Were the studios seeking to revitalize their industry, or did they decide to cast their lot with Blockbuster?

Each question begets others. In a mature industry – which everyone concedes video was, at that point – the only way to grow is through market share, so it only follows that if Blockbuster was seeking to grow it would have to do so at other retailers' expense.

And the studios, well, that's even trickier. I honestly believe they were concerned about the state of the business and didn't want to see the industry leader fail. That's a bad sign for any business.

But was there a conscientious decision – a conspiracy, if you will – to put the independents out of business? And was this decision implemented through the notorious “Blockbuster deal?” I remember studio executives telling me this same deal was available to all retailers, but I also recall independent retailers telling me this deal was structured for a large chain like Blockbuster and was unworkable for everyone else.

The key to all these questions lies not so much in what the studios did and what has happened, but in motive.

The next few weeks should be most interesting.

Stay tuned to Hive4Media for the latest trial updates.

14 Jun, 2002

WORKING WEEKEND: Getting the Royalty Treatment

The circus wasn't in town this week in New York City, but the licensing show sure was. Formally and ponderously titled “Licensing 2002 International – The Global Marketplace for Leveraging Brand Equity,” this is as fun and diversified a trade expo as I've occasioned, and I've been to my fair share over the decades.

There's art & design, corporate branding, entertainment, fashion, food & beverage, home d?cor, not-for-profit, interactive, promotional premiums, publishing and sports. Those are the categories listed in the show guide.

Entertainment, not surprisingly, is the largest single category, and the major studios were either highly visible on the floor (first-time exhibitor Disney and regulars MGM, New Line, Sony, Universal, Viacom, Warner) or conspicuous by their absence (DreamWorks, Fox), choosing to meet and greet off site.

For retailers of video entertainment who are so inclined, there are myriad opportunities to tie in to properties the rights holders prop up as so-called lifestyle brands. The trend these days is for the property owners, such as major studios and content creators (like Spiderman's home of Marvel Comics), to extend the life of the brand, lessening dependence on box office success.

At the show opening Diane Stone, general manager of the Global Licensing Group at Advanstar Inc. (parent company of the show, License! magazine and Video Store Magazine), noted this show goes against the trend of trade events that are involuntarily downsizing. The License show attendance of 18,000 (reportedly from 70 countries) is a 16 percent bump from 2001 and conference registration was up 60 percent. There are 5,000 properties represented by 400 exhibitors.

Stone, whose formidable show business drive and savvy helped the East Coast Video Show grow into an industry destination when she managed that event in the ‘90s, called her Licensing show “The ultimate coming attraction.” The knot of retailers and licensees at Warner (Harry Potter) Bros., New (Lord of the Rings) Line and Sony (Spiderman) Pictures attested to that boast.

She also noted how icons of the ‘80s were making a comeback at the show, including Muppet clone ALF, the Care Bears, He-Man & Masters of the Universe, and Strawberry Shortcake. Stone attributed the retro trend in part to people “looking for warm and fuzzy and the familiar since 9/11.”

But even more striking to this culture vulture, and of specific relevance to merchants of home entertainment properties, is the number of classic and not-so-classic films getting the licensing royalty treatment.

With a sequel due summer 2003 and 7 million video copies sold of the original film, Universal is turning The Fast and the Furious into a supercharged line of automotive aftermarket products, anchored by an eponymous racing series in league with a drag racing association.

Viacom, licensing captain of the Star Trek franchise, is peddling licenses for Audrey Hepburn classics, including the 50th anniversary of Roman Holiday and for It's A Wonderful Life.

With sequels this summer of Stuart Little and Men in Black from Sony; Austin Powers from New Line; Spy Kids from Miramax – and theatrical versions of heavily licensed TV properties Powerpuff Girls and Scooby Doo from Warner, there's potential aplenty for retailers to stock related merchandise and showcase catalog product.

Merchandise for the first and second Lord of the Rings installments will converge this fall, with the August video release of Fellowship of the Ring and December release of The Two Towers. And with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets due in theaters Nov. 15, the video of The Sorceror's Stone will get a second wind. Ditto for the video release of Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

In a different approach, MGM has gone to its vaults to license franchises such as Rocky, Army of Darkness and Soul Cinema Collection – including Cotton Comes to Harlem, Cooley High and other films – that later this year gets its own line of urban apparel.

13 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Creating Beauty Can Be A Beastly Task

I've been silently ruminating to myself lately that many of the special features on some of the latest family-oriented DVDs have skewed much more to the young viewer and can be boring for parents or older siblings experiencing them with a young viewer.

Trying to create programming for both adults and children on a “family” DVD is challenging and the results can be sometimes be uneven.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment is taking the challenge seriously, and if recent press demonstrations of the DVD features for both Beauty and the Beast and Monsters, Inc. are any indication, the studio has made significant strides.

It is clear from what I saw last week that Buena Vista has invested huge amounts of time and resources to take these two DVDs to another level in many ways.

Both new DVDs creatively offer the youngster and the mature viewer designated different tracks to experience the films and a host of related content. And some of it is so seamlessly melded that both age groups can enjoy the DVD together.

Beauty and the Beast, for instance, uses various characters in certain parts of the DVD to reach out to different demographic groups. A child is guided through various interactive games and more kid-friendly content by the Chip in “Chip's Adventure,” while adults interested in the more technical and “how-to” aspects of the making of the film and DVD enter “Cogsworth and Lumiere's Library.” Kids and parents can enjoy together a rollicking and challenging game in the dreaded West Wing, as well as segments on the history of the story of Beauty and the Beast (and other Disney stories) narrated by Celine Dion, and other features.

For Monsters, Inc., Buena Vista and Pixar have created a DVD that is a little more direct in its approach to serving both the young and mature, yet no less stupendous in the investment of time, effort and resources. Though there are myriad features, the two major tracks include “Monster World,” which puts you in the world of Monsters, Inc., with a variety of interactive elements and content, and “Human World,” which skews older with a selection of behind-the-scenes and “making of” featurettes.

It's impossible to describe here the impressive scope and quality of the programming in these newest efforts. (And I am curious as to how Disney is going to market both DVDs' many and varied elements.) Bob Chapek, BVHE's president, promises an “extraordinary” marketing effort.

Both DVDs, I believe, are indicative of the industry's continuing evolution in creating a whole new entertainment platform.

11 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Can You Say Overcount? I Bet You Can

I'm not into tooting my own horn about predicting disaster, but watching the cable and satellite industries implode like telecommunications did last year – and primarily for the same reasons – has me in the mood to say I told you so.

Since early this year I have carped, off and on, that following the telco business model would lead cable and satellite providers right into the same toilet the telcos are circling.

Among the revelations surfacing recently is that cable and satellite companies have a very different idea of how to count customers from what most of us would think is common sense.

These companies count anyone who has ordered or purchased the set-top box as a customer, whether or not they ever sign up for service. Recent disclosures have DirecTV admitting to overcounting by about 20 percent and Adelphia copping to inflating its count by about 10 percent.

What's worse, Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Lydia Loizides recently told me that's standard operating procedure for these industries and wondered aloud what all the fuss is about. I, on the other hand, can't help wondering why shareholders have been letting them count eggs as chickens.

Just think how the packaged video industry would operate if we used the same practices these industries use?

Let's see, we could start by counting every phoned-in or online reservation as a rental, whether the customer ever picked it up or not. After all, the customer expressed the intent to rent it, so sooner or later they will, right? There's one in the bag.

Now that the logic is working, we can start counting everyone who inquires about a title's street date as a rental. Sure, they'll be back. They have players, so they must be customers.

But why stop there?

We can count potential customers in the marketing area surrounding stores we plan to open next month or next year. After all, we're investing in the infrastructure so the customers will come, right? Rack up a few more.

I can just picture our indie friends explaining this to their shareholders (mainly their families): “It's OK honey, we can eat next week. That's when the customer will actually rent what he expressed an interest in. Until then we'll chew on our anticipation.”

Or lend a whole new, literal meaning to cooking the books.

But wait, there's more! Not only does this method let you count customers you don't really have, it lets you pillage the business when you want or need money, quit and then offer to help bail the company out when it tanks.

That's what former CEO Gary Winnick is doing with telco Global Crossing. The Rigas family loaned its members oodles of Adelphia money and resigned under pressure. They should be able to pick Adelphia up for a song once it goes into bankruptcy, which is expected any day now.

Don't forget to blame your accountant. That's all the rage these days. Disclose every video rental you ever fudged, then fire and blame your accountant.

Now that we're all marching in line behind those telcos, we can start giving the rentals away for free to everyone who is not already on the customer list.

In my market, Adelphia started offering six months of free service for new subscribers right after news broke that it was headed for the dumper. DirecTV has, since last October, been offering free dishes and set-tops with installation (by the way, six months and as many phone calls after I signed up, I finally got my installation rebate).

So why bother staffing your store when you can just stack the videos out front and let non-customers help themselves? Think of the reduced labor costs!

I tell you, these companies are onto something. They must be, or companies that should have made potential investors laugh wouldn't still be with us. Then again, there's a good chance that in a few weeks or months, some won't be.

6 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Tommy Arnold Picked A Pack of DVDs

My growing DVD collection is beginning to drive me a little crazy.

Over the last five years I've open and closed enough DVD boxes to consider myself quite an expert on what works and doesn't in the way of packaging. Here are some observations I'd like to point out (and I urge retailers out there to e-mail us here at Hive4Media and let us know how you feel, as well).

Lose the cardboard. I don't care how crisp and clean the graphics look; the edges are beginning to wear and the corners are bent. I'm seriously considering buying some blank plastic “keep cases,” cutting out the front and back and making my own containers.

That said, not all of the so-called “keep cases” are equal. The hubs are a big deal—the ones with all the spokes keep breaking, resulting in floating discs and, in some cases, scratched discs. I much prefer the hubs consisting of two tear-shaped nubs that contract when you push them in, freeing the disc, and then pop back out.

For the growing number of double-disc sets, I'm torn. On the one hand, I prefer the compact size of the boxes in which one disc is on hinged “lip” stuck in the middle, between cover and back; my fear, however, is that the hinge will break as easily as the ones on some of my CDs have. The clunkiness of containers in which each disc has its own space, so to speak, gobbles up a lot more space, but at least there are no breakable parts.

Are those security tape strips on all three openable sides of the box really necessary? There must be a better way to prevent shoplifting. It's hard enough to peel off the top strip (with the bar code and title on it) without damaging the clear-plastic cover.

These are just a few of my rants -- ----I'm sure there are more waiting to surface. In the meantime, let's hear from you, the reader. What bugs you about DVD?

6 Jun, 2002

WORKING WEEKEND: Substance and Stiles

There's Bill Mechanic (Disney to Fox), Ann Daly (Disney to DreamWorks), and Ben Feingold (Columbia), to name the more prominent video execs who've crossed over into theatrical production management at major studios. Then there's Quentin Tarantino, a once-anonymous video store clerk who parlayed his geeky knowledge of inventory into a brand-name filmmaking career with a rabid following.

Then there's one Steven V. Scavelli, as ever, doing it his own way. In video circles, the president of Brooklyn-based video wholesaler Flash Distributors has made a name for himself – with his relentless work ethic, his generous charity work, his far-reaching network of well connected contacts and the kind of implacable confidence – some would call it cockiness – that a year ago led to his filing a lawsuit alleging antitrust and price-fixing, among other violations, by Universal Studios. The case is still in litigation.

Now, Scavelli has really gone and done it. The former St. John's University educator with a Ph.D in medical microbiology has become a principal, which is to say an equal partner in an independent production company, Smithy Films LLC. The other two-thirds of the equation are Hollywood screenwriter and producer Eric Gitter and fast-rising actress Julia Stiles, best known for Save the Last Dance. Stiles has an affinity for The Bard, having starred in three Shakespeare movies, including O (Othello goes to high school), from Lions Gate, and is appearing this summer in Shakespeare in the Park, New York's long-running Central Park series known for its star-studded casts and overflowing crowds of enthusiastic fans.

Stiles stars with Stockard Channing in the Aug. 6 MGM video release The Business of Strangers and in Universal's Matt Damon thriller, The Bourne Identity.

Smithy is working with Handprint Entertainment, a management company run by David Guillod, Benny Medina and Jeff Pollack, who will work with studios to get Stiles the best deals they can, while also trying to land the production contract on the project for Smithy. Handprint's roster of some 80 clients includes Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Puff Daddy.

Scavelli says Smithy has two films it is working on for Stiles that are close to being signed. One is a $25 million production with a major studio that would start filming this fall. On the other, Smithy has raised close to half of the projected budget of $10 million to $15 million. Stiles vehicles due in theaters later this year are MGM's A Guy Thing (Sept. 20) and Miramax's Carolina.

Scavelli says one major goal is to broaden her audience base from teenybopper 13- to 17-year-olds into the more mature demographic range of mid- to upper-20-year-olds.

So how did a regional video distributor make the leap to Hollywood-on-the-Hudson mini-mogul? It's not only a testament to Scavelli's reputation and power of persuasion, but also to the recognition by talent and independent producers of the vital role the video market plays in today's film industry, and in helping to make choices while managing careers.

For that is what Messrs. Scavelli and Gitter are now doing: managing the career of Julia Stiles, who in her spare time is an Ivy League honors English major entering her junior year at Manhattan's Columbia University.

As Scavelli sees it, he's “worked on the tail end” of the film business for 12 years as a distributor, “and I find a lot of what we sell would be done differently if the filmmakers understood the consumer and the retailer better.”

Now, the tape and disc peddler has worked himself into a position where he can influence the moviemaking process in his own small but potentially significant way by using his knowledge of video performance as a more critical benchmark in the art of pitching, negotiating and greenlighting. It's a more market-driven approach than what Scavelli has seen from certain independent producers, who he thinks could do more to analyze historical data on what the public wants to rent or own.

He also is eager to use the industry connections he's nurtured for more than a decade “to better myself financially.” The game plan of Smithy Films, Scavelli says, is to emulate what he says was a hallmark of the financial arrangement on Steven Soderbergh's recent hit remake of Ocean's 11 for Warner Bros. He notes the stars were willing to take less than their usual per-film fee in lieu of getting a piece of the box office and video back-end sales. He says the film's talent is motivated to do more personal promotion and stands to earn more if the film plays well.

What Smithy Films is not meant to provide to Scavelli is a de facto distribution channel for vanity films. He says distribution of each production will be decided separately and could be handled by a major studio or standard video distribution or be self-distributed by Smithy.

Then there's the survival factor. Being a player in the front-end of the movie business, where talent and production drive the train, will, he believes, “strengthen my position in the marketplace.

“Being one of five distributors left and a small one, this makes it harder for people to dismiss us as unimportant, which unfortunately has happened over the last number of years. We are important, even if we are only three to four percent of industry sales. It helps us in dealing with people in the movie business who may not want to tick off talent or talent agencies that we'll be working with.”

6 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: 'Potter' Set A Rental Record, Are There More?

Warner Home Video held off with its sales figures for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone until late this week, when it could announce a tidy worldwide figure for the first week of sales.

Harry sold 20.86 million DVD and VHS units worldwide in its first seven days on sale (debuting first in the U.K. May 11), including 9.86 million units in the United States and Canada, according to Warner. Harry came up short against The Lion King, which Disney says sold 20 million units in the United States in its first week out in 1995. Disney claims Aladdin sold 10.8 million in 1993. And more recently, DreamWorks reported Shrek sold 9.6 million in its first week last November.

Harry Potter did pull in an additional $19.1 million in the United States at the rental counter in the same first week, according to Video Store Magazine market research. That combined DVD/VHS tally is, in fact, a record, beating Universal Studios Home Video's The Fast and the Furious, which surprised the industry in January with $18.65 million in rental revenue in its first week.

Will Harry have the legs to catch The Lion King's 31.5 million units sold, according to Disney, to take the all-time leadership spot for North American video sellthrough? It has some extra gas Lion King did not, notably a sequel coming out this fall, along with a new Harry Potter novel this summer — all of which will keep the brand lively for the first Potter video. We will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile this week another “event” film throws its hat into the DVD ring, with the announcement by Universal Studios Home Video that it will bring E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to disc Oct. 22.

Universal will take the Disney approach with this very special title for the studio, arguably its most valuable, and place it on moratorium after Dec. 31. No decision has been made on how long the title will remain in the vaults at Universal after Dec. 31, but I would hazard a guess it won't be the typical 10-year period Disney has employed in the past.

With DVD player home penetration growing exponentially each year for the next several years, one would find it hard to expect that Universal, or Disney for that matter, could resist offering a family classic to what could amount to another 20 percent to 40 percent of the homes in the United States that acquire a DVD player in the next several years.

Especially in the family arena, DVD's hardware growth is creating a brand-new market every couple of years, which will allow studios and retailers an opportunity to reintroduce some of the classic (and lots of the not-so-classic) movies to a new generation of DVD adopters.

4 Jun, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Saluting A Humor Hero

It's time to start thinking about Halloween product and, as with most holidays, I find myself asking the same, burning question: Where's the love for Ernest P. Worrell?

This may not seem like a weighty concern for many folks. It's not like there's a shortage of scare fare or even children's Halloween titles, or family titles for any holiday. Like the greeting card companies, the studios know a good theme when they see it.

Perhaps that's why there are two Ernest titles for holidays – Ernest: Scared Stupid and Ernest Saves Christmas – as well as the summer-themed Ernest Goes To Camp. And, while they seem to escape my colleagues' notice, those titles will surface on DVD for the first time in September (from Buena Vista Home Entertainment). There are several other Ernest titles as well as films in which the character appeared in smaller roles.

I doubt we can expect any extras. Ernest – actor Jim Varney – died of lung cancer in February 2000 after a 30-year TV and film career that started with ads and the Johnny Cash show in the 1970s and continued with movies and finally voice-acting roles in animated features, at least one of which – Atlantis: The Lost Empire – was released after his death.

What is it about guys named Jim? Like Jim Nabors, who has an amazing singing voice, the comic talent who was Jim Varney had the kind of funny looks that relegated him to goofy roles in everything from TV commercials to the theatrical remake of The Beverly Hillbillies.

The wacky parts make Varney's work an enduring, if guilty, pleasure for me. I still think it's funny to see him not only as Ernest, but playing all of Ernest's relatives as well. In any given film he might have more costume changes than a Madonna concert.

If you look at it that way, Varney was a marketing genius. He created a character, developed the character first into a family, then into an entire franchise. Even now it's doubly foolish to ask if Ernest has lost his relevance over time, because Ernest's great claim to fame was always irrelevance.

I like his silly lines, rubber-faced expressions and childlike innocence. I like the sight gags and nutty puns. There is nothing plausible about Ernest movies, they're all ridiculous from beginning to end.

But that's the appeal. In a time when everything around us is serious, contentious business, when the fate of the world may hang in the balance, Ernest movies still give us a chance to laugh and forget those cares.

So at every holiday – and believe me, in my family you need a laugh most around holidays – I'll keep asking for Ernest. I'll keep renting Ernest and sharing him with the family's youngsters. I'll keep the Ernest flame burning because we all need something to laugh about and for me, Ernest P. Worrell nearly always works.