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
2 Jul, 2003

Reality Check, Please!

I'm getting confused again. This time it's about programming.

I thought most of us had had our fill of reality programming, but some things are just too hard to shake.

I suppose there will always be a market for things like “Jackass” and the underground extensions like Backyard Wrestling and Bumfights: A Cause For Concern.

The thing that has me confused today is where we all draw the line. I'm a bit baffled about how we can prosecute the producers of Bumfights (Ryan McPherson, 19, Zachary Bubeck, 25, and Daniel Tanner, 21) – who, incidentally, were recently put on probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine, then pay an actor to do many of the same deranged stunts.

So why are networks paying Shannen Doherty to host “Scare Tactics,” which one of my friends termed “a lawsuit waiting for a plaintiff,” and the latest show, “I'm With Busey”?

I'll admit, I've only watched “Busey” once, and it confirmed everything I suspected. It would be easy to just rename this show “Celebrity Bumfights,” since most of it seems to center on actor Gary Busey's harassing and tormenting hapless non-celebrity guests who, most likely, signed up for the show just to get their 15 minutes of fame or because some people will do anything – and these shows make it clear that's anything – to meet a celebrity.

The three Bumfights producers pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor count of conspiring to stage an illegal fight. Can somebody tell me why we shouldn't level the same charges against the producers on “Scare Tactics” and “I'm With Busey?”

No doubt sooner or later, someone will.

30 Jun, 2003

The Upside of Subscriptions

While many may lament the potential move of the rental business to a subscription model similar to Netflix's, it's a very real possibility and one that may have a few upsides. Granted, a subscription model could be less profitable than the per-transaction plan, with its additional revenue stream of late fees (see our online poll this week). But the upsides are there.

First of all, the subscription model cuts down on customer dissatisfaction with late fees and promotes customer loyalty. By wiping out the late fee problem, retailers will be able to combat any possible threat from such schemes as the EZ-D disposable disc Buena Vista plans to test and they can more readily compete with online rental services like Netflix. Customers with a subscription at a particular retailer are also less likely to defect.

Secondly, it makes the local video store less of a cash-heavy business. This cuts down on loss both from outside and inside the store.

Third, and perhaps the silver lining for studios and secondary suppliers in particular, a subscription model brings back the second and third choice rentals. Witness Netflix customers who are willing to wait for the top hits in their queue. Under the recent “go home happy” rental philosophy, customers had little need for a second choice -- the less-well-known, direct-to-video or art house films. If customers are tied to a store through their subscription, they are more willing to take a chance on a film when the hit they want is out – and that could mean a shot in the arm for the independent suppliers and for secondary studio titles.

The death of the smaller title is a major concern among studio executives. In fact, Dreamworks' Kelly Sooter noted in Video Store Magazine's “Outlook 2003” roundtable in February, “We are seeing an impact on mid-tier product. Titles with a box office of $25 million to $75 million don't seem to be getting the same return on investment. Moving forward, it is a concern whether we will be able to continue to produce these kinds of movies.”

The big studios won't be the only suppliers to see a lift. Secondary and direct-to-video suppliers may be able to benefit as well. As customers find the hit they wanted checked out, they may gravitate to secondary supplier titles.

Ultimately, it will be the consumer who chooses the best rental model. But savvy retailers will be able to survive whatever the consumer selects, especially if they look at the upside and leverage it to build a better business.

29 Jun, 2003

Unrated Moniker is Money in the Bank for Some Titles

It's funny how the DVD has evolved to become a multiple-personality marketing vehicle for the unvarnished version of a film, and how that has become such a major sales point for, I think, mostly, teen consumers.

This week's cover story in Video Store Magazine by Jessica Wolf on the sales comparison between a film's “uncensored” “unrated” “unedited” “director's cut” version and its theatrical version is a graphic picture (no pun intended) of just how much younger viewers want to see all that was on the cutting room floor.

These are media-savvy consumers, and they know that, often as not, that celluloid on the floor is what made the difference between what garnered a “PG-13” theatrical rating as opposed to an “R”; an “R” rating as opposed to an “NC-17.” And yet, when it comes to home video, studios have the luxury of offering both versions, if they so choose, and it seems that for certain genres targeting certain demographic groups, it's a slam dunk as to which version consumers would rather buy. Check out the chart on page 8 of this week's issue that shows some of the most successful unrated sellers over the past couple of years.)

Witness, (should we be surprised?) the success of Old School: Unrated and Out of Control DVD, which tops VSM's top selling DVDs chart this week. It's just the most recent example of what we can only expect to be a continuing trend in marketing these types of movies, geared mostly to hormonal-frenzied youth, in the home video market.

But this also extends to the whole concept of deleted scene extras on DVD, and why they are such an important part of the selling point of this platform. Indeed, if you read the interview in this week's issue with McG, director of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, he's already promising plenty of deleted scenes from the movie that either had too much violence and gore, or sexual content, to make it into the “PG-13” rated movie. These are, in effect, de facto “unrated” versions of the film without editing them back into linear form. You just get all the juicy stuff out of context, but hey, who cares about context here. We're talking flesh and gore, and that sells anyway you can package it.

Of course, on the retail side, Old School: Unrated and Out of Control may never see the light of day at Wal-Mart or some supermarket checkout stands, but that's a conscious decision studios have to make it seeking to appeal to a certain demographic that doesn't usually hang out there anyway.

Now how about this idea? The Sound of Music: Uncut and Out of Tune? Now that has a chance in Wal-Mart.

26 Jun, 2003

Time Warner Cable Hits Fast Forward

There was an interesting story in the business section of the San Diego Union-Tribune the other day. In a classic example of the “if you can't beat ‘em” philosophy, Time Warner Cable is rolling out a new service in this sunny Southern California city that lets subscribers record up to 40 hours of programming and watch it at any time.

The company is effectively trying to beat digital video recorder (DVR) services like TiVo at their own game. Time Warner is offering this service as an add-on to its basic digital cable service, with a free equipment upgrade — the DVR is housed right inside the set-top box — and a monthly rate of $10.

Time Warner is not alone. Cox Communications, the other main cable provider in the San Diego area, plans on rolling out a similar service before the end of the year.

I must applaud the cablers' shrewdness. DVR was, and still is, viewed as the Great Enemy of Commercial Television, since it allows consumers to time-shift and bypass commercials. The TV industry fears this, because if no one's watching commercials, who's going to pay those outrageous advertising rates?

But by embracing the enemy, the cable companies not only have an additional revenue stream, they also have a further hedge against free TV, which they've been attacking and trying to kill ever since the concept of cable television was first floated a generation ago.

It's an interesting marriage, and one that begets this question: Will we eventually see a troika, a technological three-way, if you will, in which a DVD player is thrown into the mix?

Smart money says yes — and soon. Already, Pioneer has announced a deal with TiVo build a high-end DVD player and recorder using TiVo technology. At a minimum of $1,200 for an 80-gig hard drive, we're hardly talking mass market.

But in time…

24 Jun, 2003

Is DVD-Audio Playing Your Song?

There are a lot of folks, some around here even, who have already pronounced DVD-Audio DOA.

That would be a terribly sad fate for a format with such promise. Personally I think the idea of sound that puts you on the stage is waaaay cool.

At DVD in 50, a lot of the music panel discussion was devoted to why the format hasn't taken off. Some of the reasons are the expense of a system that gives the full benefit of DVD-Audio sound; artist, consumer and retailer education; pigeonholing and packaging.

The first two are obvious so I'll address just the latter -- the music industry's obsession with categorizing (how many bands have collapsed because nobody could figure out whether to place or play their music in country, rock, gospel, or whatever slot?) and the Super Jewel case, which sends a music message but doesn't complete the pass about the extra features.

Retailers, solve those problems: slot them in the music and DVD sections, and let the fans choose. Put up signs explaining what it means in terms of benefits when you see the Super Jewel case.

But a more interesting point that arose was the DVD-Audio folks not quite knowing what type of extras fans want. I can give you at least two suggestions.

Even if the disc is a studio production, fans love tour backstage footage. It's the music equivalent of a "making of" segment.

My amateur musician friends, people who actually play instruments competently but have no aspirations to professional performance, all want to watch their heroes' hands to play like the pros. Over and over they ask to see the fretwork on "Here Comes the Sun" or "Guenivere."

So here is my best suggestion for a bonus feature that should become standard on DVD-Audio: a branch that shows the musicians' hands. The tree would start with a feature called something like "Chops" or "Skill Track" and branch out to let the viewer select each song in the playlist by musical part (lead guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, etc.). Those tracks would have the same sound features but the entire visual would be a close-up on the musicians' hands (for guitars you could even use a split screen to show both hands).

One of my guitar-playing friends who's rewound many a tape sequence to learn a song said, "That would be so cool! If they put 'em in Guitar Center they'd sell millions of 'em!"

So listen up, DVD-Audio guys. The marketplace is talking and it's up to you to listen. I'm betting my guitar-geek friend is right. Because I know a lot more guitar geeks.

23 Jun, 2003

An Industry In Search of A Champion

If there was one cautionary tale at last week's DVD in 50 conference, it was the music industry.

Panelists skewered the music industry for offering little value as the consumer passed them by in file-trading music.

Industry veteran and oft-called “father of DVD” Warren Lieberfarb warned the video industry that they could fall victim to the same problems that befell music execs. He all but called for a leader to emerge, much like he did on the DVD front, to provide the vision to bring the industry into the high-def future.

Preoccupied with the latest blockbuster and meeting current revenue goals, we in the video industry often don't have time to think four or five years down the road – say in 2007 – when many say the growth trend in DVD will level out.

While the success of today may tempt us to rest on our laurels, the industry pundits are entreating us to think ahead.

In his keynote at the DVD in 50 conference, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment president Ben Feingold, also an early DVD proponent, told attendees the high-def move will take leadership.

“It's going to take a little bit of push, a little bit of compromise and a leap of faith to make this successful,” he said.

As the conference wore on, the question began to arise, “Who will be the “father of high-def?”

22 Jun, 2003

Piracy Threat to DVD Not the Same as Music

Last week during the DVD in 50 conference a good deal of the discussion, both in the hallways and on the seminar stage, focused on the “next generation” of DVD, which primarily focused on high-definition.

While there are many good consumer-oriented reasons for pursuing HD-DVD including its increased capacity and quality, and better copy protection in the long term, one of the more strident arguments was that DVD could suffer the same fate as packaged music, as broadband increases and people jump on the media download wagon. But that, I believe, is a distant possibility and we still have much to pursue in the current DVD generation, though I do believe that we should be preparing for the next generation of DVD as high definition television sets grow in the U.S.

I don't think we have much comparison between the music and movie industries to draw that kind of doom-and-gloom parallel. Had the music industry kept a viable and inexpensive singles format, had they adjusted their pricing in the face of DVD (the growing presence of which begged the price/value question from consumers when compared to a CD with 15 songs or so, only a few of which one wanted), had the music industry done more to develop new talent over a longer time frame instead of looking for the next big popular hit, all of this would probably have kept the downloading business from truly engulfing the music industry.

Meanwhile, DVDs continue to offer more value for about the same price when it comes to hit movies, and there is plenty of catalog coming out at very aggressive pricing. Studios are trying a variety of models from extras-laden to vanilla versions and even a possible disposable model, to suit a variety of consumers. And while copy protection is an issue, the cost/time value equation for downloading a movie has yet to reveal itself to me or to most, not that significant broadband penetration in the U.S. and media distribution systems in households would not address that in the future. But that is still some time in the distant future.

No, I think the packaged movie business and DVD is in terrific shape now and for the foreseeable future and I think both the supply side and the retail side will continue to be sensitive to the market issues to keep any short-term digital delivery threat at bay even as we develop the next generation of DVD that will keep the business going for many, many years to come.

19 Jun, 2003

Hats off to DVD and its purveyors!

I'd like to take the opportunity in my column this week to wholeheartedly thank all of you who helped make DVD in 50 the grand success it was.

It's important for our industry leaders to get together at least once a year for a summit to exchange ideas, hear what everyone else is up to, and swap perspectives with retailers, analysts and members of the creative community. DVD has revitalized the home entertainment business and given home video a sense of respect in Hollywood — something it never really had in the VHS-only days, when studio honchos would look down on what they derisively referred to as the “used movie salesmen.”

Video was the studios' cash cow, but it was always viewed as a different animal, a strange beast.

With DVD, all that's changed and, as panelists so accurately pointed out, the creative community has embraced DVD so wholeheartedly that we're not simply enjoying a new format, but rather a whole new consumer product with bells and whistles all its own.

Still, we're not operating in a vacuum, and on occasion we need to lay all our cards — or some of them, anyway — on the table for a broad meeting of the minds.

This year's conference, called “DVD in 50” in celebration of the imminent arrival of DVD in 50 million U.S. homes, was once again produced by Video Store Magazine in partnership wit h the DVD Entertainment Group, under the auspices of the indefatigable Amy Jo Donner and her tireless staffers.

Lots of good information and debate came out of this year's session, including two particularly memorable moments.

One was when Hasting Entertainment's John Marmaduke called ex-Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb the “antichrist of rental” and thanked organizers for putting a table between them.

The other came during my Presidents Panel, we were talking about how hard it is to predict the future and Fox chief Mike Dunn mused that in 10 years, “all of us will probably be consultants.”

Thanks also to Video Store Magazine's staff for moderating and organizing the panels. A particular nod goes to publisher Don Rosenberg for allowing it to happen and to publications coordinator Jennifer Halperin and promotions coordinator Barbara Long, who served as associate producers of DVD in 50 — and whose formidable tasks, aside from making sure everything else ran smoothly, was keeping tabs on me and making sure I ran smoothly.

We'll do it again next year, at the third annual Home Entertainment Summit: DVD's Lucky 7.

17 Jun, 2003

Video Price Pressure Is Cooking

It's no secret that home entertainment software dealers are under pressure from a lot of directions.

This industry is accustomed to a love-hate relationship with content providers and the constant tug-of-war over product pricing and who profits from video products. Sellthrough-priced DVD has complicated matters, putting extra pressure on new releases. DVD has also created new competition from online rentailers and renewed pressure from other directions, notably mass merchants and the drug and grocery segment. Everybody wants to milk this cash cow.

The pressure will only get more intense as grocers still not ready to get back into a rental business that has to be managed start to see the possibilities of using vending machines to manage rental inventory. Some of the vending machine suppliers essentially pay the store a commission for floor space and send their own employees in to manage the machines and inventory. They get their product from the same distributors as the independents (presumably at the same prices), but they don't have to worry about paying similar overhead (rent or employee) costs. If the vending segment takes off in the U.S. the way it has in other countries, that's going to put more pressure on specialty stores. So will the EZ-D self-destructing discs, if they catch on.

Disney/Buena Vista is gambling that people would rather pay $6 or $7 for a disc they have to watch in two days than have to run back to the store or risk a late fee.

In another possible problem for independents, DreamWorks will put some titles out on no-frills editions for $19.99, joining Columbia TriStar and Fox in the strategy. That won't just put pressure on pricing for new discs: it brings the prices dangerously close to what many dealers get for used discs, a part of the business they have used to buffer themselves from other pricing hits.

Many independents can trace a trend of declining profits directly to the dawn of revenue-sharing agreements that put them at a disadvantage with regard to buy-in price. But the market now is changing so fast it may be difficult to make such a direct correlation if business starts dwindling again.

16 Jun, 2003

Downsized Discs: Cinephiles Scoff, But Mainstreet America Is Poised to Buy

DreamWorks is the latest studio to downsize some of its hit titles – release former two-disc editions as a single, cheaper disc. The studio Aug. 19 is releasing Minority Report, Shrek and Gladiator in single disc editions at $19.99. The titles formerly sold for $26.99 or $29.99.

The cadre of online disc fans (whom I affectionately call the DVD geeks) may bristle at any attempt to sell a less-than-packed DVD of these hit titles, just as they have consistently criticized the release of full-frame instead of widescreen discs. They may be especially worried if the studio discontinues selling the packed disc.

But I have to say DreamWorks and other studios that are employing this marketing strategy, including Columbia TriStar and Fox, are onto something.

Not every DVD buyer is interested in the making-of and other special features cinephiles prize. Some of them, most notably members of the mainstream audience now shifting to DVD, merely want the movie. And if a studio can give that to them for a lower price, they will buy.

So far, this downsizing usually happens in the repricing window, but I can see a demand among mainstream buyers during the initial DVD release, with two versions of a title – a low-priced, feature-only version for the casual buyer and a higher-priced version for the rabid fan.

Let's just hope, as I'm sure the DVD geeks do, that studios don't start to abandon or discontinue extras-packed discs. While all buyers may not prize them, they are the industry's ace-in-the-hole in competing against the threat of video-on-demand and other media.