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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 Dec, 2003

DVD's Unrelenting Pace Continues During the Holidays

The number of DVD releases is growing at an unrelenting pace as major studios with big vaults launch fusillades of catalog titles in between the theatrical hits. And secondary suppliers with a raft of lesser theatrical titles and a world of special interest programming continue to seek niche audiences in the growing DVD culture.

It's no different this holiday season as some 74 holiday-themed titles were released in time for shoppers' heyday (see cover story). It's a mind-boggling wealth of titles to choose from, and it points to the challenge that retailers of all shapes and sizes are going to continue to face in terms of product selection and merchandising as suppliers ratchet up their releases to maximize the continuing growth in DVD purchasing.

According to a recent DVD Release Report, the industry has delivered more than 30,000 DVD titles into the marketplace since the format's inception (not including adult). It took the industry only 58 weeks to reach the last 10,000 titles, according to the DVD Release Report, so you can see how much the pace has quickened as the format has reached critical mass.

Retailers continue to create more space for these releases (which right now comes at the expense of VHS) and, if they can, find new ways to make the burgeoning selection stand out so customers can find the titles.

I did a quick check of a couple of stores in my area (one independent and two chains) and was underwhelmed by the effort to merchandise what I thought might be a record year for holiday-themed titles. The indie had no display whatsoever dedicated to holiday-themed videos, and the two chains each offered fairly meager endcaps sporting about a dozen titles.

Now it may very well be that a majority of independents and chain store managers in other areas did more with the holiday product, but I have to wonder if retailers are becoming too maxed out with new releases to be able to find the space (and the time) to make much of anything stand out these days other than the blockbuster new releases. That means that the usual challenge for customers -- finding that neat, lesser-known but just as entertaining title -- is getting increasingly more difficult.

It's clear this onslaught of titles we're seeing will continue to squeeze shelf space.

Meanwhile, retailers need to continue to reassess their merchandising and find as many opportunities to build not just price-driven displays but better themed efforts and other creative approaches to bring out those titles for customers to find and buy or rent -- because there are still plenty of unreleased titles in studio vaults.

11 Dec, 2003

Buying Is an Impulse — and DVDs Are No Exception

I've gotten a lot of responses to my column of last week in which I urged video rentailers to start aggressively selling DVD or else risk extinction. Some agreed with me, including one retailer who wrote to tell me that he only carries DVD, everything's available for sale or rent, and his business is up 60 percent on the sales side and 50 percent on the rental side.

I also heard from retailers who in essence told me I am full of hooey, although they didn't use that word.

I stand by what I wrote, and I will even go a step further: I wonder if the big rental chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood could even become magnets for selling DVDs rather than rentals, if they wanted to.

You see, in the nearly two decades since video stores effectively ceded the sellthrough business to the mass merchants through their own inertia, consumers have been trained to buy a certain way, and that way ain't in the video store.

Especially now, when every movie is available for sale straight out of the gate, the impulse factor is more important than ever. Chains like Wal-Mart realize this and feed on it. They put bargain bins in high-traffic aisles, and fill them not with budget crap, but with high-quality catalog titles from major studios they picked up for a song. The guy who's buying diapers and a new toilet flush mechanism walks by, something catches his eye, and he begins scouring the bin for $5.88 treasures. As soon as he's done, he starts walking until just a few feet away there's a rack of Pirates of the Caribbean or Finding Nemo for $14.88. He's hooked again, and since this rack is right outside the dedicated DVD section, guess where he heads next.

That's how we buy videos — or, more specifically, DVDs — and short of trying to beat the discounters at their own game, there's little the video specialty goliaths can do about it.

Short of carrying toilet paper and Tide, Blockbuster and Hollywood may be out of luck.

9 Dec, 2003

What A Difference A Year Makes

Last year at the Western Show, the cable industry event for the West Coast, all the buzz was about Internet Protocol (IP) video-on-demand (VOD). Movielink had just been launched in stealth mode and Starz Encore announced an IP add-on subscription for the movie network's subscribers.

This year the cablers, like most in the packaged media industry, seemed to have moved on from the IP hype and, while the talk was still about VOD, it was less about content and more about competion.

The cablers see true VOD (as opposed to NVOD, SVOD and the rest of the alphabet soup) as an imperative. Not only because DVD is a breakout hit with consumers, but because the threat of Rupert Murdoch getting his hands on DirecTV looms even larger now than it did last year.

True VOD is a challenge for cable or satellite. Satellite, which must beam the same program to a lot of receivers at once, has gone whole-hog for TiVo and similar digital video recorders (DVRs). Over this year DirecTV and Dish Network have both rolled out DVR options and priced them very aggressively for the holidays. Cablers, who traditionally have been limited to 33 starts at the same time because of the headend equipment they need to feed programming, have rolled out a variety of options that let consumers get more movies and shows in more convenient ways.

At the show this year I have to admit I was surprised, not to see that the standing-room-only crowd at a panel discussion called “VOD: Who's Watching What?” but that every time the presenters put a chart or graph up on the screen, a dozen or so people whipped out digital cameras and took grab shots of whatever little tidbits of research they could get. I've been to a lot of trade shows, but I've never seen a feeding frenzy quite like that before. Well…. Maybe at AVN.

The one constant is consumers. Consumers still want the same things they've always wanted: commercial-free viewing when and where they want it. So far that has worked in DVDs favor.

The cablers know VOD is an imperative to stay competitive with satellite and DVRs, not to mention DVD. They know it reduces subscriber churn and makes for happier customers. They know it's the only way they can deliver a DVD-like experience and make no mistake, they aren't waiting around to do it.

The Western Show won't be around next year for a look back at how the cable companies have done in delivering on the promise of VOD, but I suspect the packaged media cash registers will tell the story. Let's hope it has a happy ending.

8 Dec, 2003

Entertainment Can't Expand Beyond 24 Hours a Day

Television broadcasters are wondering where all the young men have gone. A recent dropoff in Nielsen viewership by the 18-34 male age group has broadcasters worried. Nielsen reports men are watching DVD or video 9 percent more and playing video games 33 percent more, cutting into their TV viewing time.

While entertainment gurus often talk about the revenue pie getting bigger, there are only 24 hours in a day. I think Blockbuster and the other rental chains are coming up against a problem similar to their broadcast brethren. Consumers are buying more and more DVDs – for gifts and for themselves — and it looks as if they are renting less.

Hollywood last week warned of a slowdown in rentals for the fourth quarter, resulting in a stock fall. Blockbuster in October made a similar warning about a revenue shortfall, in part blamed on a drop in rentals.

Much is made of the fact that consumers may be buying titles instead of renting them, but I don't think that's the whole picture. There are many more viewing opportunities in the home – from DVDs consumers already own, to those they borrow from neighbors, to extras on those DVDs, to video games, which can eat of hours and hours of time, to surfing the net.

A rental isn't just competing for viewers' time with a single sellthrough title viewing, pay-per-view or video-on-demand. It competes with all the other entertainment pastimes viewers can pursue to fill up that 24-hour day, including added viewing of DVDs they or their neighbors already own. As the fourth quarter ratchets up, consumers who buy DVDs or get them as gifts will find less and less time to rent. Between holiday shopping and get togethers with friends and family, they'll likely pop in a DVD from their own shelf.

7 Dec, 2003

Responding to the Holiday Impact on Rentals

Our most recent poll on this Web site asked retailers how they compete with the big chains during the holidays, when competition is fierce and pricing is predatory.

Surprisingly, the majority of respondents to the survey (55.5 percent) said they make no seasonal adjustments to their business to try and counteract the threat of the heavy emphasis on sellthrough video and the loss-leader kind of pricing that's ubiquitous during the holidays and becoming prevalent throughout the year. More than 22 percent of respondents did say they put together some sort of holiday-based giveaway, contest or drawing.

In our report on the results of “Black Friday” in this week's issue of Video Store Magazine, it seems that low-ball pricing was even more extreme this year. Major new releases were being seen from a low of $11 at Wal-Mart to early-bird sales of $11.99 at Best Buy to $12.99 at Circuit City. And, of course, we have seen some dramatic price promotions on DVD players that have literally caused stampedes at some stores. Even catalog seemed to be selling well, according to John Hastings, president of Hastings Entertainment in Texas, who was reporting a stellar holiday season.

Not surprising, especially if you were one of the retailers who did not adjust your business in this challenging time for rentals, you likely saw your rental business drop. VSM market research shows that rental spending for the first two months of this fourth quarter dropped 5 percent, compared with the same period last year. And if rentals of new releases are being impacted by sellthrough, data shows it's hurting catalog business as well. Retailers report that catalog rentals, as a portion of their total weekly rentals, is less this year than it was last year.

Certainly, the holiday period tends to enhance the impact the sellthrough business is having on the rental business, and it should be pointed out that VSM market research notes that year-to-date rental spending is up more than 9 percent. I am not one to believe, as some do, that the rental business is going to quickly spiral downward in the next year or two. However, those retailers who do not ratchet up their own new and used sales efforts and rental specials during the holiday season to combat the drain on their business risk losing a slice of their customer base every season, until there are no more seasons left for video rental.

4 Dec, 2003

Rental Stores Need to Become the Place to Buy, Not Just Rent

With yet another chain reporting down rental revenue (in this case, Hollywood Entertainment), it is fast becoming clear — as if it weren’t clear already — that the big thundering rental chains are going to plod their way to extinction if they don’t establish themselves as the place to BUY movies, not just rent them.

And that’s going to be a challenge, given the lock on the market that the mass merchants and club stores have had since the baby-step days of video sellthrough.

No wonder the rumor mill is grinding with speculation that Sumner Redstone wants to dump Blockbuster. No wonder Blockbuster is doing everything it can to present itself as a movie-selling store. No wonder the indie stores that are still in business are focusing on used-movie sales or even hardware sales — anything, ANYTHING but rental.

Will it work? Can today’s rental giants successfully transition into movie-selling emporiums? Doubtful, although here are five drastic steps, directed at Blockbuster but critical for the entire spectrum of rental dealers to note and to act on:

1) If Wal-Mart is selling a hot new release for $14.88, you’d better do the same — and don’t charge a penny more. Likewise, if the day after Thanksgiving Wal-Mart is selling The Lion King DVD for $11, match or beat their price. And don’t bitch and moan about taking a bath — for Pete’s sake, send people into Wal-Mart early in the morning, before you open, to pick up an armload or two, and then sell them at cost.

2) Lose those stupid “guaranteed rental” ads. Believe me, no one cares anymore. I don’t know anyone who this week rushed out to rent Pirates of the Caribbean. But I know a heckuva lot of folks who ran out to buy it at Wal-Mart or Target, because the latest blitz of Blockbuster “guaranteed rental” ads reinforced the notion in their minds that the video store is where you rent movies, not buy them.

3) Bump up your selection and include budget product. Take a cue from the mass merchants and at least create the perception of low pricing. I’ve seen several people scan the $5.88 bins at Wal-Mart and then pick up Shrek, from the main DVD section, for $21, because they’ve been misled into thinking Wal-Mart has the best price on everything. There’s no reason rentailers can’t play that same game.

4) Power up your commitment to used DVDs — and stop calling them “previously viewed.” Encourage customers to come in and exchange their oldies for new titles, but be selective in what you take back. You don’t want a meager selection of recent hits, but you don’t want a ton of crap, either.

5) Change the name. Blockbuster is synonymous with movie rental. Blockbuster: The Movie Store or some such derivation could help change that perception.

John Antioco, if you are reading this: Send the check to Thomas K. Arnold, care of this magazine. I’ll be waiting.

2 Dec, 2003

R.I.P. VHS — Really

The Black Friday weekend had lessons for us all. For example, Wal-Mart sales were up 6.3 percent, a good sign for the low-end retail holiday as long as consumers didn't spend it all in one weekend.

My lesson screamed from every corner, but it was the same from all of them: VHS is so, so — how would Jim Carrey put it? So-ho-ho-ho over. Dance on its grave over. Dump them before you have to pay a recycling charge over.

The rumored $12.99 DVD player did not materialize at Target, at least in my market. On the other hand, it did have a compact progressive scan model by Cyberhome with a remote control that looks like the cockpit of a blinkin' 747 for $35. Long's Drugs had a slimline player for $39.99 with a $15 rebate to bring it down to $25.

I talked to one of my friends over the weekend. He's not a particularly early adopter. Still, he commented at one point, “I think of VHS as the 8-track of movies now.” He's had a DVD player since last Christmas. The National Retail Federation said Monday DVD players are the top electronics gift this year, with 8.4 percent of shoppers saying they will buy one for a gift and another 7.3 percent planning to buy one for themselves.

I went to the flea market Sunday. This is a pretty good-sized market; it takes an hour and a half to walk it all on a fast day — which this was. There were only two stands selling more than one or two DVDs. One had old Hong Kong titles in bare bones editions for $5 each, and the other was a family stand selling off rental titles from what was probably their weekday business (I judged this from the copy depth and hand-numbered spot tags on each case); $7.99, or two for $11.99, three for $18.99. I noticed Dreamcatcher and Punch Drunk Love in the mix, and I didn't see that stand until late — it was clear they had sold plenty. The stand was still a beehive when I passed by.

On the other hand, VHS was at every other stand and not moving at any price. Not even the kidvid in vinyl keepsake cases was going anywhere. Little kids were looking at their parents quizzically when mom or dad pointed to a Barney title or cartoon on VHS.

Face it, folks, when kidvid is selling three for a dollar at every third-world fruit stand in a flea market serving a city of 200,000 and none of it is moving, it's time and past to get out.

DVD player prices are so low this year that there's no point in VHS any more. With DVD recorders down as well, anyone still keeping VHS is on borrowed time.

1 Dec, 2003

If <I>I&#39;m</I> confused &hellip;

I know I'm supposed to be all-knowing about the video industry, but I have to admit, I'm confused by the digital recording devices out there.

With regard to DVD recorders, do I want plus or minus? Do I need both? Should I get a DVD burner rather than a DVD recorder? Should I get a digital tape camera? Will it transfer easily to a DVD burner or DVD recorder? How do I transfer the data from tape to disc? How will our home movies play on our DVD players if we burn them?

My instinct is to ignore the whole thing until it becomes more clear, and I bet I'm not that different from the typical shopper in that regard. I'd love to put all of our home movies on disc; it would clear a large space on my shelves. But I just don't have a clue on which recording device to spend my money.

With DVD player prices at new lows this year, the transformation from cassette to disc will accelerate. But the final element in that transformation is DVD recording, and I'm afraid the industry and retailers have done little to help consumers understand the disc recording devices out there.

And if I'm confused, those who don't work in this industry are likely befuddled as well. While slick commercials about DVD recording grace the airwaves, those who walk into a retailer to purchase a recording device will likely find it's harder to make a decision than it may seem. With all the success that DVD has had, it would be a shame if the industry bungled the last piece of the disc revolution.

1 Dec, 2003

A &lsquo;Retailer-Led Craze&#39; Start to the Holidays

A woman in Orange City, Fla., got trampled last Saturday in a Wal-Mart as crowds rushed in to get their hands on one of the $29 DVD players on sale. She was found, unconscious, atop a DVD player, and was rushed to a hospital where she was reportedly kept over the weekend.

And so the holiday shopping season begins. I was in my local Target store over the weekend, and the DVD shelves already looked a little thrashed even as at least a dozen people were quickly scanning the titles for discounts.

Analysts have been mixed about this season's prospects for retail performance, even as indications of an economic uptick continue to come in from various economic indexes (although try telling that to the unemployed).

But it appears that DVD hardware and software will likely enjoy a stellar run at retail, even as retailers discount to bring in the customers. Those bargain-basement DVD prices retailers were promising (reported in last week's Video Store Magazine), at least in the aforementioned Wal-Mart's case, certainly did what it was supposed to do. Indeed, Wal-Mart reported slower-than-expected sales in October, and Lee Scott, chairman and CEO, is quoted in this week's issue of Video Store Magazine as saying he thinks consumers will continue to be cautious in their spending over the holidays.

The NPD Group's chief industry analyst, Marshal Cohen, said, in the same article, “Lately, we've seen an absence of retailer-led product crazes …” in saying he thought consumer shopping excitement was tepid.

I'd have to disagree. This year, I think DVD is already proven to be the retailer-led hot item for the holidays, as both hardware and the hot new DVD releases are being offered at huge discounts. It still has a high perceived value and, in these uncertain economic times, is right in the sweet spot pricewise as far as gift giving goes.

With hardware pricing plummeting and studios throwing some of their biggest 2003 hits into the season, it's going to be a very busy four weeks, indeed.

27 Nov, 2003

Storage, Not VOD, Is DVD's Biggest Challenge

A friend of mine has the solution to his bulging DVD collection: He’s buying a massive new computer with a hard drive of more than 200 gigabytes so he can put all his movies on his computer and then either sell his used discs or chuck them.

Granted, he has nowhere near the library that many of us have—I think I’m over 2,000 now, at last count—but it’s certainly an intriguing concept that bridges the gap between packaged media and electronic delivery.

The fact of the matter is, DVDs are so cheap—you can choose from a vast selection of quality, major-studio catalog titles for as little as $5 at virtually every big chain retailer—that I’m convinced that when true video-on-demand finally does come around, it won’t get nearly as many bites as experts predict simply because of the price.

Charge me $4.99, $3.99 or even $2.99 to watch a movie once and I’ll tell you why bother, when I can probably pick up that same movie—or one just as compelling—for a couple of dollars more. In the old VHS days, the biggest argument in favor of VOD was that people hate making return trips to video stores, hence the periodic appearance of disposal or limited-play software that you buy cheap and then toss when you’re done.

But DVDs have become so cheap that a lot of people I know who used to rent now choose to buy—and the significant thing here is that they buy not to collect, but simply to watch. If they buy a disc for $5, who cares if they chuck it, it’s still cheaper than renting a video and taking the time, and the gas, to bring it back. Even hot new releases are now routinely on sale for less than $15 and, again, the incentive to buy is furthered by the fact that everyone wants to see this hot new release so why not pass it around to your friends instead of making them go out and rent it?

In any event, people are buying DVDs like crazy, and the biggest obstacle to the format’s continued soaring growth is not the hassle of taking something back to a rental store, but of finding a place to sock it away in your home. The average home movie library is mushrooming, but ultimately there will come a day when consumers simply run out of room and say, “No more” (something my wife first said back in the fall of 1999, if my memory serves me correctly).

This concept of buying, downloading and then either reselling or chucking is quite interesting because it lets consumers override that one obstacle and continue happily buying away.

Storage problem solved, and you’ve got, well, video on demand, right there in your own home.