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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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11 Nov, 2003

Some Franchises, Like 'The Matrix,' Are Particularly Suited to DVD

I confess. I like to enter the Matrix. Despite its drawbacks -- hopelessly vague imagery, obscure references, and silly, overblown dialogue -- I am drawn to the Wachowski brothers' trilogy. And despite the bad to middling reviews, I saw The Matrix Revolutions its first weekend in theaters.

I've seen all the tales in Animatrix. And although I confess I haven't played the video game (games drive me a bit bonkers), I've perused Web sites, where fans debate various implications of each scene and character in the trilogy. In fact, I would call myself a casual Matrix geek.

That's why I feel somewhat qualified to note that this “peel the onion” kind of tale is, in fact, ideal for the digital age -- and for DVD. For geeks like me, the more information the better, and the more layers to the tale, the more opportunity for DVD extras -- and for other DVDs.

Oliver Stone's JFK is another “peel the onion” movie that lends itself to DVD. Whether or not you're a conspiracy nut, the mysteries of that assassination are potent fodder for DVD extras that allow you to hear more. I particularly like the Oliver Stone commentary that describes his interpretation of the various real-life characters behind the story.

The J.R.R. Tolkien “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, too, lends itself to “onion peeling” extras. The author's well-drawn fantasy invites numerous interpretations -- and hours of DVD extras.

These stories are all particularly suited for this DVD home video era -- and geeks like me are grateful, if bleary-eyed.

10 Nov, 2003

Movies and Music Are Not One and the Same When It Comes to Piracy

The Los Angeles Times had an article over the weekend that pondered whether the movie industry waited too long to start quelling Internet piracy.

I take issue with direct comparisons to the music industry and what's happened there. To be sure, some aspects of this debate are comparable. Illegal downloading hurts both industries. Both have been slow to adapt to new technology.

It just irks me that so many people seem to ignore some fundamental differences between the two industries and the content they provide.

Musicians don't need a music industry to make their product; filmmakers still need a movie industry to make and distribute their products.

A few bands like Phish sell their music online directly to fans. These are perfectly legal downloads, proving the band doesn't need a record company to write, record and deliver its product. That may be bad for the music industry as it exists today -- an elite club of executives who control what gets produced and how it gets into the marketplace -- but it doesn't have to hurt the artists. In some cases it even helps them.

The music industry has been committing a slow, agonizing and very public suicide for at least a decade. Music executives decided to keep CD prices artificially high, even after promising consumers that prices would come down. The same moguls often decide to back one-hit-wonders and TV talent show winners based on record company criteria, not on actual fan appeal. Music executives chose to kill singles, a decision I'm sure provided plenty of motivation for youngsters to create file-sharing technology.

If the movie industry worked like the music industry, we would all have to pay $100 for a disc of The Lord of the Rings. And even if the disc would also have The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Freddy vs. Jason, Simone and The Real Cancun on it, I'll bet this industry would sell a lot fewer copies -- and send fans to the Web to get just the piece they want, too.

8 Nov, 2003

Retailers, Consumers … and Thieves Seeing Green In Used DVDs

It was serendipitous for us here at Video Store Magazine that Blockbuster chose last week to announce its holiday trade-in program, since senior editor Holly J. Wagner and senior reporter Enrique Rivero had been working for several weeks on this week’s cover story about the growing phenomenon of retailers, consumers and, unfortunately, thieves using DVDs as a form of currency.

Consumers are realizing that those discs they have been steadily collecting have kept their value quite nicely, thank you, and they are using them like shiny silver dollars to trade-in against newer DVDs they want to own, or simply for cold, hard cash.

The trade-in market at retail for home video is not necessarily new: A number of retailers have been very active both in-store and online, in developing a healthy business in previously viewed discs by taking trade-ins and still getting a very nice margin even at a previously viewed price. Music stores have been doing it for years with CDs, but to the extent that music can and is listened to again and again, I am sure the pace of DVD trade-ins will surpass that of CDs, if it hasn’t already. Because, indeed, while at first blush you may have really wanted that copy of Madonna: Truth or Dare, its allure has faded, and now you see it more as this 5-inch silver coin you can deposit somewhere for something else.

For the nation’s largest video chain to jump onto this side of the business certainly demonstrates that a critical mass has been reached.

“We think there is a growing market for people who want to monetize their movie library,” said Larry Zine, Blockbuster’s EVP, CFO and COO.

No kidding. DVDs are pervasive, and the pricing has stayed stable as demand for the product as risen, so a larger segment of the U.S. population is finding itself with an ever-growing collection of DVDs that have some significant worth. Despite their ubiquitous presence in our culture, DVDs still hold a generally high perceived value. High enough that the sales of previously viewed DVDs will be a $1 billion business this year, according to Video Store Magazine market research. And high enough that people are beginning to look at those DVDs piling up and they’re seeing green. And retailers are the primary money changers in this ever-growing market.

Then there is the nefarious side of the phenomenon. People are stealing DVDs from stores and from each other. Sure, “shrinkage” is a fact of retail life, but the notion of people’s growing DVD collections as targets for thieves — which is being reported with increasing regularity — is a sad side effect of this burgeoning used-DVD business.

Of course, a key problem, for both retailers and consumers who are ripped off, is that it’s very easy for thieves to, er, monetize their hot goods at any number of outlets, including other retailers, swap meets or, heck, their own garage sales.

This will be a challenge for law enforcement that will continue to bedevil them.

6 Nov, 2003

Studios Are Buzzing About Hot Spots for the Home

The hottest news these days in high-tech circles is WiFi, the technology that lets you walk into a caf? or restaurant with your computer and connect to the Internet without any wires. Among the leaders of this hot new technology is Intel, which recently posted on its Web site a listing of more than 10,000 “hot spots” around the country where customers can access the Internet through Intel's Centrino wireless platform. The list includes several McDonald's burger joints that have installed Centrino-verified hot spots, part of a deal Intel negotiated with the fast-food chain last July.

Now the Hollywood studios are buzzing with a new twist on this: hot spots for the home, so that consumers can put a DVD on their home unit and then stream it to a laptop or other handheld device for later playback in the park, at the mall, wherever and whenever they want.

It's the latest variant on video-on-demand, with the master server being your own DVD player.

I kind of like this model. It's software without much clutter; it gives you the convenience of Internet/cable video-on-demand, but you still get to have physical product in your home — and best of all, it doesn't kill the retailer or deprive us of the hallowed shopping experience.

You still build collections of home movie libraries, but you aren't limited to watching your DVDs in your family room, your computer, or wherever else you don't mind lugging/installing a player and schlepping stacks of DVDs to.

You have the physical movie in your home, but you don't need to take it everywhere you want to watch it.

And best of all, you're not at the mercy of some nameless, faceless and expensive VOD service that might cut you off if you're a day late paying your bill, if the computers are down, if there's a power surge or blackout or a solar flareup or something else and knocks you offline.

I certainly see this as a contender in the future-delivery wars.

As an aside, let me tell you about a little file-swapping that's going on right in my neighborhood. I've got two friends who live a house apart. Each collects DVD. Each has a collection numbering about 1,000 discs, and each is starting to run out of room and panic about what to do.

The solution they're talking about is this: Neighbor A will only buy movies with titles between “A” and “L.” Neighbor B will only buy movies with titles between “M” and “Z.” Then, they'll switch — Amadeus for Zorro, Crash for Tora! Tora! Tora!.

They'll each have their own movie libraries, with access to twice as many titles.

Not exactly video-on-demand, but pretty damn close. How about video by request?

4 Nov, 2003

DVD is a Wake-Up Call for TV Networks

I'm a TV network executive's worst nightmare.

That's part of what I learned at TV on DVD. I engage in almost every behavior, save TiVoing (it says something that TiVo has become a verb), that they hate.

But DVD lets me do the same things with the sidecars I already have in the house: I gleefully pop in DVDs of a TV series and watch my episodes any time I want, commercial-free and without those annoying network crawlers.

Worse, since my satellite provider, DirecTV, charges an extra $6 or $7 a month to give me local broadcast channels, I don't get them. Most of what's on network TV stinks, and I can watch “24” on FX and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on Bravo, something I also did when NBC ran “Kingpin.”

I pretty much had to stop watching local affiliates after Sam Rubin on channel 5, the day Ice Age streeted, trotted out those poor little penguins with Ice Age DVDs strapped to their chests like suicide bombs. You can tell me no penguins were hurt in the filming of the segment, but I have a feeling that doesn't take their dignity into account. Not to mention the fact they would probably have been much happier in a cold pool than under the hot lights on a TV news set. But I digress.

The only thing I can get on local channels that I can't get from my satellite package or DVD is local weather and traffic reports, so I have a 5-inch black-and-white TV that gets its three minutes of fame every morning when I look at the traffic and temperature maps. Besides the flat $20 price tag, the set also has the added benefit of running on batteries, in case of a power outage or disaster.

As a consumer, I've already made my choice of clutter: I'd rather have piles of DVDs around than watch the tripe the networks strew all over the few good programs they offer us. In the end, I have to wade through a lot less junk with a houseful of DVDs than with a setful of network TV.

3 Nov, 2003

‘Nemo' DVD Plays Swimmingly

Yesterday I got a peek at the DVD of Finding Nemo from Walt Disney Home Video and Pixar during a launch event at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. The extras look truly engaging, especially for my 5-year-old, who is a big fan of underwater sea life.

Among the cool extras is a section in which the kids learn about different sea animals. It's both educational and fun, keeping my daughter engaged for some time. Also enjoyable is the documentary included on the disc.

The Fisharades segment also kept her attention, as a school of fish make different objects which the viewer must identify. It's a cute idea and more involving than some disc games I've seen.

But it's the little touches that impressed me -- extra scenes or segments that included new animation and dialogue, with humor in the vein of the movie.

Certainly, we've seen some clever DVDs, but not all feature the humor and cleverness associated with the Nemo effort.

2 Nov, 2003

Will Exclusive Deals Grow More Popular?

The whole notion of retail exclusives for home video has always managed to irk some, even as we all recognize that in its many iterations, it's an understandable and expected part of the retail business.

There have been short-window exclusives for major retail chains in the past for some nontheatrical titles, and, of course, it's fairly common to see major retailers with unique packaging, title bundles or special add-ons such as related books or gift items packaged with the video by the supplier exclusive to that retailer. But I am beginning to think that we may start to see more aggressive use of the exclusive window deal as competition for shelf space continues to heat up.

Lately, Best Buy has been sticking it to the music retail business, in particular, by arranging for exclusive windows for a number of music DVDs, including an Eagles DVD single and the most recent U2 concert DVD. These were two- to four-week exclusive deals that, while irritating to some competitors, didn't elicit much more than grousing.

But now a group of Canadian music and video retailers is yanking Rolling Stones DVDs and CDs in a reaction to the recently announced four-month exclusive North American window for Best Buy to sell Four Flicks, a four-disc set chronicling The Rolling Stones Licks World Tour. It's the longest exclusive the retailer has put together, and it's beginning to cause something of a furor because of its length, if nothing else — but also because it's becoming an obvious strategy Best Buy has in competing against music specialty stores that are, as we all know, reeling from the downturn in their business.

And, it may also signal the growth of such deals on the part of music publishers who, faced with extraordinary challenges of their own, will crunch the numbers and decide, in some cases, that throwing their lot to one major retail chain exclusively makes more financial sense. (Though, in the case of the Stones, that was a product produced outside of their label, EMI.)

The variables on these exclusive deals are several. What sort of title makes sense for a possible exclusivity deal? What is the retailer willing to order, and how much marketing muscle will the retailer commit to the title. In the case of the Four Flicks release, another variable was, at what price will the retailer sell the product for? According to the guy who put together the deal for the Stones, they went with Best Buy because it could commit to a $29.99 price tag in the United States and a $39.99 price in Canada -- $20 to $30 less than other retailers competing for the deal.

In a noisy retail environment that is fairly drowning in new product, the exclusivity deal may be a model that will appeal to both the supplier looking to do something special for a middling title and the retailer looking to offer something unique to its customer.

It'll be interesting to see how this practice develops in the future.

31 Oct, 2003

DVD Wrap-Up: Cut Out the Cardboard, Keep the Keepcase

The packaging front is getting active again. Speculation is rampant that Warner Home Video is getting ready to ditch the loathsome snapper, with its flimsy cardboard cover.

For high-profile new releases like Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded, the studio has already gone over to the plastic “keepcase,” and collectors are hoping special-edition catalog titles will be next on the list — Warner has assembled a marvelous library of spruced-up classics, but, sadly, these “keepers” are still coming out in snappers that just don't hold up the way the all-plastic jobs do.

The real action in packaging, however, is coming in the boxed-set department. Fueled by soaring consumer demand and studio production of “complete season” boxed sets of TV series, multidisc sets are hitting the market at a record clip. And yet the jury's still out on the best way to package these sets.

Most TV series are coming out in foldout cases, typically plastic covered with cardboard. That helps conserve space, but the constant opening and closing leads to wear and tear — a fact that drives collectors like me absolutely batty (I'm going to have to beg Paramount for another “first-season” set of “C.S.I.,” not because there's anything wrong with the discs I already have, but because the clear-plastic cover flap has worn off).

Perhaps in recognition of this, a growing number of multidisc sets are starting to appear in full-size keepcases neatly encased in a cardboard box — truly a “boxed” set, in a literal sense. I've recently received “complete season” sets of “Alias” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” both handsomely packaged this way, and let me tell you — they're great. Not only does each disc have its own “home,” so to speak, but if someone else wants to watch the series after me — a friend, a neighbor, my wife — they don't have to wait for me to get through the whole thing. A handful of episodes and they can have the first disc while I move on to disc two.

The downside is that the full-size keepcase approach takes up more space — and with DVD collections growing as fast as they are, at least in my home, sooner or later I'm going to have to start cutting back and become more selective in what I bring home — bad news for studios whose continued success depends on maintaining those high buy rates we've seen since DVD's launch nearly eight years ago.

Image Entertainment has the best approach — a compromise, a happy medium. The independent has just issued seasons one and two of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in boxed sets packed with razor-thin plastic keepcases. Each disc still has its own home, but it's more of a condo than a house, taking up less than half as much shelf space than if each disc were in a full-size keepcase.

I've seen some TV sets come in a cardboard variation of this, but that doesn't work for me. Studios, listen up: Plastic is in, cardboard is out. Some of us actually treasure our DVDs, and cardboard simply doesn't hold up.

To me, the Image approach is the way to go — and not just for boxed sets.

Man, if all new releases came in these skinny flat keepcases, I could store twice as many discs in less space than my collection occupies today.

Studio marketers, are you listening?

28 Oct, 2003

The MPAA Goes to School

Well, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has succeeded in getting its antipiracy curriculum into schools, via a grant to Junior Achievement.

I suppose it's not a bad idea in theory, to educate youngsters in grades five through nine that downloading copyrighted material is stealing.

According to a survey by youth-oriented Web communications platform Bolt Labs and marketing concern House Three, 85 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds say their parents know they download music and ignore it. Just 13 percent said their parents intervened in any way, including telling them to stop or that it is illegal.

Sociologists have long said one of the most difficult impressions to change among youths in slums is the notion that success flows from the barrel of a gun or the point of a needle. Kids follow role models, whether they are drug-dealing gangbangers or pension-looting executives who get away scot-free. As long as our society fails to punish corporate executives for criminal malfeasance, I suspect the lesson that snatching a song off the Internet is bad will elude teens.

Not especially surprising. Nor is Junior Achievement and Harris Interactive's conclusion, based on a survey of 624 teens, that a third of teens “would act unethically to get ahead or make more money if there was no chance of getting caught.” Another 25 percent were undecided, and 42 percent said they would not act unethically.

I have serious misgivings about handing malleable young minds, not to mention tax-funded public school class time, over to any vested business interest. What's next, schools branded like sports arenas? Will all the P.S.s in New York get renamed MPAs with their assigned numbers?

Antipiracy education is following roughly the same path into schools as sex education and drug abuse prevention: uncomfortable or unconcerned parents abdicate their responsibility to educate and instill values into their children, so the schools take over.

It stands to reason that if the approach works, we should see about the same impact on downloading as sex education has had on pregnancy rates, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual activity in general among the same age groups. Or perhaps a similar effect to what DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs have on reducing youth drug and alcohol abuse, and the commensurate demand for illegal drugs. Numerous studies say those results are questionable, at best.

Holy cow, the copyright industries really are in trouble!

27 Oct, 2003

On the Pleasures of Skipping

There are still a few people, including me, who can remember the 8-track tape. One of the only cool things about the format was the ability to jump quickly through an album. The CD came along, giving listeners the ability to move with precision from one song to the next, and the 8-track tape was history -- like my family's wood-paneled station wagon that had a player built in.

DVD designers are beginning to take advantage of the skipping capabilities the format offers in unique ways. Recently, I sat down with some friends to play the new board-DVD combo game “Scene It.” For those who haven't heard of it, “Scene It” is a game in which players look at movie clips on a DVD and answer questions about them to move around the game board. The DVD shuffles among a large library of clips to spit out questions. You don't have to be a big movie buff to win, just an attentive viewer. It does help if you've seen a lot of films. Still, my non-movie industry neighbors had as much success at it as I did. I can't wait for future versions of the game. There's already a kids' version, but I foresee a market for numerous niches. Star Trek fans would surely like to test their knowledge of that series' sci-fi trivia.

Use of the skipping feature can be both clever and simple. Take New Line Home Entertainment's “Jump to a Death” feature on the Jan. 13 release of Freddy vs. Jason. Horror gore fans can jump to a particular death or watch them all in one bloody sequence. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but a brilliant idea nonetheless.

Then there's the personal skipping that I like to do, a sort of ad hoc editing of movie sequences I'd rather not see. This comes in handy particularly with longer films where directors (especially actor-directors) have been given too much free rein. No offense to the Wachowski brothers, but that whole fleshy Zion dance-club scene didn't do it for me in The Matrix Reloaded. So I just skip it.

Let those filmmakers come at me with their bloated director's cuts, that extra scene that was soooo funny that they had to put it back in on DVD, that gratuitous strip scene on the unrated disc. I've got the ultimate weapon for surplus scenes. With my DVD remote, I just skip it.