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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.


Opinion
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16 Mar, 2004

Welcome to the Age of Digital Darwinism

Charles Darwin's theory of Natural Selection posits that the weak and inferior members of a species will perish so only the strong can breed. For example, solid-colored Zebras would not have lasted long because they would be too easy to see in reedy shadows, presumably, if any existed, they got eaten and died out.

I couldn't help thinking about this as I drove to work the other day: I'm pretty sure that natural selection works, especially when I hear about a driver racing through the crossing gates at train crossings. Usually the train wins. Thank you, Mr. Darwin.

But, as in the rest of nature, the Dodos usually take a few Sabertooth Cats with them. That thought crossed my mind as I looked up into my rearview mirror to see a woman talking on her cell phone, barely aware that she would have to stop too fast to avoid rear-ending me when I slowed for a truck ahead of me — which was turning into a driveway without signaling. Instead of this life flashing before my eyes, it was my next incarnation, one that included a heightened sense of everything around me.

Driving distractions are the herald of Digital Darwinism on a mass scale. Highway safety monitors have figured out how dangerous distractions are, although most, if not all, of their research appears focused on cell phones. Why? Partly because onboard entertainment is fairly new to ordinary cars. But also because it's an automatic flunk on the species IQ test.

“I think if you are talking about DVD players that are accessible to the driver, you are not going to see a lot of studies on that because it is so clearly not a good idea,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokeswoman Anne McCartt said. “I don't think it's something anyone would think is necessary to do research on.”

A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity said one reason our nation is getting fatter — the percentage of obese Americans has been climbing for years — is that people spend more time driving and watching TV than doing any kind of physical exercise. I'm sure the researchers didn't count on a lot of overlap there, but it seems couch potatoes are also becoming bucket seat potatoes (especially since their survey participants spent an average of 170 minutes a day watching TV or movies and 101 minutes a day driving).

It does seem like a no-brainer that watching TV or a DVD while driving is, well, not too bright. But that won't stop the yahoos. Hey, they're yahoos, right?

At the rate we're going, the human race will ultimately develop some advanced sense that lets us drive safely while watching TV or DVDs or working on a computer. At least the ones that survive will. But that could take centuries, and in the meantime, the losers may kill the rest of us.


15 Mar, 2004

Shelf Space Sends a Clear Message: Goodbye VHS

You can find just about anything at Costco, from vacuum cleaners to deli meat to lawn furniture. They've even got Waterford crystal at bargain prices.

But if you're looking for non-kids' movies on VHS, you're out of luck.

During a recent visit to the popular discount store, I perused the video section and was surprised to see only a small collection of cassettes — maybe a half-dozen titles or so — all of which were children's or family titles. The display for Schindler's List on DVD was bigger.

I've been writing about this business long enough to remember a time when kids' stuff was the only thing stores and studios would sell directly to consumers. Big Disney hits like The Lion King, Barney videos and the like pretty much had the sellthrough arena to themselves. The industry for the longest time didn't think adult-themed fare, especially dramas, would sell.

Gradually, studios began to recognize romantic comedies were popular sellthrough items. Hits like Sleepless in Seattle did great numbers when they were repriced. Soon enough, studios began to bring out such collectable female-targeted fare directly to sellthrough. Even romantic dramedies like the Sandra Bullock starrer Hope Floats were hitting the sellthrough trail. Studios variously tried thrillers at a sellthrough price. Warner released the Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive, but such titles were few and far between.

What a difference DVD makes. When all DVDs went sellthrough, all these issues fell away. All titles and genres were open to buy, and consumers bought — and are buying. Meanwhile, VHS sellthrough is caught in a time warp — all kids stuff. It looks as if VHS sellthrough will go out the way it came in. When consumers throw out their last broken VCR — no doubt tucked in a kid's room — it's history.


14 Mar, 2004

Get Ready for Summer and In-Car DVD

Recently a neighbor of mine brought home a new Hummer he'd been promising us he was going to get. One of the things about the vehicle he was most proud of was the dual-screen DVD system he'd had installed in the back of the front-seat head rests so his kids could watch DVDs. The $1,000-plus system included separate players so that each kid could watch his or her own DVD, along with wireless headphones.

With summer approaching, the idea of the long car trip with the kids will no doubt continue to spur sales of video installations in new and existing family vehicles. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that sales of DVD systems in cars this year will reach $500 million — almost double the total of $273 million logged in 2001. The organization does not distinguish between entertainment systems and DVD navigation systems, but industry observers figure the majority of those sales now are in entertainment.

While the opportunity for the home video business is obvious (more people renting and buying DVDs for the summer), a cover story by Video Store Magazine's Holly J. Wagner in this week's issue takes a look at some of the ramifications of a growing trend in in-car DVD systems, and it's not all pretty. Of the 30 percent of all auto accidents attributed to “distracted driving,” no one is able to isolate how many of those may be attributable to the driver watching a video out of the corner of his or her eye, but the natural inference is it's going to be an increasing problem. Though most systems disable any dashboard screen when a car is moving, that technology can be circumvented, though that's illegal in most states.

Wagner's article cites just a couple of examples where video viewing was, indeed, the cause of a serious accident. And with a growing number of two, three or more screen systems (the story mentions one guy with 11), the possibility of a “television in view of driver” infraction is likely gaining on police log books across the country, if nothing else.

And then, of course, there are those real smart guys who just can't wait for the privacy of their own homes to watch their pornography and have, therefore, at times inadvertently exposed fellow motorists to porn while sitting in traffic.

I have no doubt that DVD systems in most family vehicles will become commonplace in the next few years. Meanwhile, society will sort through the more damaging abuses of these systems.

And while a whole generation of parents will rejoice in the calm and quiet in the back seat during those long road trips, I wonder just how much of a loss is it for those kids who won't have those long-lasting memories of interminable jousting with their siblings in the back seat, playing 21 questions again and again, or hearing that time-honored line from every Dad at the wheel (and one I used myself a few times): “Am I going to have to pull over and stop the car?!”


11 Mar, 2004

‘Schindler's List' DVD Launch Event a Moving Experience

He didn't do it for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He didn't do it for Jaws. He didn't do it for Jurassic Park, or for any of his other movies, for that matter.

But for the DVD launch event for Schindler's List last week, Steven Spielberg broke form and came to the Universal Studios lot to meet the press and talk up the release.

It wasn't your typically festive gathering, however. Spielberg and a troupe of the movie's stars, including Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, were accompanied by five Holocaust survivors, including Celina Biniaz, frail and white-haired, a former schoolteacher who was the youngest woman on German industrialist Oskar Schindler's real list of Jews he saved from death by starting a factory in Poland.

The arrival of Schindler's List on DVD coincided with the 10th anniversary of both the film and Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which has collected more than 52,000 videotaped testimonials from Holocaust survivors and is now in the process of cataloging them and using them to create educational materials for schools and libraries all over the world.

The event's most touching moment came when Biniaz hugged Spielberg and said, “Schindler saved us. You are our second Schindler.”

Prior to the film, Biniaz said, she had been unable to talk about her stay in the concentration camps, “not even all those years while I was teaching school.” Watching Schindler's List “liberated me by giving me a voice. Before that, no one had a reference point, no concept of what it was really like.”

Spielberg said the DVD of Schindler's List is only now being released because he wanted to wait until the film's and the foundation's, 10th anniversary. “Making that film was truly an experience that did change my life,” he said at the event. “It led me to find my heart and my soul,” and yet at the same time, Spielberg said, “it was a nightmare to relive those horrific memories, day in and day out.”

He noted that when Schindler's List was made, “the world was relatively at peace,” and he believes the movie's overriding message of tolerance is particularly relevant today.

“Rwanda, the trouble between Israel and the Arabs, the explosion of terrorism — that all happened afterward,” Spielberg said. “It's a lesson that people haven't really learned that much from history. Schindler's List came out, and then the world began to become a very sad place again.”

Holocaust survivor Biniaz, whose videotaped testimonial is part of the DVD's 77-minute Voices From the List documentary, said Spielberg created an “extremely accurate” account of what life was like in the concentration camps and during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

“But in many ways, the horrors were greater,” she recalled. “If he had made it as true to the horrors as they really were, people would not have seen it.”

British-born actor Ben Kingsley, who played Itzhak Stern, Oskar Schindler's Jewish accountant, in Schindler's List and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, agrees.

It could have been more brutal, but fewer people would have seen it,” he said.

Working on the set, which was filmed mostly on location, wasn't easy, he recalls. “It was hard to let it go,” Kingsley said. “We were working on the cobblestone streets of Krakow, where there had been trucks, searchlights, gunfire. We could see people in the windows looking out just a peep from behind the curtains, watching us, and then turning away — just as people must have done years ago.”

As launch events go, this one was hardly typical. But then again, neither is Schindler's List.


10 Mar, 2004

Confessions of a TV DVD Addict

Help. I'm stuck in a rut of TV DVD viewing. But think I could probably be one of the likeliest examples of why the segment is booming these days.

My viewing pattern of this product usually goes like this: I get the newest set of whatever show, I watch it from start to finish several episodes at a time, then go back and watch favorite episodes over again, sometimes following those through the content of a disc or even the whole season.

I recently went through Angel Season 3 in a nearly nonstop session, even though I had already seen every episode on its original airing and knew exactly what was going to happen.

I toted the set on a trip to Arizona and commandeered my sister's DVD player for a day or two. My brother, not normally an “Angel” watcher, sat through several episodes in a row with me, though I will say I did offer to turn it off and let him watch something else, but he was nice enough to stick it out.

A few hours later, I remember sheepishly asking, “OK, there's just one more episode, do you mind?”

“Well, now I have to watch it,” he said, “I'm all into it.”

Great, I'm creating another monster.

Lately I find myself diving into sets like 24, Smallville, Alias, Roswell, any number of the many Buffy or Angel seasons in my stash and popping in a disc to keep me company. I don't have cable, so I use these sets for programming when there's nothing (or sports) on network TV.

I watch an episode here and there while I'm getting ready for work, getting ready to go out, washing dishes or vacuuming (after all I've already seen it.)

My problem is I have a slew of other DVD movies I would really like to watch, but many times, when I reach for a new disc with a film on it, I find myself switching over at the last minute to a favorite TV episode.

It's like I have to have that instant gratification, that “45-minute experience.” If I have time, I can keep selecting eppy after eppy until the disc runs out. I'm like the guy in About a Boy, parceling my life out in segments — and mine equal the runtime of a TV show without commercials.

I even find myself attempting to hit the skip button on my remote after the teaser for a favorite show when it's airing in its regular network time slot.

And now, “Gilmore Girls” is coming out on disc. Great, there goes another 50 hours of my life when you include rewatching.

I'm like a drug addict. And like a drug addict, I'm sure there are plenty of others like me out there — I actually know some of them personally.

But, I wonder, what's going to happen as the complete-season sets pile up on DVD shelves and in my own personal collection. Will addicts like me be able to keep up the habit? Or will the lure of movies or exercise or spending time with family and friends curb our cravings for TV on DVD?

There are only so many hours in a day you know.


9 Mar, 2004

It's the Vision Thing, People

This industry is due for a big dose of vision. You can't blame downloading for everything, though it's at the heart of a bigger truth: a lot of music chains went down because the industry wouldn't keep up with the times. Technology is accelerating everyone's expectations. It started with the instant gratification of the TV remote, and by now everyone expects any little clicky thing in their hand to yield instant results. Sometimes it's a phone. Sometimes it's a mouse. Sometimes it's a purse.

Not every chain has a presence in my market, so I can only talk about the ones that do. I have yet to go to a TransWorld store with a POS system synched to what is on the Web sites. Wherehouse wasn't, even before TransWorld took it over. It's incredibly frustrating for Susie Consumer not to find the product in stores or in stock on the company Web site. That hollow Web catalog listing is kind of like finding the milk carton empty in the refrigerator – who left it there and why?

It's even more frustrating when, as happened to me around the holidays, a product that isn't in the local stores shows up as “in stock” on the Web site, but Susie orders the product and gets an email five days later saying the order was cancelled because the company couldn't fill it.

Then ratchet that up a notch: Susie is in the store, standing at a computer terminal next to the cash registers and the online price is different from the in-store price. Or she wants to sell some discs, but the Web site is paying a different price from the store. Or worse, the site will buy the product but the store won't because the title doesn't scan. So much for doing your homework in advance, because visiting the Web site first is futile.

I understand that it's difficult and often expensive to integrate new e-commerce systems with existing store-based POS systems (legacy systems, in techspeak). Unfortunately most chains can't even get the stores linked to a single system that reports at all the contact points, much less to their Web sites. That's a rental chain plague, too: returning the product to the same place you got it is understandable. But needing a different card for each store is ridiculous in the 21st Century (to its credit, Blockbuster is promising it will solve that problem by year's end).

It was hard enough for retailers to get the basics connected when stores only rented and sold stuff, but now with the used disc trade and stores buying stuff, the gaps are really glaring. I don't see much improving on this front.

My hat is off to Steve Furst and his crew at djangos.com. They managed to integrate more than 300 individual stores – multiple independently-owned stores and small chains – into one giant POS system that reports to everyone in near real time via the ever-refreshing Web site. The site isn't buying product yet, but that's in the works. Meanwhile, all those independent retailers buy product and fill orders to feed the system. If one retailer didn't have Susie's title, the order would have rolled over to the next and the next until she got her disc.

It's really pretty amazing that what some entrepreneurs were able to salvage from a bankruptcy a couple of years ago functions better now than systems at most established chains. It's sad that bankruptcy had to be the catalyst. It's also an allegory. There's no longer any such thing as “Business as usual.” The Internet is here to stay, not just for downloading but as a competitive retail force. It's the vision thing, people.


8 Mar, 2004

‘Cat in the Hat' DVD Gets Couch Potato Kids Moving

Universal Studios Home Video's The Cat in the Hat DVD includes an extra that gets kids off the couch — a dance with the cat, with easy steps the kids can follow and practice.

From a parent's point of view, this is a great addition to DVD. Rather than have my kid sit around watching the feature or playing a related game and merely exercising her fingers, the Cat in the Hat disc gets her on her feet. She started moving to the instruction almost immediately.

If you've ever watched a kid viewing any exercise program or dance program, they can't help but get up and follow it. My 20-month-old wiggles to “The Wiggles” every morning.

Kudos to Universal for adding a little exercise to its DVD. Kids spend far too much time sitting on the couch. I wish more studios would follow suit.


7 Mar, 2004

Capitalize on the Burgeoning Latino Market

It's been an eye-opening experience developing Cine Mercado, the new quarterly supplement to Video Store Magazine that focuses on the opportunities and challenges in building the home entertainment business serving Latino consumers. The second edition appears in this week's issue of VSM. Also this week in Los Angeles, VSM in cooperation with The Digital Entertainment Group and The Hollywood Reporter, host a conference on Latino home entertainment.

The growth of the Latino market compels retailers of home entertainment to make a serious effort to ensure that they have a strategy for bringing in product that serves their local Latino community and doing the right sort of marketing to let them know it's available.

There are more than 42 million Latinos living in the United States, which makes this the country with the second-largest population of Latinos behind Mexico. The Latino community in the United States is, indeed, a country within a country, and if you are a retailer who happens to do business in one of just seven states that hold half of that Latino population (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas), then it's even more imperative that you're attuned to your local Latino community, because they are heavy consumers of entertainment, and they are on a par with the rest of the market in terms of DVD player penetration in the home.

There is a growing supply of high-quality film and television product on home video from Mexico, Spain and many other Latin American countries featuring tremendous talent, star power and audience support that non-Latinos are barely aware of. And considering that 50 percent of the growth of the Latino market comes from immigrants, it's vital that a retailer looks beyond merely stocking domestic hits with Spanish subtitles. If your store is in a neighborhood with a significant Latino population, try and determine if there is a predominant nationality in the local Latino community (70 percent of all Latinos in the United States are Mexican, by the way) and seek out product from that predominant country of origin.

The opportunities with the Latino home entertainment market are significant for those who make a concerted effort to reach out to their local Latino community with the right product mix and the right service. Check out this and future editions of Cine Mercado for some ideas on how to do just that.


5 Mar, 2004

DVD Strategies Must Evolve With the Industry

It’s funny how different studios have different strategies, and how the old ways aren’t always the best way.

Last fall, several studios did things the way they always had — pushed product out the door early in the fourth quarter, with a definite “early bird gets the worm” mentality.

The early bird didn’t. The big winners were Universal and Buena Vista, which waited until December — until the waning days of the holiday shopping season — to release a pair of big titles: Seabiscuit and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Both titles turned out to be runaway hits, affirming the notion that DVD is a commodity business and that many movies are purchased on impulse — or when someone is already in the buying mode.

You can rest assured that in the fourth quarter of this year, December will be a busy, busy month.

This year began with most studios holding off on high-profile product until February or March. Universal and MGM jumped the gun and voila — can you say “mega hit?”

Universal’s American Wedding came out Jan. 2, when New Year’s revelers were still battling their hangovers, and scored big, selling some 3 million units in just three days. Out of Time and Uptown Girls came out a few days later, on Jan. 6, and first-week selloff was reported at 70 percent, putting MGM in the unique position of having to ship reorders.

Again, wait until January 2005.

Most recently, Universal again broke the mold when it went ahead and issued Lost in Translation on DVD Feb. 3, even though the film’s awards buzz had extended its theatrical stay. The result, as Stephanie Prange writes in this week’s Video Store Magazine, was that the film generated an additional $10 million at the box office while selling 1.5 million DVDs, all between the time the Golden Globes were announced and the Oscar nominations came out.

You already know what I’m going to say.

The point to all of this is that our business is changing as we speak, and what worked in the past isn’t necessarily the best path to follow in the future. It will be interesting to see which other rules are broken, which traditions fall by the wayside, as we move forward with 2004.

It should be an interesting year, and one in which a lot of lessons are learned — sometimes, the hard way.


4 Mar, 2004

Sometimes Watching the Making of the Film Is Better Than the Film Itself

I admit it: I'm addicted to the requisite bonus material included in most theatrically-based DVD releases.

Last summer, I rented Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, two 2002 films from Steven Spielberg that offer above-average behind-the-scenes stuff.

Quite by accident — since the discs were difficult to distinguish between — I watched the bonus material DVD from Report and Catch Me prior to the actual movies.

And in the process, I opened a Pandora's box of entertainment that has altered ever since the way I watch home video.

The more of the bonus material I watch, the less I want to watch the actual movies. To be sure, I did watch and enjoy Report, but not so with Catch Me, in which the bonus material actually trumped the movie.

Notably, “Frank Abagnale: Between Reality and Fiction,” in which the actual Abagnale sheds light on Leonardo DiCaprio's character that turned manipulation and deception into an art form, and “Deconstructing Minority Report, in which an assembly of scientific minds over a weekend debates the universe Tom Cruise' character “Detective John Anderton” inhabits.

Growing up, I remember my Mom, a voracious reader, used to digest books from the back. She told me it saved time.

I once read an interview with Sean Penn in which he bemoaned the existence of “The making of” specials that regularly sprout on TV prior to launch of a major theatrical release.

Among a plethora of evils, not limited to the assault on the viewer's thought and imagination, Penn believed the TV programs diminished a story's creative process.

And I agree. The reality of filmmaking has superseded a film's intended purpose to tell a story.

Have I become so enamored with this “reality” that the story is immaterial?

I'm afraid so.