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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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15 Mar, 2002

WORKING WEEKEND: Dissin' in the wind

All that seemed to be missing was comic provocateur John Belushi bellowing, "food fight," then running for cover while the combatants engaged in cross-fire.

In the dustup that's been occurring the last couple weeks at Senate hearings on copy protection of entertainment properties, though, it wasn't errant undergrads at odds, but the gods of the West Coast north and south tossing off thunderbolts like so many schoolboy spitballs.

In one corner was Michael Eisner, as formidable and successful a CEO as this country has known in recent decades. Just ask Wall Street, investors and the millions of happy Disney consumers worldwide. In another corner was Andy Grove, Intel-lectual icon of Silicon Valley who's the brains behind the brains inside computers – chips that get faster by the nanosecond. With a battle royale like this, folks, who the heck needs Tonya Harding getting it on with Paula Jones.

At issue is whether the high-tech heavyweights, embodied by Grove & Co., owe protection – the copyright kind -- to the software strongholds, epitomized by Eisner and his cast of content conglomerateurs.

Basically, the content crew is fed up – and filled with fear -- over its movies and music getting intercepted and dispersed cost-free on the digital superhighway paved by the Internet, recordable PC drives and other digital media,. It wants the tech types to build adequate anti-copy circuitry into PCs, DVD players and MP3 music players to thwart even casual copiers.

"Is it the responsibility of the world at large to protect an industry whose business model is facing a strategic challenge?" groused Grove, I suspect rhetorically, in an interview with The New York Times.

Eisner, in a curious analogy, compared theft of intellectual property like Monsters, Inc. to unlocking gas pumps to let fuel run free. "Honey, want to take in a premium tonight? There's a new one at the Mobilplex I heard is a real gas." The Mouse king further claimed that because the lure of software piracy fuels demand for their machines, PC makers are not eager to create anti-copy technology.

That raises the question of whether the content creators might consider incentivizing the hardware honchos to stimulate R&D on the very anti-piracy technology they so covet. At least that kind of discussion would keep the finger-pointing and name-calling where they belong – in school.

The technologists are disingenuous to cavalierly dismiss out of hand the plausible notion that they bear some responsibility to uphold the copyright integrity of the very software that drives sales of their products. If it wasn't for Hollywood movies, how many DVD players would be in homes today? We'll take a wild guess and say about zero million.

At the same time, the entertainers are being Luddites by insisting theirs is a business model that cannot easily be changed, or is not necessary to change.

The inevitable example was invoked at the hearings of consumers wanting single songs instead of whole albums, driving the music industry to innovate its old ways to monetize the new behavior. There is no direct movie parallel for that, apart from studios producing shorts in addition to feature-length fare, which they are wise to explore in the Internet age. But it also was suggested the time has come for such possible changes as studios' posting movies on the Internet day and date with theatrical release.

Like its core product, feature-length films, Hollywood's basic business model has served it well for 100 years. Why change it now? So it has a chance of being around for another 100.

As the hearings wore on, cooler heads began to control the agenda, thanks to the measured probity of AOL Time Warner's newly anointed CEO Richard Parsons, who with Intel CEO Craig Barrett announced a forthcoming joint "statement of principles" that presumably will be the first step toward a d?tente between the hardliners on both the hardware and software fronts.

Should the government step in to enforce video piracy laws, or should the studios have to pursue civil remedies at their own expense to protect their copyrights? Tell us here.

14 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: USA Home Entertainment Dissolves: One Less Voice in the Marketplace

The news this week that Universal Studios Home Video will begin taking over distribution of USA Films home video releases and that USA Home Entertainment will be dissolved, leading to the layoff of some 20 people, was not unexpected. Since the announcement that Vivendi Universal acquired USA Networks' entertainment assets, such a merger seemed a foregone conclusion.

But I must say I kept hoping against hope the little supplier would survive, even as I regularly pressed Joe Amodei, president of USA Home Entertainment, for a signal as to his division's own fate, and he graciously and good-naturedly declined to comment each time.

The reason I say so is that I always wonder about the true impact on any entertainment industry (TV, movies, book publishing) when consolidation leads to one more small, independent provider becoming the proverbial newest notch on a media behemoth's belt. I understand that the Vivendi Universal purchase of USA's entertainment holdings for $10 billion is no small transaction and that USA Films and other properties will continue to have their brands intact. But as far as home video, there will no longer be a focused team promoting and developing USA home video product, (or at least, one would expect, not to the extent it currently enjoys).

Outside of the home video industry, the move will likely not be noticed. The brand of USA Home Entertainment would not register with most consumers. However, I would speculate that consumers and, of course, retailers will feel the result of this consolidation. I wonder how much bandwidth and focus Universal Studios Home Video has to spare not only on USA Films, but on its sports product and other special interest fare, on the limited theatrical genre/direct-to-video films it was acquiring. The NFL, NHL and NBA deals are certainly worth focusing on, but so are such diverse fare as the dance videos featuring Savion Glover, or unique items like Happy Holidays From Bing & Frank, a color reappearance of a 1957 TV special that is planned. Not to mention a host of genre films in acquisition.

As a purely practical matter the thought that, perhaps, we will not see the level of sales promotion of product that would have come out of USA Home Entertainment—not to mention maybe less product altogether—means that video stores and consumers will have that much less to retail and to rent between the hits, so to speak. It's this product that keeps the rental business going. The concern here is that any media consolidation of smaller providers into larger ones just means one less player to push new ideas and programming, one less source of energy for the industry.

I have no business case studies to support this concern. And I don't disagree that this particular consolidation may, in fact, be the right thing to do. I always, however, lament the loss of another voice in the marketplace.

12 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Whose job is it to herd Hollywood's scapegoats?

I don't download music or movies, mainly because when a friend demonstrated Napster for me a couple of years ago I found the experience slightly less rewarding than watching paint dry. I also don't want RAMpig programs cluttering my computer.

That said, I am dead set against the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), which would require entertainment hardware and computer manufacturers to put a standardized copy protection system in all their gadgets.

My colleague Stephanie Prange argues we need such a law because people won't pay for what they can get for free, then in the same breath notes that if her acquaintances couldn't download free music off the Web, they would do without. Can somebody tell me how the music industry loses money on that?

The music industry has a substantially different beef from movie studios. Its only legitimate income is from distributing live and digitized content. When Napster was born, that content was already on the market. Movie studios, however, milk every penny from a series of release windows. Their organizational structures are built around them. And there's nothing wrong with that if it's how they want to do business. But SSSCA ignores a few key points.

For one thing, Warner's sister AOL facilitates file sharing on its Instant Messenger system and Sony subsidiaries produce movies on the one hand and home entertainment systems on the other. Both companies pit their content businesses against their delivery systems and make money on both ends. What's wrong with this picture?

I'll grant there will always be people trying to get something for nothing. Capitalism's mantra is "whatever the market will bear." A couple of hundred years ago a guy named Adam Smith, credited as one of the first economists, posited the theory of "the invisible hand." If prices get too high, the theory goes, an "invisible hand" will intervene, godlike, to bring prices down to what consumers will pay. Our economy has pretty much counted on it ever since, but this time the invisible hand is called Morpheus.

Entertainment has grown from a cottage industry to an empire in about the same time it took Rome and Great Britain to grow from tiny nations to worldwide empires. Those empires both fell because the holdings that made them fat had grown beyond the reach of their leaders' centralized control. I'm sensing a theme here.

At the recent Capitol Hill hearing on SSSCA, Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner and Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti lamented that movies are circulating on the Internet before anyone has collected one ticket fee at a movie theater.

Uh, guys, excuse me, but if those movies haven't been in theaters yet, where do you suppose the hackers are getting them? Have you started letting people onto your sets with Handycams? No, according to the U.S. Attorney's office and U.S. Customs officials, your own employees -- even some on Mahogany Row -- are supplying the pristine (Eisner's word) content the file traders trade.

If I bought a ticket to a movie and then lost it before getting into the theater, the studios wouldn't buy me another one. Why should taxpayers and consumers pay for the big tickets Hollywood loses? If they're so worried about risk and ROI, let's talk about Final Fantasy and Curse of the Jade Scorpion. The pirates aren't even watching those pricey pooches for free.

This SSSCA debate is starting to sound suspiciously like taxation without representation. Call me a rebel, but I don't want my tax dollars paying for government agents to spy on my computer activity and hunt down cats the studios have let out of the bag. It's not our responsibility to pay for their security breaches. Unless we think that's really more important than looking for trivial things like, say, terrorists and anthrax.

America was founded on mercenary capitalism and for decades the studios have made billions on it. So now, when the studios insist on wearing red coats and marching in the open in straight lines, why is it a surprise that file traders resort to guerrilla tactics?

Face it, folks, this is the New American Revolution -- and we know who won the last one.

Should the government step in to enforce video piracy laws, or should the studios have to pursue civil remedies at their own expense to protect their copyrights? Tell us here.

11 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Why Doesn't the Record Business Take a Cue From the Video Business and Offer More Bang for the Buck?

Retailers at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention this weekend were quick to praise DVD and the studios and heap criticism on the record companies.

The CD, they said, costs about the same as a DVD, but the DVD offers so much more -- sound, pictures and extras. This begs the question: Why not offer more with audio recordings, namely more video?

While cassettes and CDs took at hit in 2001, according to the Recording Industry Association of America -- dropping 40.8 percent and 6.4 percent in units shipped from 2000, respectively -- music DVDs as a category took off. The segment grew 139.4 percent in units shipped in the same time period, from 3.3 million units in 2000 to 7.9 million units in 2001. While the growth is impressive, it seems the record companies could be doing so much more. Heck, DreamWorks Home Entertainment sold about 8 million DVD units of the record-setter Shrek alone.

Music video has been an afterthought at record companies. It never really took off on VHS, but DVD seems much more palatable to the record-buying audience. First of all, it looks like a CD. Second, you can skip around from one song to another, like you can do with a CD. And third, the numbers speak for themselves; the category grew while the traditional packaged album forms shrank.

Record companies could offer the kind of extras prevalent on DVD movies -- interviews, bios, behind-the-scenes footage – with more of their releases. Since half the music world wants to direct or act anyway, my guess is they would probably jump at the chance. While video-on-demand is coming, it's much less accessible than audio file-sharing – the bane of the music industry over the last few years. Music videos could act as a bulwark against further erosion in that arena.

Rather than returning to the shrinking well of audio recordings, record companies might find solace in the very business their music retail customers are hailing –- video.

10 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Hollywood Did Something Right

Hollywood, it appears, has finally done something right.

The tension between music retailers and record companies at the annual NARM convention in San Francisco, now underway, is as thick as cold butter.

The whole downloading mess could have been averted, angry retailers say, had record companies not stubbornly refused to even consider lower price points for CDs.

Indeed, over the last few years the suggested list prices of new releases has inched upward, from $17.98 to $18.98 and, just recently, $19.98.

Not only that, but unlike in the video industry, these prices tend to stay high as long as the CD is in print. “Repricing” is a foreign concept to record companies, except in very rare instances.

As a result, music dealers say, it's getting increasingly hard to make money in this business of selling prepackaged music. Even if you deep-discount new releases, as many retailers inevitably do, the catalog titles -- the stuff you're hoping the customer will buy once you've lured him or her into the store with the promise of picking up the latest Britney Spears album for $12 -- are still averaging close to 20 bucks a pop.

“This is the only business I can think of where new releases, which sell anyway, are discounted, while catalog titles are priced higher,” said one disgruntled record-store owner, trying to make sense of it all. “What opportunity is there for incremental sales?”

These same record retailers, who are quick to bash record companies as Evil Empires, have nothing but kind words about DVD pricing.

“Those guys knew what they were doing,” one retailer said to me last night at a cocktail party. He noted that DVDs are priced low out of the gate, effectively the same as a CD, and yet the customer gets “so much more.”

“He gets a movie that cost millions of dollars to make, not a CD some band recorded in its garage,” this retailer said. “And then there's all the extras, the interviews, the documentaries. On CDs, there's none of that.”

Music retailers also praise the studios for consistently chopping the price of catalog titles—to the point where one analyst predicted most older movies would sell for $10 or even less by the end of this year.

If the record companies would only take a cue from their video peers, the prevailing sentiment at the NARM show goes, the music industry wouldn't be in such a fix. The whole downloading revolution started, I've been constantly reminded, because consumers were sick and tired of shelling out $20 for a CD on which they may only like one or two songs. Such a risk is worth gambling $10 or $12, but $20? No way -- particularly when for pennies more, you can get a brand-spanking-new DVD of a hot new movie.

“The video guys really handled this thing right,” one record company executive confided to me. “And we've blown it so bad.”

I have to concur. My own CD buying has ground to a halt, unless I can find something I like in the “cutout,” or bargain, bins. Meanwhile, DVD prices are so attractive I keep wanting to add to my collection, even though it's already spilled into my laundry room.

Say what you will about Hollywood; with DVD, the studios have done the right thing. Our current system of DVD pricing couldn't be more ideal to grow, nurture and develop a fan base for a new format. Thank God, no one's talking about changing that—at least, not openly.

8 Mar, 2002

WORKING WEEKEND: Broadband Takes the ‘Sub' Way

Remember the membership fees charged by video rentailers? They're back. This time they're subscriptions, and they are the preferred business model for the technology that hovers like a dark cloud over packaged media.

Broadband, anyone?

It's not just broadband. Take Netflix, the online DVD rental service that is ready for its close-up with a newly-minted initial public offering to raise more than $100 million. Netflix "members" pay a flat rate of $19.95 a month for all-you-can-rent as long as no more than three titles are out at any one time.

Everywhere you look online, there's the "s" word, for subscription. TiVo, the digital video recorder company, is hiking its rate $3 to $12.95 a month ($250 for a lifetime sub) and has tallied 380,000 subscribers at the $9.95 rate, with another quarter-million subs projected by January 2003.

Sony, about to make a play for online gaming via PlayStation2, already has seen the power of a subscription model with its EverQuest online role-playing game for PCs. It's reported that 400,000 subscribers pay $10 monthly to play EverQuest whenever they want.

Director David Lynch -- the mastermind behind Eraserhead, Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks -- just launched his own Web site with the disclaimer that because it is sans advertising he has no choice but to charge, what else? 10 bucks a month. Is there a pattern here?

You can decide for yourself if this Web site is compelling enough to attract a Lynch mob (of, say, 400,000 or so), by clicking on davidlynch.com.

Having paid a cursor-y visit myself to the Lynch burg in cyberspace, it's hard to say if it's worth a tenspot every 30 days without actually signing up, which I declined to do for now. What's easier to say is it offers further evidence that ambitious online entertainment like this must be experienced on a high-speed Internet broadband connection, unless you are a retiree with infinite patience who thinks waiting for slow downloads is more fun than watching water boil. One way to describe the difference experiencing the Internet with a phone modem versus broadband is "trickle or treat."

If you're wondering whether the recurring talk of broadband breaking through "this year" is a remake of the video-on-demand perennial predictions, it's not.

Because the Internet has become a quality-of-life staple for the masses, and because broadband brings a quantum upgrade in that quality, high-speed digital connections are quickly replacing dial-up modems.

Nielsen/NetRatings just announced that January 2002 was the first month broadband usage – at 1.2 billion hours – accounted for more than half of all time spent online. It was a 64 percent increase from the 727 million broadband hours counted in January 2001, which was 38 percent of all online time that month.

"Broadband usage has hit mainstream," reads the sound bite served up by Nielsen.

Maybe so, but I just had a field day with another brand of broadband -- 20th Century Fox's DVD of Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, hitting the street this Tuesday. The group-grope commentary track is rather rambunctious but fun, with one participant even suggesting at the end they go back and re-record the commentary for the first few scenes, when they were still nervous. Luhrmann nixes that idea.

Plus, there are "galleries" from the director, cinematographer and designers; two music videos; script-to-screen excerpts; and interviews. Oh, yeah, and the movie is real cool, too. Put all that in your Internet pipe and smoke it.

7 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Making A List for Christmas in July -- Or Even Sooner

Ah, Christmas in July. Always music to a retailer's ears. In the home video realm, Christmas this year will actually kick off in May and pretty much extend into the fall holiday selling season without a hitch.

As I noted in this column last November, when Harry Potterplanted his home video flag all else would become clear. And so it has, as Monsters Inc. has now separated itself from the summer frenzy surrounding the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone May 28 video debut (along with a considerable slate of other major movies, but more on that in a minute) and selected the more sedate post-back-to-school, pre-holiday sales period to make its considerable mark Sept. 17. And of course, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring lurks offstage somewhere for a probable July/August appearance. (Some say look for a "vanilla" DVD version first followed by a collector's DVD(s) edition released in November in advance of the second movie and in time for the holidays.)

So, Harry will launch us into one of the busiest summers anticipated in some years, Frodo will give the dog days of summer a fresh breeze and Sully will take us into the holiday sales period with a roar. Top it off with DVD's continued huge push into U.S. households this year and it gives me the shivers just thinking about the second half of this year.

The Memorial Day period is indeed shaping up as another major holiday selling season, as Ralph Tribbey, Video Store Magazine contributing editor and editor of the DVD Release Report, said in his Feb. 27 issue. Again, in the Memorial Day weekend period Harry Potter is the black hole into which all video revenues disappear, certainly any family video revenues, which is why the new theatrical titles anticipated for launch around that time frame, with the exception of Disney's Snow Dogs (May 21) and Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (late June perhaps?) are more adult fare. Here's an anticipated slate of just some of the $40+ million in theatrical titles planned for May and June. Mix into these some strong catalog promotions many of the studios plan for the same time frame, not to mention other strong performers such as I am Sam, Orange County, John Q., Mothman Prophecies, and these two months could get very hot indeed.

Ocean's Eleven (May 7)
The Others (May 14)
Snow Dogs (May 21)
Vanilla Sky (May 21)
Harry Potter (May 28)

Shallow Hal (June 4) )
A Beautiful Mind (not announced)
Black Hawk Down (na)
The Royal Tenenbaums (na)
Kate & Leopold (na)

I am a list person and this is some list. It's an early Christmas present to video retailers everywhere, so make sure to make your list and check it twice.

5 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: The Geeks Don't Want No Tweaks

I'm a firm believer in the copyright system and the need to protect intellectual property from poaching. Still, it's tough to sympathize with a multibillion-dollar industry that keeps promising video-on-demand (VOD) and can't seem to bring it.

When will the studios learn? It's a fact of online nature: Geeks abhor a technology vacuum. So while studios dawdle and hem and haw over how they will deliver their wares via the Internet, a few teenagers and Generation Xers just sat down and did it.

First came Napster, which programmers will tell you is not a complicated program, as programs go. Sean Fanning was not yet 20 when he designed it. Even detractors admire its simplicity.

Then, as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing Napster nearly into oblivion, someone across the pond figured out how to trade files on a distributed network. That led to KaZaA, Morpheus, Gnutella, Grokster, MusicCity and the other services that let users trade music, movies and more.

While studios natter and fret about how those services let users trade files without paying, you don't hear much about, say, Time Warner suing AOL over the Instant Messenger feature that lets users do the same thing. Could that be because the monthly AOL subscriber fee generates more income for the overarching company than VOD ever will?

This probably won't change in the foreseeable future. Studios will continue spending huge sums in an effort to penalize people they should be hiring. Some observers have questioned whether this is about profits or egos. Could the whole situation turn around if studios stopped protecting their old boy network and started hiring the upstarts, whose products are popular as much because they are user-friendly as because they are free?

When VCRs first hit the market, studios were outraged at what they perceived as a huge threat to copyrights and profits. While they have had a few rocky times with copyrights, video has been the cash cow that let studios grow into media conglomerates.

Now the studios fear Internet pirates will damage or destroy that revenue stream. If you judge by this, studios seem to believe anything that threatens the status quo is bad.

I think a Pricewaterhouse Coopers study on the future of the entertainment media, published late last year, was right: This is about more than just delivering the goods on demand. The digital age will force studios to reorganize their entire structures, which are built around release windows. VOD will stand that model on its ear because, as PWC's analysts pointed out, they lose control of their content much faster in the digital age.

Studios can continue to spend piles of money to thwart digital pirates but the fact is, the pirates are way ahead of them. As soon as the studios catch up to the latest development, the pirates will launch a counterstrike and take their technology a step further.

When an Australian company called Sharman bought Morpheus a few weeks ago, a message on the Morpheus Web site promised its designers were on to bigger and better things.

I believe them. By the time the studios, Motion Picture Association of America and RIAA dispense with Napster, Morpheus and millions of dollars in legal fees, those services will be obsolete anyway, eclipsed by their own designers with newer, faster, more user friendly and, you can bet, more elusive successors.

3 Mar, 2002

THE MORNING BUZZ: Comparing Apples To Hotcakes

Let's start the week with talk of a little controversy triggered by market research director Judith McCourt's article in this week's Video Store Magazine. Using VideoScan data, McCourt claims DVD sales "exploded in January, accounting for almost two-thirds of the total DVD and VHS units sold."

Nothing controversial there. The numbers don't lie, since VideoScan estimates are based on point-of-sale data from actual retailers.

What raised some eyebrows is McCourt's contention that the top-selling DVD of January, Universal's The Fast and The Furious, sold five times as many units as the top-selling VHS cassette, Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. An angry letter-writer accused Judith of comparing apples to oranges, noting The Fast and The Furious came out at the beginning of the month and Atlantis came out at the end of the month and thus any sales comparisons are unfair.

That's not the point. Judith was comparing the top-selling DVD with the top-selling VHS. Atlantis may only have been in the sales cycle for a few days, but the fact remains that it outsold every other VHS cassette released that month, including titles that streeted much earlier-around the same time as The Fast and The Furious.

And if you take a look at January sales of videos that streeted in the fourth quarter, day-and-date on DVD and sellthrough VHS, you'll notice what to me is a most surprising trend. Invariably, the DVD outsold the videocassette.

Specifically, the DVD of Pearl Harbor in the month of January outsold the VHS version by a margin of 2.17 to 1. The DVD of Rush Hour 2 outsold the cassette by a margin of 1.95 to 1. And the DVD of Shrek outsold the VHS version by a margin of 1.16 to 1. The only film to buck this trend was The Princess Diaries, of which 1.56 cassettes were sold to every one disc.

As for total sales numbers, the ratio is as Judith stated: two-thirds of video sales in the month of January came from DVD, while just one-third came from VHS.

The fact that all DVDs are priced for sellthrough out of the gate is certainly a key factor. But it's also true that the DVD consumer has a much more voracious appetite than the VCR owner. And with all those cheap under-$200 players flooding the market during the holiday season, DVDs are selling like the proverbial hotcakes.

1 Mar, 2002

WORKING WEEKEND: Inside <I>The Usual Suspects</I>

"You never know how a movie is going to turn out when you're making it." Those were the words of Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Marisa Tomei the other day on Fox News Channel. She was responding to one of those reliably insipid questions -- "Did you think In the Bedroom would have this effect on moviegoers, many of whom leave the theater devastated?" -- posed by one of those irritating interviewers who litter entertainment telecasts like so many mannequins at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Tomei's curt comment applies equally to DVD extras. Like Forrest Gump's mama aphorized about that box of chocolates, "You never know what you're gonna get."

That makes it all the more enjoyable when an unusually well made "making of" documentary sneaks up on you, as happened while I was watching MGM's Special Edition DVD of The Usual Suspects, due in stores April 2 ($24.98). The DVD also has a lot of other material, including two commentary tracks, deleted scenes and a "gag reel."

As the featurette -- Round Up: Deposing the Usual Suspects -- began to unfold, it seemed the editing was a bit too leisurely, lingering a tad long on the reminiscing of actors like Kevin Pollak and Stephen Baldwin, who provide some sparks off the bat by mildly but unmistakably dissing each other (the interviews were filmed separately and recently). Don't invite them to the same party.

The revered status of the 1995 release, directed by Bryan (X-Men) Singer, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay with high school chum Christopher McQuarrie, seems to have inspired its performers as much as its cult of fans. The result here is an inside look at the production that is at least an order of magnitude more incisive than the happy talk, promotional tone of typical featurettes, epitomized by HBO's First Look series.

The Usual Suspects' filmmakers' extraordinary accomplishment is piloting a plot that goes nowhere, quite literally, yet still keeps the audience entranced and guessing the whole time. Add to that foundation an ensemble of eccentric, beautifully blended performances -- Del Toro decided his character was best understood by being unintelligible and Spacey's gimpy Verbal Kint earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar -- and you have a flaky film that's a favorite because it flouts cinematic convention. Palminteri pushes it a little by calling it "a perfect movie."

That's arguable, but it is true, as he also notes, that multiple viewings of the film reveal varying, even conflicting, interpretations of dialogue, camera shots and scenes. Like an M.C. Escher engraving come to life.

Gabriel Byrne, who comes off as the most charismatic, intense and intellectual of those interviewed, has a few choice words about Hollywood's preference for marketing over storytelling. As you listen to Byrne's scalding remarks, try not to get a sore neck as you briskly nod your head in agreement:

"As long as there are people creatively empowered, there will always be the breaking of the mold. American movies to me, and I've said this before, are becoming more and more homogenous. The marketing objective almost obliterates everything else. It is the lowest common denominator. There's a formulaic predictability to American movies [and that's] allied with the cynicism of the way movies are put together -- the product placement and toys and all kinds of crap that have nothing to do with the telling of stories. They've turned American movies into McMovies. So when the moviegoer gets his movie, it's like a hamburger."

Maybe it's time they replace that golden statuette with golden arches.