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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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31 Aug, 2004

Notes from the Urban Guerilla Network

Many of you may not care, and that may be a problem.

I'm talking about urban film. And I am coming to understand why you don't seem to care, and that's a problem, too.

First of all, urban film is fundamentally misdefined as black and hip-hop. I'm a white girl (see that picture up there?), and I'm not much on hip-hop. My favorite bands these days are Train, Bad Religion and Sister Hazel.

But lately I have been watching a lot of what is defined as urban movies and a lot of what is not.

Let me point out that my colleague and northbound driver Erik Gruenwedel and I have recently traded gigs — really subgigs. For at least the near future, he will cover foreign and arthouse product, and I will cover the urban genre.

So I set out to learn about this stuff, and did I get an education! There is so much more to the urban film genre than it gets credit for.

Let's go back to that misdefinition. Urban film is not all about black people. It is about underclasses and, yes, African-Americans are often among them. But in this country any group — not necessarily individuals — that is not white and male is still an underclass, economically and socially — even by this presidential administration's statistics. It's one of the reasons Dave Chappelle is such a hit: His comedy is black, but the situations are so much more.

All the way back to Melvin Van Peebles, urban film is about underclasses going to the window, like in Paddy Chayevsky's Network, and yelling, on film, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!” It's fundamentally about bucking the power structure and making something different that expresses an otherwise overlooked — or shunned — point of view.

And therein lies the rub: Urban film at its best makes us uncomfortable. Not with gangstas and drug dealers and terrorist cadres and things that are so far from many of our lives, but with the gritty reality of “There but for the grace of God ...”

There's a new person on the beat, so expect me to keep exploring the definition of what is urban. I'll look at the stuff that PR people pass off for urban film — the gangstas and watermelon comedy. But don't expect that to be the end of it.

No wonder you don't care. I'm out to change that.


29 Aug, 2004

VSDA and NARM? Maybe. DVD and Music? Definitely.

Video is becoming an integral part of the music experience and music retail business — a trend made clearer during the recent annual convention of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) in San Diego.

The core business may still be about music, but the media is now as much video as it is audio.

As our coverage of the event in this week's issue of Video Store Magazine shows, music retailers pounded by four straight years of sagging CD sales are excited about a number of trends, not the least of which is the DualDisc format (CD on one side, DVD on the other) and a burgeoning interest in music DVDs. To top it all off, CD sales are on the upswing for the first time since 1999, recording a 9 percent increase year-to-date over last year.

It's very exciting to hear that music DVD sales are running at about double the rate of last year, cresting 15 million units to date so far this year. One music DVD supplier with whom I spoke recently thinks this holiday season will see record numbers of music DVD releases. And as more and more households install home theater and surround sound systems, it could very well be that the demand for music DVDs, which fits so perfectly with the growing home theater trend, will see a breakthrough this season and into 2005. Certainly, NARM attendees are poised to catch this wave, and traditional home video retailers should also be planning to aggressively pursue music DVDs as a growth business.

Another interesting line of discussion at NARM was the development of CD-burning stations in retail outlets. That's a natural service for retailers who want to capture a portion of the legal downloading business that is expected to grow into the billions of dollars in the next several years. Perhaps several years from now, if the legal digital downloading of movies grows to a critical mass, there might be some opportunity for video retailers to offer a similar service to customers who do not have broadband access in their homes — for a fee, of course.

As the Video Software Dealers Association and NARM continue their merger discussions, it will be an interesting exercise for retailers from both industries to explore the commonalities they share and ways each can learn from the other as their businesses continue to meld together as one entertainment software retail industry.

* * *

It's hard to imagine what the disc-based entertainment industry would be like today without the incredible influence of Emiel Petrone, whose sudden passing recently came as a shock to many in the industry.

You can read about his contributions to our industry in this week's issue, but it's safe to say that Petrone's legacy in the development of the CD format, his trailblazing in interactive media with CD-Interactive (which is where I first met him) and his leadership role in DVD as founding chairman of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group will last for many years to come. He will be greatly missed.


26 Aug, 2004

Mass Appeal May Be Dwindling

I had a most eye-opening experience shopping for back-to-school supplies for my two oldest sons, 8 and 6. I made two trips to Target and one to Wal-Mart before I had most of the items on the list, but I was still missing erasable pens and a large pencil box. I dropped by Office Depot on a lark after I got gas at an adjacent service station, and not only did I find both items, but I found everything else I had scavenged from three separate outings neatly displayed and at similar prices.

Next year, I'm going to skip the mass merchants and head straight to Office Depot. I've learned my lesson.

Parallels can be drawn with home entertainment. The mass merchants have a reputation for having everything, at the best prices — particularly new releases, which they deep-discount for a week in an effort to drive traffic into their stores. So far, their strategy has been quite successful — the mass merchants dominate the video sellthrough trade and, according to numbers announced at this week's National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention in San Diego, now own 55 percent of the music retail market as well.

But as DVD continues to make inroads and becomes a true commodity business, will the mass merchants continue their dominance? Items that are readily available — and consumed regularly in significant quantities — aren't generally very price sensitive. I don't know anyone who comparison shops for, say, film or underwear.

Now, let's assume that DVDs continue to drop in price (Warren Lieberfarb's original plan called for the street price to eventually reach about $10). Let's also assume that the collecting habit really kicks off, fueled in large part by this price drop into the impulse-buy range, and people really, truly start buying DVDs the way they used to buy CDs.

The huge high-traffic racks of cheapo new releases won't be as appealing, but stores with broad selections — from Best Buy all the way to independent video stores like Kensington Video in San Diego — will all of a sudden have a new lure to movie buyers, just as Office Depot now does to me when I'm shopping for school supplies (and office supplies, I might add).

We've all heard that consumer behavior is learned — and my recent experience attests to that. But not everyone's a self-learner. Consumers need to be taught. And retailers of all sizes and shapes need to take a long, hard look at whether they're getting their message out.


25 Aug, 2004

LAPD Blue DVD

In April, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), working with the Motion Picture Association of America, arrested four men for possession of more than 5,000 allegedly pirated DVD movies and approximately $5,000 in reproduction equipment.

The arrests followed similar charges filed against two men on separate occasions of illegally recording showings of The Passion and The Alamo in Los Angeles theaters.

The six anonymous defendants could face felony jail sentences due to Hollywood's heightened angst against an indifferent, yet technologically advanced, consumer that thinks nothing of burning and downloading music illegally.

And so it came as somewhat of a surprise last week when Julie Nelson, a 28-year LAPD captain arrested last December and charged with selling pirated DVDs out of a friend's nail salon, pleaded no contest to reduced misdemeanor charges.

Her attorney successfully argued to the judge that Nelson's involvement in her boyfriend's bootleg operation was “very minor,” and “anecdotal,” and coupled with “an unblemished law enforcement career” probably warranted community service, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Had Nelson been convicted of a felony, she would have faced up to seven years in jail and the loss of her job and pension.

Instead, the 52-year-year-old captain is reportedly looking to retire with full benefits and a pension valued at about 90 percent of her current salary.

Blind justice? I doubt it.


23 Aug, 2004

Barbie Rocks!

My 6-year-old daughter watched Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper five times this weekend.

While I have written about the genius of pairing Barbie and video in the past, this weekend it was crystal clear what makes this pairing so potent.

From the minute they enter their first toy store, little girls know Barbie. The Barbie movies, the most recent of which is particularly well-done, reinforce this marketing and propel little girls into the stores looking for the video-themed toys.

My daughter, for one, is obsessed with the new Barbie movie. She sings the songs along with the sing-along feature on the DVD. At the local Target, she begged for the corresponding dolls, which cost more than $100 for the whole set.

That's quite a money-making machine for the Barbie team and quite a tribute to the movie. I've seen my daughter crow about Barbie titles before, but this one has been a true obsession.

Kudos to Lions Gate Entertainment and its Family Home Entertainment label for shepherding such a successful production.


19 Aug, 2004

Broken Fingernails Only Part of My Gripe With DVD Security Packaging

Let me preface this by saying that I'm no retailer, and I'm sure theft costs retailers — and studios, for that matter — a heck of a lot of money. And yet I can't help but feel all these theft-deterrent methods we're hearing about for DVDs amount to overkill. I've said before that those blasted three sides of stickers on DVD cases are harder to crack than the CSS code; I'm having a devil of a time at home right now because I'm on a DVD-viewing binge and am opening up a lot of older titles that have been sitting around my house for several months. I've already broken three fingernails and ruined 30 percent of my cases because the glue seems to get stickier with age and won't separate from the plastic.

Now, in the middle of my rant about this, a press release comes across my desk from Nexpak. The DVD packaging company has come up with something called the Benefit Denial System, aimed at the rental market. The Benefit Denial System, as its name implies, features a locking hub mechanism that must be removed at the point of purchase. From the press release: “Any improper removal of the disc results in the destruction of the disc and the case, thus denying the benefit of theft.”

Denying the benefit of theft. Wow.

I love the folks at Nexpak. I really do. Well, maybe not love, but I do respect them. They've come up with some innovative ways to pack a lot of discs into a small amount of shelf space, and it's nice to see them constantly innovating and coming up with new concepts and ideas.

But excuse me — this nasty little device makes no sense to me. Yes, you deny the thief the benefit of owning the DVD, but you also deny the store owner the benefit of renting it again. It's like a human sacrifice.

Maybe there's an alternative that wouldn't destroy the disc. How about destroying the thief, or at least causing him/her great bodily harm, distress or at least discomfort?

Consider the Eyesight Denial System. A thief tries to pilfer a DVD, and out of locking hub mechanism comes a shot of pepper spray. Or mace.

Or how about the Itchy Rash-Inducing Anti-Theft System. A spray of itching powder like the kind they sell in magic stores is unleashed once the disc is tinkered with, from a tiny pouch embedded in the hub. The thief thinks he's come down with a bad case of poison ivy — and yet all the retailer has to do is carefully wash the DVD and it will be as good as new.

But hey — what do I know? I once tried some “Goof Off” to peel back a particularly nasty and dried sticker on one of my DVDs and wound up permanently staining my pants.


19 Aug, 2004

TV Classics on DVD are a Gift From the Past

Growing up, my sister and I loved to watch “Laverne & Shirley.” When we found ourselves doing something utterly ridiculous together, we would refer to the show. We fell in love with the word “bimbo” thanks to that show. My brothers would roll their eyes and groan whenever we turned that or “I Love Lucy” on, but it was kind of our girlie ritual.

I was on the phone with her the other day telling her about Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams' Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony and party sponsored by Paramount to coincide with its DVD release of Laverne & Shirley - Season One.

It was very cute. A crowd had gathered, and the press was waiting for the event to begin. Someone next to me said: “Oh, that's just perfect” and pointed toward Hollywood Boulevard where Williams and Marshall were jaywalking across the busy street to get to the roped off ceremony area.

What an entrance for the pair.

I told my sister about it, and we started reminiscing about the show, we may even have sung a little bit of the theme song, but I'm not admitting that for sure.

Now this show, to me, doesn't really fit into my TV on DVD mentality — that is, “ I must watch every episode in succession.”

Obviously, the popularity of programs like these stems mainly from the nostalgia. I may never watch the entire DVD set of Laverne & Shirley Season One, but I certainly may pop on an episode when I want to smile and think about old times with my little sister.

I may even sing along with the theme song.


17 Aug, 2004

It's A Conspiracy!

Nothing grabs the public's eyes and ears like a good old-fashioned conspiracy. Only in America would people still be debating, 40 years later, whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or Marilyn Monroe really committed suicide.

That curiosity — and suspicion — should be a great selling tool from now through the November elections. The slate is packed with documentaries, docudramas, historical dramas and more, many of the titles focused on the George W. Bush administration, like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

That title, which has raked in $115 million at the box office so far, has been threatened with everything from copyright lawsuits to fair political practices challenges. Some in the Bush camp contend that advertising the video release would require giving the Bush campaign equal time.

For a while it looked as if the film would not make it to video before the election. We waited impatiently for a date announcement that seemed to be eternally pending (it did finally arrive, the movie is due Oct. 5).

I guess one good (or bad) conspiracy deserves another. Certainly Moore's films tend to point fingers and ask difficult questions. They make some people uncomfortable. But they also get people talking.

Many of the other titles streeting before the election have that whiff of conspiracy, the suspicion that folks aren't telling us all we need to know. Titles like The Hunting of the President (Fox), Horns and Halos (Go Kart and Koch) and Outfoxed (The Disinformation Company) raise questions about what did they know, when did they know it, and why didn't we know it, too?

I like the controversial nature of these movies. I like that they make us scratch our heads and, at their best, do a little more homework before we go to the polls. There are a lot of titles that deal more with the political process than current pols — titles like Docurama's See How They Run and D.A. Pennebaker's great study of campaign hijinks, The War Room, which is about to get another run from Universal.

If I had a store, I would definitely be building a display around these titles. And if I was an indie, I might even come up with a doc-a-week promotion, maybe some kind of punch card that would let customers rent a political title from a list (each dealer would need his own list based on stock) at a reduced rate, based on paying for the card up-front, of course. It's a great way to keep folks coming back to the store and raise the level of debate. And it might be a way to test the feasibility of an in-store subscription offering.

Love 'em or hate 'em, these titles offer a great opportunity to connect with the political process and, just maybe, with customers, too.


16 Aug, 2004

VHS — It's Still Around

Walking through a local Target yesterday, I was surprised to find a good amount of space devoted to VHS inventory. I would say that at least 20 percent of the video shelving featured VHS, especially the kids and Spanish-language sections.

Being in the industry, it's easy for us to get preoccupied with the newer, dominant format of DVD. Certainly there will be times when VHS will go the way of the 8-track tape or beta. But, if you look at Target shelves, the complete move to DVD-only is certainly not in the offing right now.

As DVD players again hit rock-bottom prices this holiday season, the shelves may shift more significantly away from VHS, but currently, it looks as if the VHS cassette market isn't yet gone.

It's interesting that the cassette has hung on as long as it has, while DVD players can be had for $40 or less. Certainly, the confusion over DVD recorder technology hasn't helped (plus, minus — it's very confusing). Consumers have likely held onto that VCR to record TV or play home movies.

In my case, both of our VCRs simply broke, and we decided not to replace them. But, judging by the shelves at Target, there are plenty of working machines still out there and many consumers willing to pay to buy pre-recorded programming for them.


12 Aug, 2004

A Bad Taste Left By Late Fees

I drove by a Blockbuster Video store the other day and noticed that the chain's new subscription service is really pumped. Huge ads are posted in virtually every window, extolling this virtue and that virtue: “Unlimited rentals” … “No extended rental fees.”

That got me to thinking back when I first started renting videos in the 1980s. A long-haired rocker, I wasn't exactly your early riser. Nor was I the most responsible person in the world. I'll never forget bringing back Blue Velvet two weeks later and having to pay “late fees” of $32.

I felt like a crumb, sort of like I did one day not too many years before that when I parked my car in a tow-away zone, got towed and had to schlep over to the impound yard and pay some ungodly figure for every day my car had been there. Lesson learned — I never parked in a tow-away zone again. And after my Blue Velvet experience, I went to great pains to return videos after one, two, maybe three days. I still got slapped with a late fee every now and then, but while I realized I had only myself to blame it still made my blood boil.

“How dare these miscreants penalize me for bringing one of their damn movies back a day later, when they've probably already made their money back many times over?” I thought to myself, shaking my head at the shabby, somewhat faded, clearly well-used box of Swedish Erotica Vol. 23.

Looking back at those carefree days of my (relative) youth, I can't help but think how differently I would have felt had Blockbuster simply imposed a daily rental rate rather than implementing an ominous-sounding “late fee.” Even the current euphemism — “extended rental fee” — sounds punitive, like I overextended myself, couldn't bring the video back on time and now, guess what? They're going to make me pay.

I think about all the troubles Blockbuster is now facing, and how the overall rental business is down by double digits and the only way some retailers are paying the bills is by relying more and more on used-DVD sales and trades.

I'm not saying that late fees stopped me from renting, but they certainly left me with a bad taste. And as soon as there was an alternative — which to me was the advent of sellthrough — I bought what I could and watched what I bought. I still remember buying an old boxing biopic for $9.98. There were tons of movies I would have rather watched, but by then I was sick and tired of running against the clock and having to face some pimply clerk who would sneeringly me inform me I owed $3 or $6 or $9 in late fees.

I know rental dealers in general, and Blockbuster in particular, have committed many blunders. But as far as I'm concerned, the whole “late fee” concept was one of the worst.