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Where Are the Big Titles?

Big demand, letterboxed laserdisc now a collectable, hey, Paramount, where's

Some thoughts on the non-presence on DVD shelves of some movies you may have heard of ... Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Godfather 1 & 2, E.T., etcetera:

Savant's heaviest mail topic is anxiety over the availability of titles. Whether you bought your DVD player off the boat in 1997 or just got a new one home expecting to see all your favorite pictures, the first thing you found out is, hey, no Star Wars. No Indiana Jones. All the major DVD sites have items labeled 'Missing in Action' or 'Most Wanted Titles'. Savant's own fearless leader Steve Tannehill at The DVD Resource Page is a vocal advocate when it comes to urging, coaxing, shaming, and bludgeoning studios into a hightened awareness of attitudes down here at the consumer level. But Savant thinks maybe he can add some other elements into the stew, having been associated with at least three video companies and knowing a bit about the reality of the situation.

This unavailability of killer titles is a justified gripe. You really want to see Movie X, but all you hear is that Lucas may not be putting it out before Halley's Comet comes back, or Spielberg is waiting until the DVD player market swells to some giant number. That's not good enough. You get mad. Not mad enough to get violent, but enough to start writing Emails and letters.

Savant has seen what happens to consumer mail at studios, and it isn't pretty. Because video production is not exactly on the same crucial safety level as, say, baby food, the studios don't maintain personnel to read and evaluate consumer mail. The days are long gone when a fan letter would get you an autographed photo. In the sixties I once received a personal response from a production designer with a whole pack of stills on a film I gushed over. Nowadays, requests for stills and posters are coldly ignored. All such material and even the images on it are studio assets that can be marketed: in studio stores, etc.

From what Savant knows of how studios handle consumer mail, it would take a mass groundswell of opinion to get a certain title released. I'll bet this is happening right now with certain films, like The Princess Bride (a title for which no executive is going to object to a release, admittedly). I cannot imagine consumer opinion would steer a basic policy in a different direction. Why? Because these are marketing executives in charge. The big studios base their every move on what will produce the biggest and most consistent profit. Consumer desires are only a small part of the formula. The game is marketing effectiveness, not pleasing movie fans. They don't release DVDs because they love movies or anything. It's business.

Savant bought his player late in '97 when I saw MGM was going to come out with a new James Bond film every month. Then MGM immediately suspended them! The releases re-start this Fall, to coincide with the new theatrical Bond film, The World is Not Enough, but boy, what a burner that was.

There are several well-reasoned arguments about why titles are withheld:

#1 - The Market is Too Puny for our Wonderful Movies.

This theory holds that a big title like Jurassic Park or Star Wars costs just as much to market to a buyer base of a million as it does to a base of 20 million. Either of these titles might swell the ownership base by millions, but each big-title owner would rather let the other guy do the hard job of building the market and then step in to reap the profits. Paramount and Fox have already done this. After everyone agreed to start all at once in March of 1997, they delayed their entry more than a full year and let the other boys do all the work of launching DVD.

Remember, the big Studios want big sales. That's why all their effort went into VHS, with almost nothing spent on Laserdiscs. Described as a niche market, a vanity business for the industry elite, lasers cost twice as much as they should and took ten years to really offer a range of titles comparable with VHS. More Americans took up remote control model planes than bought laserdisc players ... business-wise, there was never any mass-market potential in the format.

The big Studios aren't looking to 'just break' even on anything - they want home runs. Home Video executives don't have to make a profit to succeed, they have to get their pictures on the cover of Business Week. DVD was molded into the needs of the studios from the beginning (region coding, etc.). This is obvious in their interest in a not-to-be-mentioned-by-name defunct rent/own rival format, that they balked at releasing copies of their movies in a home format so good it rivalled a theatrical experience for quality.

This isn't griping or spite or some anti-business diatribe. If I were a stockholder I'd want the companies to do exactly what they're doing. The marketing executives I saw in action did a terrific job maximizing the profits, which is exactly what they're supposed to do. It's reality. When Savant was asked to suggest titles for release, all I had to offer them were movies that obviously were not going to be big sellers. Restoring Kiss Me Deadly was a positive and laudable effort for both Savant and MGM, but sales of the resulting VHS's and Laserdiscs still didn't make the title a hot DVD prospect. Ten thousand Film Noir fans do not a consumer base make, sayeth the wise.

Also consider the nature of the product. Videos aren't the same as baby food or any other product requiring research and legal muscle to ward off lawsuits. Lives are not at stake if a video should turn out a little fuzzy, at least not in the same way a poorly manufactured auto tire might be. And unless someone wins one of those threatened suits saying such-and-such a movie is responsible for crimes or something, those costs just aren't going to be a problem. A film's potential for Home Video is determined largely by its theatrical track record ... its advertising requires less research and thought. The only major decision is what kind of picture to put on the box, really. Home Video marketing exec's spend their time thinking up tiresome-sounding 'collections' and groupings of videos that are remarkably, frustratingly effective at maximizing sales. 'Growing' the market by trying to interest viewers in unusual movies is a known dead-end. Studio libraries are full of films whose audiences will always be small, and therefore undesirable to market to. The breadth of the libraries may have to wait for some future on-demand delivery system to really become available.

#2 - Getting the Attention of the Critical People.

This is about mogul availability. The Spielbergs and Lucases, and a lot of lesser luminaries, are dancing as fast as they can to run their various interests and empires. The Big Two, and maybe James Cameron, are bigger than DVD, bigger than studios, in fact. They care deeply about the quality of what they do and demand to be personally involved in the follow-thru. This limits what they can accomplish, and they probably have 200 projects on their back burners, with 'the DVD release of Jaws', just one of them. This is what makes a 1941 reconstruction take five years (or more). It's four years and six months of waiting for the opportunity for key people to address the situation.

If all this seems unreasonable, consider that the average big company turning out any major national product might have hundreds of employees assigned to a particular project. The average Big Studio Home Video company might have 20 salesmen and ten more packaging production people, but only 5 or 6 real key personnel who actually know about tech issues and produce the discs. The rest of the staff might bring the division up to a hundred head or more, but most of them are paper-pushers. The real core creatives are very few in number, and can only do so much, even when the physical work is being farmed out. In other words, to keep costs down, the average Home Video department is tiny. For the studios, these are profit centers where ways of trimming the bottom line are very important. The staffer who finds a way to save a quarter-cent per unit on packaging costs will get the promotion . . . there aren't any paid film aesthetes in the halls, believe me. Uh uh.

#3 - Playing the Market.

The studios sight their target audiences and know how to get the maximum return from their marketing dollar (remember, marketing a video or a DVD is not cheap). Rather than flood the stores with product, the new titles are meted out. In this way a small staff can work hard to output a steady trickle of product ... the department stays small, and the new title flow guarantees that the consumer will always have the 'tease' of what's coming next. The DVD buyer base is on perpetual tenterhooks awaiting the next new goodie to snatch up. If their favorites aren't there they'll buy what's available. Every merchant facing a crowd of anxious customers at his door knows how foolish it would be to put the best goods out first!

#4 - DVD is a Threat to our Library.

This seems to refer mostly to Disney and their animation classics. Disney has always considered their animated product to be in a category of its own; in some ways they are absolutely right. Before 1970 I don't think I ever saw a Disney Technicolor print that visually didn't put most other movies to shame. Disney animation definitely was in its own category when you consider that the studio reissued the movies theatrically forever in seven-year cycles. Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo were reissued in the 1980's - how many 1940's films do you see bringing in millions in bookings today? Of course they're special.

Disney's reluctance to put their key titles into DVD must be a core policy decision. Their animation titles in video on VHS and Laser were released in limited time windows instead of staying available indefinitely, making them all the more collectable and 'special.' Here in Los Angeles, major rental stores often didn't keep the Disney animation titles for rent because they'd be stolen! Now that's a good definition of special.

Perhaps Disney's balk at the DVD gate is due to dissatisfaction with their Laser and VHS results. Maybe DVD quality has Disney convinced that once they release a title, the potential of piracy is so great, safeguards or no, that the title will go into the 'practical public domain' of being out of Disney control. Disney maximizes their revenue as ravenously as does any studio; Savant believes they must be afraid of the format itself.

Now just so you don't think Savant is apologizing for anyone, I too think it kind of stingy to so obviously withhold these big titles from DVD. I don't believe theories like Spielberg holding out for a proprietary edge in the audio system DTS. I do think that special situations exist, like that of David Lynch, who knows (Savant bets) full well that his cult pantheon status is helped by the non-availability of his titles. A LOT of people know who Lynch is, have never seen his films, and consider him a Legend.

Savant is actually very positive on the prospects of DVD. HDTV discs are not even on the horizon yet, really. Now that that rival format is toast, maybe the floodgates of new product will open wider. The big studios have to realize that the product gap is being filled by all those start-up companies, many of whom have been doing a really wonderful job digging up fringe titles and genre oddities. DVD will have no problem, it seems, matching Laser for cult interest.

So Savant says to keep writing the letters and Emails and keep hammering away at the websites. Steve Tannehill, along with other outspoken DVD voices on the web, actually do a service as a conscience-thumping cattle prod to the companies, by distilling and passing along the market desires. Many executives do look to these pages to feel the 'mood on the street,' even if they might not admit to doing so. So writing letters to the studios CAN help, but perhaps the healthy readership base of DVD advocacy pages is the biggest help of all.

The heck with E.T. We want GORGO!

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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