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DVD Grumbles -
The HOT DOG Theories

Sierra Charriba of Major Dundee cooks another frustrated DVD fan over the slow fire ...

Why don't studios answer email? Why don't they release what we want to see?
Introducing the annoying
HOT DOG analogy.

In 1980, one of the first film companies to try its library out on home video was Disney. I think the first titles I rented were betamax tapes of Dumbo and a pan'n scan, cut version of The Wild Bunch. Two decades later, it took Disney over a year to decide whether to get into DVD at all, and only after the dismal example it set by buying into DIVX.

Everything about DVD is a new animal, and much of what has been editorialized about the format discusses DVD as if it existed in a vaccum inhabited only by DVD fans and DVD providers. The fans want to see everything on DVD a.s.a.p., in the correct format, with the right extras, and for the right price. In their view, the providers' job is to come through with the merchandise. The whole first two years of DVD bulletin board buzz read as one big I WANT: while at MGM, I regularly received long emails from fans listing dozens of titles they expected MGM to put out yesterday, 'and they better look good.' One earnest writer included a list of practically the entire MGM library.

The news this quarter is that DVD is being touted as the most successful product launch in history, bigger than CD music and faster than even home video tape. It's a consumer firestorm out there. Practically any kind of DVD that gets put on a shelf moves at least a little bit; DVD departments of major studios are major profit centers. The only market research required is seeing what sold before and extrapolating what to release next, because the product sells itself. College kids followed the early adopters into the fray, now their parents and younger high schoolers are way deep into DVDology. It's a cultural takeover ... those critcal essays about Night of the Living Dead being about blind, rabid consumerism, and the James Bond films' true content being the worship of material gratification, seem more relevant now than ever.

Yet most serious DVD fans are furious. Huge boxoffice hits, the cream of the theatrical world, are delayed from release or simply withheld altogether, without explanation. American studios are very stingy with their libraries of older titles - fans point to the most esoteric films being in release, when the work of film directors like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock is barely represented at all. How can the studios say Once Upon a Time in the West isn't a big enough film, when Fox Lorber regularly puts out esoteric art product like Last Year at Marienbad? And finally, why don't studios respond to our letters and emails when we spend so much money on their product? The average maker of barbecue grills is quick to respond to consumer mail.

The Last Gasp of the laserdisc format ... unlikely to be seen on DVD, though.

Savant's been answering these questions for a year now at (or responding with my own limited opinions, if you will). My earlier attempt at dealing with the first "Where are the Big Titles?" question was well-enough received to merit my giving these questions a go: my answers may seem axiomatic to the well-informed out there, but the atmosphere I'm sensing is that a little redundancy won't hurt. These are still just opinions - I have my sources but I'm sure there are industry professionals and savvy types who will disagree. As always, I'm the first to amend my thinking in the face of a good argument, or at least I hope I am! That means write in and challenge me, please!

So, on to the simple-minded Hot Dog analogy. In reverse order:

Why don't studios respond to my letters and emails when I spend so much money on their product?

Imagine a hot dog vendor who has a line of 50 people at his stand, day in day out, 24 hours a day, buying his hot dogs. They're so popular he's got people hanging out waiting to see what the next day's dogs are going to look like. He doesn't have to do any of the usual things to sell his dogs - he doesn't need a brighter display, he doesn't need billboards. The line of customers is all the advertising he needs. The vendor especially doesn't need to be a great conversationalist or use his personality to sell, in fact, if he struck up a personal relationship with his customers, it would slow up the line. All outside talk, even criticism, about his product only makes it more popular. So the occasional friendly inquiry gets the same response from the vendor as the occasional screaming complaint - polite silence.

Big-studio DVD departments know that answering mail would just get in the way of their aim of maximizing profits. Unlike Hot Dogs, you can't die from watching a DVD (well, I haven't seen a Barney disc) so there doesn't need to be a phalanx of lawyers waiting to neutralize consumer beefs about TV dinners that make people sick or anything like that. By suppressing personal contact, the companies make the consumer relationship center solely around the product itself. A good consumer buys the goods and that's that. Why waste time on weird inquiries about the DVDs? The smart thing to do for the bottom line, for the stockholders, is to concentrate on how the hot dog line is doing and to cook up better, cheaper ways to keep a steady stream of hot dogs (just enough, not too many) flowing. Most individual dogs are irrelevant. Explaining to a customer why the disc of Movie X has a flaw isn't going to sell any more discs. Wasting time on bringing out discs with 'problem' legal status, or just co-ownership requiring negotiation and splitting fees (like Nashville, I am given to understand) is going to detract from quarterly performance, not add to it.

From experience, I can tell you that consumer video mail is also a drag of giant proportions. There's a lot of mail, but little consensus. If seventy thousand letters arrived saying people wanted to see videos with sideways pictures, to make it easier to watch movies while lying on the couch, well, we'd soon see a new line of product. But some of the biggest DVD issues on the web generate a paltry twenty or thirty complaints. Maybe the exact aspect ratio of Yellow Submarine might not agree with what's written in a 1968 reference book. Savant has gotten a few letters expecting him to scream and demand that MGM recall the disc, and fix the problem immediately. Yellow was one of its studio's most expensive DVD projects. Millions of the discs are out there successfully entertaining people. No sane DVD executive is going to seriously take into consideration an issue that is entirely invisible to most everyone. The actual letters and emails that studios receive campaigning for a particular library title are negligible in number. The consumer base is apathetic in the sense that they talk among themselves with great conviction about boycotts and the like, but in general are content to buy what's available. Like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, any human will do when you get hungry. If you do get a studio response, it'll most likely be, "We are grateful for your interest and will consider your request, even though there is no plan to make a DVD of Movie X in the present schedule." If you WORK at a studio, and ask the person responsible, that's exactly the answer you'll get as well. In a corporation, very few people are authorized to speak on the company's behalf. Information is power, and those who really know what's what, didn't get their positions by opening their hearts to casual callers, who might be from rival companies anyway. Anyone who takes it upon themselves to discuss company business freely with outsiders is considered a loose cannon. The wrong person talking about a library title is treated as if he were a bank teller chatting about the combination to the safe.

How can the studios say Once Upon a Time in the West isn't a big enough film, when Fox-Lorber regularly puts out esoteric art product like Last Year at Marienbad?

The celebrated Once Upon a Time in the West is a Paramount film. Last Year at Marienbad is a European indie that probably reverted to its original producer years ago. Fox Lorber is a small outfit that has to think deeply about every film it wants to release, and specializes in 'arthouse' films. It has a relatively smaller overhead, and caters to a relatively smaller audience. Paramount, on the other hand, has a huge library to choose from and twenty years' experience with what has sold well on vhs and laser. Once Upon a Time in the West is a coproduction with Italian producers; putting it out on DVD would mean sharing receipts - spending less money to release a fully-owned title like War of the Worlds makes more sense. MGM obviously keeps a good relationship with its co-owners of the Clint Eastwood Sergio Leone films, and all of those are out ... but face it, Once Upon a Time doesn't have Eastwood to make it an automatic buy title. The DVD market value of a title has almost NOTHING to do with its critical stature.

This is why there are almost no Billy Wilder movies on DVD, no The Apartment, not even Some Like it Hot. Savant just got a suggestion that Universal release a 'Douglas Sirk collection'. If Billy Wilder's demographic audience is too old or too marginalized to qualify his pix, then a cinephiles-only name like Douglas Sirk doesn't even show up on the radar.

Teddy Boys (including Oliver Reed) on the prowl in the not-likely- to--be released These are the Damned, an 'art' science fiction film that puts A Clockwork Orange to shame ...

On the other hand, the smaller companies are doing a great job taking up the slack. Whereas it took lasers ten years to get down to the fun stuff we wanted (Hammer Horror, film noir, classic westerns) the likes of Criterion, Anchor Bay, and others are constantly surprising us with high-quality DVD's of a wide range of titles. Criterion has been very good, bringing out some of its biggest Laser successes (Criterion, of course, invented the idea of added value and commentaries back around 1985 or so with Citizen Kane and King Kong). Who would have dreamed that Alphaville or Peeping Tom would be released. Savant bought pricey laserdiscs of both, and others, certain that DVD would never touch them. Anchor Bay started out with odd pickups, but soon graduated to a mix of titles licensed from big studios, beating them at their own game. Some of their product has never appeared on laser before, let alone DVD. Blue Collar, Minnie and Moskowitz and the wonderful They Might be Giants are among their current announcements - all 16:9 remasters. All Day Entertainment consistently presents films that are almost unseeable (The Asphyx) or practically legendary in their unavailability (Ganja & Hess). They've announced 16:9, multilanguage discs of the rarely screened 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), Fritz Lang's final film, a terrific title Savant's only seen in really lousy video copies. And Image Entertainment's commitment to great fringe DVD has extended to a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming line of Mario Bava Euro horror films, with the full Criterion style treatment. Soon they'll have out Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's It Happened Here, a disc Savant will be reviewing at the earliest moment. This incredible film will finally get the audience it deserves, after 40 years of neglect. Also coming up is the underrated 4D Man, a truly great science fiction film. Already you can get Buster Keaton's Seven Chances from Image. How many silent films have the majors released? Many of these smaller companies have email addresses and actually answer inquiries - they know they have an audience and try to please it - and they're also knowledgeable film people themselves.

So hopefully it's only a matter of time before the big studios wise up and start putting out a wider piece of their libraries ... or let them be licensed, or form their own sub-companies to give these smaller films the attention they deserve. It's always possible. Savant's not cynical - some of the choices being made at the majors are excellent - as with MGM's upcoming Night of the Hunter and On the Beach. Columbia Tristar continues to dazzle with the overall high quality of its discs, and makes frequent genre forays like the upcoming The Man from Laramie. I just hope their horror releases amount to more than one title every Halloween , as with last year's great The Tingler disc.

Film nuts like myself would rather have one Kill! Baby Kill! or It Happened Here than three Indiana Jones films any day. Yes, it hurts doing without Joe versus the Volcanor or Until the End of the World, movies too 'marginal' to interest their big-studio custodians. (Tom Hanks too marginal?) Hopefully, by the time DVD has become the standard and flat copies of Star Wars are available at every supermarket checkout, the non-studio companies will have shown the majors the way, and the film-o-phile crowd will have the DVD selection they want as well.

Feeling wounded due to a lack of desired DVDs? There's a special bamboo cage waiting for you to join the rest of the mutilated martyrs of The Stranglers of Bombay.

The graphics on this page are from lesser known, Savant Dream titles ... Major Dundee (Columbia Tristar), The Last Man on Earth (MGM Home Entertainment), These are the Damned, and The Stranglers of Bombay (both Columbia Tristar). All are unavailable on DVD, with scant hope for mercy!

Text (c) Copyright 2000 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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