The Slowdown

August 24, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It had to happen some time. We have reached the point when the number of movies being released to DVD is in a downturn. The reason is obvious: with the majority of the studios' A-list and B-list catalog titles available, there's a scarcity of product. This leaves four options:

1. New theatrical releases. This is the pipeline, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. In many cases, the tradtional theater-to-video window has shrunk from six months to three or four months, but it's unclear whether that window is going to continue to collapse or whether it will stabilize. Certainly, for blockbusters with staying power (like Pirates of the Caribbean 2), the DVD release will be positioned far enough out to milk as much money from the film's multiplex performance as possible. Any time a movie disappoints, however, it is rushed as quickly as possible into a home-viewing format.

2. Special Editions. Studios are going back into the vaults and attempting to find as much supplemental material as possible to allow them to "double dip" on popular titles. So, a lot of films previously released in movie-only packages are now getting "SE" treatment. And films with current special editions available are getting "uber editions." To date, for example, I have purchased three versions of the Patton DVD and two versions of countless others. This strikes me as a limited market, however, because in order to buy a special edition of a movie you already own, you either have to love the movie or have a lot of disposible income.

3. C-List movies. Admittedly, there are still a few high profile titles that have yet to come out on DVD, but that number is dwindling. Kennth Branagh's Hamlet for example, is said to be in development (although that has been the word for two years now), but it's a high enough profile title that I have no doubt it will eventually see the light of day. At this point, studios are starting to dig deeper, unearthing C-list titles that they're trying to sell as "lost classics" or "forgotten classics." Most of these were "lost" or "forgotten" for a reason, and it's hard to imagine more than a small number of film buffs being interested in re-discovering them. For years, people were buying older titles because they recognized them. It's harder to sell old movies when no one knows what they are.

4. Direct-to-DVD titles. The studios aren't currently doing much in this arena, although most of them promise to increase production of DVD titles. (Hopefully, they will also increase quality at the same time, but that's another ReelThought - one I wrote not all that long ago...) However, there are a lot of independent filmmakers who are using this venue to get their movies out there.

I did not mention either high def DVDs or television shows, so let me discuss these topics.

Currently, a high percentage of DVDs sold represents box sets of TV series. A lot is out there, and a lot more is coming, including series people haven't heard of in decades. Old series, new series - people will buy almost anything. Like movies, however, the amount of product is finite, and many of the most popular series are already available in total. It won't be long before the only new TV box sets are those of recent seasons and long-forgotten series being dusted off. Personally, I'm still waiting for The Six Million Dollar Man (which is available overseas but not in Region 1) and The Wonder Years (although I know there are some serious rights issues associated with music clearance). I'm also wondering how long before soap operas start getting on the bandwagon.

High def DVD is in trouble at the moment. Delays, technical glitches, and format incompatibilities have kept the number of early adopters low. I know a lot of videophiles, and none of them have bought a HD-DVD player, nor are they interested in one (or its Blu-Ray competitor). The obvious solution to this problem is to adopt a compromise format, get the players out into the marketplace, and start making money. That doesn't appear likely to happen. As I have previously mentioned, the high def DVD goldmine window won't be open forever. Other formats, such as high-speed dowloading, are on their way, so the longer Toshiba and Sony fight the war, the less likely it will be that high def DVDs will ever achieve mainstream acceptance. Combo players (those designed to play all DVD formats - standard, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray) may be a partial solution, but they're going to be expensive (in the $1200 to $1500 range, to start), and who wants to spend that kind of money? What would get me to convert? A compromise format with a player under $500 or a multi-format player in the same price range. I'm not holding my breath.