MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

Digital Nation: DVDs, VOD and HD: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Almost all of the news emanating from last year’s Consumer Electronics Show pertained to the imminent arrival of HD3D television and Blu-ray 3D. Hardware and software manufacturers had just come to an agreement on tech standards and the leading firms seemed ready to pounce on the Next Big Thing.

This week, at the same annual gathering of geeks, techies and snake-oil salesman, participants will assess the results of the first wave of 3D products to hit the marketplace. While there’s no questioning the curiosity of browsers at retail outlets, the symptoms of sticker shock also were obvious. Only well-heeled “early adopters” could possibly afford such an investment in televisions, playback units, glasses and movies.

So, did this virtual sneak preview of the future of HD3D serve to whet the appetite of consumers or did it freak them out? Only time will tell. The studios, at least, have committed their resources to 3D.

At CES, everyone tends to have their eyes focused on events eight or nine months in the future. The immediate, widespread acceptance of DVD – if not HDTV and Blu-ray – suggested to manufacturers and studios alike that there was a vast untapped market for technological upgrades. For HD3D to succeed, however, youthful gamers and their parents will have to embrace it with their dollars. Otherwise, there are only so many Avatars in the pipeline for adult audiences to savor and the demand for stereoscopically displayed sporting events is negligible.

The NATO/ShoWest convention won’t convene for another couple of months, but it’s already safe to say that exhibitors aren’t pleased with recent trends, suggesting that studios are willing to throw their babies out with the bathwater. In their eyes, Hollywood has swallowed the Kool-Aid offered them by purveyors of home-theater equipment and numbers that argue the in-theater experience isn’t as attractive as it used to be.

Certainly, it’s difficult to believe 3D will be a technology that drives audiences simultaneously to the multiplex and family screening room. If ticket buyers — or, more specifically, their kids — suddenly fall out of love with big-budget 3D fare, could it sink two nearly symbiotic industries at once?

It wasn’t all that long ago that the major studios waited six months to a year before releasing their titles in video and other ancillary markets. It could take even longer for those same movies to find their way to HBO, Showtime, basic cable, hotels and airlines. Today, of course, those windows have nearly closed, altogether. Two-thirds of Netflix subscribers have sampled, at least, the company’s streaming service, which often presents movies still in outlying theaters.

It took less than a year for Fox to launch three separate releases of Avatar (four if you count the 3D edition), one more elaborate than the other. A mere three months after it opened in theaters – and two weeks ahead of the January 25 announcement of Oscar nominations – Columbia is making The Social Network available on DVD and Blu-ray. All 5½ hours of Carlos, one of the most honored films of 2010, were shown to subscribers of the Sundance Channel in October, prior to its release by IFC Films nationally in theaters (a shorter version also was distributed to theaters and VOD).

Exhibitors are already bracing for the day when studios fully commit to offering first-run titles day-and-date with their VOD partners. This practice could eliminate what’s left of the DVD rental business, as well.

Although such industry heavyweights as Jeffrey Katzenberg, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis have said they’re making 3D a priority, consumers already have determined that not all stereoscopic pictures are created equal. This year, for every 3D blockbuster, there very well could be a spectacular box-office bust. If the turkeys can’t attract viewers in the ancillary markets, the studios could find themselves with a true dilemma on their hands. God knows, they might even have to return to the era of solid story-telling to sell tickets.

Certainly, introducing such expensive consumer-electronics products during an ongoing economic crisis was a risky proposition. How many potential buyers were surprised to learn, for example, they might also be required to purchase a separate Blu-ray 3D or game-box unit to enjoy their purchases? Did they think 3D glasses for home use would be generic and could be carried with them to the local IMAX and home of a neighbor with a different brand of home-theater equipment? Glasses, alone, can run into the hundreds of dollars per set.

Depression or not, the operating philosophy of the consumer-electronic industry – in the digital age, at least – has been to keep upgrading hardware, until another paradigm-shifting technology is introduced. The trick is to convince buyers they absolutely positively must upgrade their equipment or risk humiliating themselves in front of their early-adopter neighbors.

It’s the opposite of planned obsolescence, a strategy long employed by American car and appliance manufacturers, who designed products that would become too expensive to fix after five years or 50,000 miles. In the 1970s, Japanese, Swedish and German firms countered that philosophy by making products that broke down at their own sweet pace. Many Rust Belt companies learned the lesson too late to save their businesses.

If the public has shown a reluctance to spend big on HDTV 3D and, to a lesser degree, Blu-ray equipment, it’s only because modern televisions live forever and plain-old DVD continues to be an excellent investment. If 3D is to take off as an in-home product, it will take more than a few good movies to launch it into the commercial atmosphere.

That said, here are some reasons DVD and Blu-ray will be a difficult act to top in 2011.

Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

Check out the Top 10 lists published at Movie City News’ Awards Watch. Unless you live in New York or Los Angeles, or plan your vacations around major film festivals, it’s likely you’ll be unfamiliar with most of the titles. This isn’t necessarily because critics have more cultivated tastes than other filmgoers; blame it on the economics of film distribution. Indie, foreign and documentary films play on a tiny fraction of the screens that are dedicated to Hollywood fare and wide distribution depends on how a picture does in the hours and minutes after it’s reviewed in a newspaper or alternative weekly in New York or L.A.

Current second choice Winter’s Bone played at more festivals than theaters. Ditto, I Am Love. You can count the number of theaters in which No. 6 Carlos has played on two hands. Roman Polanski’s terrific The Ghost Writer opened on 332 screens in the U.K., but only four in the U.S. Despite devastating turns by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Eileen Ryan, Kerry Washington and Jimmy Smits, Mother and Child went virtually unseen, as did James Franco’s in Howl.

Academy voters tend not to nominate movies that disappeared quickly at the box office. Bening and Franco likely will be honored not for the work in Mother and Child and Howl, but for the also-deserving The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours. If performances by Noomi Rapace (The Girl Who …), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer), Edgar Ramirez (Carlos) and Watts (Mother and Child) aren’t rewarded with nominations, it will because voters didn’t bother to check out the screeners sent to them.

If Hailee Steinfeld is nominated for True Grit, so should Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Emma Stone (Easy A), but I won’t hold my breath.

All of these movies have already been released in DVD, or will be in the next two weeks. If they can’t be found in the usual outlets, they’ll surely be available through Netflix, Facets or Movies Unlimited.

Direct-to-Video Movies Don’t Always Suck

Genre flicks, especially, benefit from the attention given them by critics on niche websites and blogs. Horror, sci-fi and action-thrillers have to be awfully good to find even a temporary home in theaters. Marketing costs have become prohibitive for distributors of indie fare and profit margins are razor thin.

Rather than take a chance on something obscure, browsers in mainstream video stores tend to return to tried-and-true genres and familiar stars. In the D-to-V arena, at least, actors such as Wesley Snipes, Richard Grieco, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cuba Gooding Jr., Val Kilmer, Ving Rhames, Corey Feldman and Billy Zane deliver predictably entertaining action. When they aren’t kicking people’s asses in the ring, Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, John Cena, Randy Couture and Hector Echavarria have begun busting up bad boys in action-movie franchises. And, they aren’t bad.

Apart from the ubiquitous Heather Graham, Jane Lynch and Amber Heard, the female leads tend to be played by stars of currently popular TV series on Fox, CW and Disney Channel. Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue provided further proof, if any were necessary that the studios were perfectly willing to enlist their greatest cartoon stars in the service of DVD-original sequels.

The number of independent distributors has grown exponentially. Movies that might not have found the light of a screening room a decade ago now are competing for shelf space with those that have. Lionsgate, Anchor Bay, Oscilloscope, IFC and Music Box have found ways to play in both the theatrical and DVD markets. Meanwhile, the international pursuit of gratuitous gore, horror, sci-fi, sex and violence continues apace with an endless stream of niche product from such companies as MPI Home Video, MTI Home Video, Strand, e-one, MVD Video (also music docs), Image Entertainment, Phase 4 Films, Synapse Films, One7Movies, CAV Distributing, Vicious Circle and Broken Glass Pictures. Wolfe and Strand once had the gay market cornered, but such upstarts as Broken Glass’ QC Cinema and Ariztical Entertainment have begun sending titles out that address the less-sex/more-story interests of mainstream gay and lesbian audiences.

You Learn More From Movies Than Newspapers

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job indicted five administrations’ worth of politicians, bureaucrats, economists and business executives in its dissection of decisions that led to the creation of the current financial abyss. It did so in a way that was as easy to understand as it was non-partisan. It was only one of a handful of documentaries that endeavored to explain how the U.S. – the so-called “greatest country in the history of the world” – gets stuck to tar babies, from which it can’t shake itself loose. Ferguson’s previous doc, No End in Sight, had described how America bungled its promise to bring freedom to Iraq, by ignoring the necessity for a post-victory strategy. Filmed in a remote corner of Afghanistan, Restrepo reminded us of both the heroism and dedication of American soldiers and the futility of keeping them in harm’s way.

By exposing the poisoning of citizens living near drilling sites, Gasland very much resembled a sequel to Erin Brockovich. Exit Through the Gift Shop” asked viewers to decide for themselves the difference between art and vandalism, reality and fantasy. By putting an entertainment icon under a microscope, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work once again asked, “What price fame?” Babies chronicled the first year of life for children in four disparate locations around the globe. The Lottery took us to a publicly funded charter school where enrollment – and a child’s future – is determined by the luck of the draw. Chris Rock’s Good Hair explained why it’s never a good idea to mess with a black woman’s hair.

It’s the rare documentary that makes more than a million dollars at the box office. Rarer still is the doc that finds distribution outside the festival circuit. It’s on DVD that the films find the most convenient audience, as well as a place to add deleted interviews and background information. Also coming to video in the next few weeks are such high-profile films as Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, The Tillman Story and Waiting for Superman.

Everything Old Is Better Than Brand New

At a time when Hollywood can’t turn out a decent romantic comedy, melodrama or musical to save its life, boxed sets of DVDs from the Golden Age remind of us of better days. Collections don’t always offer something completely original, but the best add interviews with industry veterans, the perspective of historians and critics, newsreels or cartoons, and refined audio and video presentations.

Two of this year’s most entertaining collections focused on screen sirens, whose mere presence in a movie might have guaranteed a PG-13 rating, today: The Films of Rita Hayworth, with the scintillating Gilda and Miss Sadie Thompson; and The Kim Novak Collection, featuring the little-seen Middle of the Night and Jeanne Eagels, among other titles. The Elia Kazan Collection doesn’t ignore the highly influential director’s political troubles, but the accent is on the movies in the 18-disc set. TCM’s Greatest Classic Film series added Astaire & Rogers, Hammer Horror, Sci-Fi Adventures, Romance,
Busby Berkeley
and Gangsters: Prohibition Era.

Individual titles, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, arrived newly pressed in Blu-ray. In an odd, if extremely timely coincidence, Kino International and Criterion Collection released Blu-ray editions of The Complete Metropolis and Modern Times. These movies relate as much to the current Depression as they did to the one in the 1930s.

And, while the major studios fret over flat DVD revenues and consumer reluctance to invest in three versions of the same movie, boutique labels continue to turn out an amazing array of foreign, independent, vintage and cult titles.

Criterion’s featured packages included new and/or improved editions of Cronos, Anitchrist, Videodrome, The Night of the Hunter, Black Narcissus, Vivre sa Vie, Hunger, Bigger Than Life, The Third Man and Contempt, among others, as well as Eclipse Series introductions to French filmmaker Sacha Guitry, and the adapted works of George Bernard Shaw. It took a while for Criterion to get into the Blu-ray game. Once it did, however, it did things right. America Lost and Found: The BBS Story tells the story of an ambitious company whose films grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s: Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show and The King of Marvin Gardens.

Facets Video offers an often bewildering selection of movies from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia and the American experimental movement. Its highlight series, The Alexander Kluge Collection, shone a light on the West German filmmaker, whose work would influence a generation of ambitious directors.

TV-to-DVD-and-Beyond

Just as release windows for movies have shrunk to nearly imperceptible proportions, the time it takes for new television shows to make their way to video also is practically nil. Masterpiece Mystery! mini-series, including the excellent Wallander titles, has begun arriving nearly day-and-date with their airing on PBS. Ditto, with the BBC’s new Sherlock. Glee became so popular, so fast, Fox couldn’t resist sending out half-season and pilot packages, in advance of full-season volumes. It also seems as if dozens of freshly minted mini-docs from A&E and History enter the marketplace every month.

It takes longer for some shows, however, to arrive. The documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg re-introduced America’s favorite Jewish mother to contemporary audiences. When The Goldbergs migrated from radio to television, in 1949, it brought with it the situation-comedy format. Shout! Factory’s released a 1,920-minute, complete series set, The Ultimate Goldbergs, which can also be downloaded a la carte in individual episodes through Amazon. Episodes of vintage Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood can be downloaded, as well.

Shout! Factory made the biggest splash – literally and figuratively – with its mammoth, 17-disc The Larry Sanders Show box. Besides being one of the most entertaining shows in memory, Larry Sanders anticipated the craziness of the current late-night talk-show wars. Garry Shandling’s genius was to make behind-the-scenes politics, jealousies and romances as entertaining and relevant as the talk show itself. Shout also gave us 14 hours worth of Frank Sinatra’s television and concert appearances in Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection; all 235 episodes of the original Leave It to Beaver; Volume XIX of MST3K, with a collectible figurine of Gypsy; and the final season of thirtysomething.

Folks who found it difficult to follow Monk in its various timeslots could pick up the extensive Monk: Complete Series Limited Edition Box Set and obsess over it in linear order, while also lingering over the generous bonus material. Last month, Fox sent out 24: The Complete Series, which is comprised of 57 discs, representing eight full seasons, the made-for-TV 24: Redemption movie and a pile of special features. Its list price is $350, but no one with a working knowledge of the Internet need pay that much for it. It isn’t yet available in Blu-ray or 3D. If it were, it would take a month’s supply of Visine to get through it.

Here is my list of 10 significant DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2010. It could have been three times as long.

Toy Story Trilogy
Alien Anthology
Red Riding Trilogy
The Elia Kazan Collection
The Pacific: Blu-ray
Monk: Complete Series Limited Edition
The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series
Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry
The Alexander Kluge Collection
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics

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“I wondered how different it would be to write a novel and it’s totally different. It’s very internal. The weird thing about it is that I found that novel-writing was much more like directing than it is like screenwriting. You’re casting it, you’re lighting it, you’re doing the costumes, you’re doing the locations, you’re doing it all yourself as a director would. In screenwriting, you don’t do that stuff. You don’t describe the face of the actor or the character when you’re writing a screenplay because Tom Cruise is going to do it and he doesn’t look like that, whereas in the novel to describe what he is is what he is. The actual act of writing, just like shooting on a set, is a slow slog. It’s going to work every day.”
~ David Cronenberg On Screenplay vs. Novel