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Buena Vista's Chris Carey talks
Widescreen on DVD

Buena Vista's Chris Carey talks Widescreen on DVD

As many of you are probably aware, there's been some controversy recently over studios releasing select widescreen films (usually "children" or "family" titles) in full frame aspect ratios on DVD only. But what constitutes a family film? Certainly, you could call Warner's Willy Wonka a family film, but the idea that Warner tried to release it in full frame only recently gave a lot of DVD fans the plain old willies. The studio rational is that as DVD has gotten more mainstream, average consumers just don't like the black bars. But avid DVD fans believe that all films should be released on DVD in their original theatrical aspect ratios. So what's the solution? This morning we had the chance to speak with Chris Carey, who is the Senior Vice President of Worldwide DVD Production and Technical Operations for Buena Vista Home Entertainment. So here's the transcript of our conversation. Next week, we'll speak with another BVHE representative on the marketing perspective of the same topic. Keep in mind, our goal with these interviews is simply to let the studio explain their side of the issue and let them address your most often voiced concerns. You should all know by now where we stand. We'll let you decide how you feel about it.

Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits): Hi Chris... thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know this is a difficult issue for you guys.

Chris Carey (Buena Vista Home Entertainment): Yeah, for all the studios. Just so you know, I'm really only able to address the technical realities of this. You'll be able to talk with our brand marketing people to get the official Disney opinion about what we're going to try to do. But I can certainly address the obvious technical questions. Like... "Well, can you put both versions of the film on a disc?"

Bill Hunt: And that's obviously the first question most of our readers would ask, because clearly it has been done before.

Chris Carey: Yes, it has been done before. And I'd do it when we can. But, generally speaking on a DVD-9, if you put two versions of a movie on - meaning you're talking about three hours of programming - you're really compromising the quality. The MPEG-2 compression levels that you have to drop down to to get that much run time on a movie is really questionable. I've sometimes made recommendations on a title against including both versions for that very reason. Pearl Harbor we put across two discs for that reason.

Bill Hunt: Now we're talking DVD-9, which is a single-sided, dual-layered disc.

Chris Carey: Yes. Single-sided, dual-layer. Then beyond that purely technical issue, you start getting into economics and consumer satisfaction issues. I've read many an article, and it's not new news to you - the vast majority of America wants full frame. They do. And when we put out a widescreen version, we get lots of, "What's wrong? My DVD is broken. I want my money back." And we get that from really a surprisingly large number of consumers, especially when you're talking about family titles that are more likely to be watched by a broader audience in a non-technical environment. Where they're probably watching on a 19-inch TV or smaller.

Bill Hunt: The question then would be... certainly there's a demand for both full frame and widescreen. And there's a need to serve both markets whenever you can...

Chris Carey: Exactly.

Bill Hunt: If getting both versions on a DVD-9 is prohibitive because of quality, what about going with a double-sided disc, like Warner and Columbia TriStar have done many times? Include widescreen on one side and full frame on the other.

Chris Carey: You can do that, but right now replication capabilities for the double-sided means that it's DVD-5... actually, I mean DVD-10, which means it's single-layer but dual-sided. The replication capacity for DVD-18 just isn't there yet. There's only a very limited number of facilities that can do that. We are looking at that. But then, the issue with double-sided is that, particularly when you're talking about a family title, you're giving up the ability to put disc art on it. You've got only that inner ring to put text on it. And for a little kid who's trying to navigate it, he's not sure which side is up and which side he's gonna get. So those are all some of the questions we ask ourselves. I think, obviously, in some instances in the past - and some instances in the future, when we think there is appetite there - the simplest solution is to put out two SKUs. But that's got a big economic effect.

Bill Hunt: And retailers don't like having two versions on their shelves.

Chris Carey: Retailers don't like it and consumers still get confused. We did two versions on 102 Dalmatians and we had customers asking, "Which one do I want?" People got confused and didn't understand. So again, in these early days, we're all trying to find the ground that makes the most sense. In a some cases we may say, with this particular title and that particular marketplace, maybe it makes sense to put out a full frame only. That doesn't preclude us from later doing widescreen for a difference audience if the demand is there. But I'll defer that to our brand marketing people.

Bill Hunt: I think it's not necessarily an unreasonable solution to do that, particularly for select kids movies. The fear with DVD collectors though - and I think they have reason to feel this way - is that they've seen other studios... well, for example Warner Brothers. Warner decided that Willy Wonka was a "family" film, so they were going to release the collector's edition on DVD in full frame only. And that was just plain ridiculous. The fear is, who is making these decisions? Is it some guy with a marketing degree, with little love or knowledge of the film or the audience, looking only at spreadsheets? It's one thing to go full frame only when it's Tickle Me Elmo, but it's a whole other thing when you're looking at doing it for, say, The Lion King. That's the real fear - that that could conceivably happen. And so what the enthusiasts tend to do, is to make early, strong pre-emptive reactions against the studios anytime they see anything that's widescreen get released full frame only. Because they're afraid that one thing will lead to another, and pretty soon it gets out of hand and you're talking about lots of widescreen films released full frame only.

Chris Carey: Well, I'm quite certain that - at least from my perspective - that our company is pretty darn thorough when considering these things. I come from a film background myself, and I have my position on this, which gets heard. It's a pretty good consensus that we take that balances the creative, the enthusiast and the consumer all together. But as I said, we're still trying to find the right balance. As the demographic changes for our clientele, we've got to try to change to meet it.

Bill Hunt: And the reality is, in ten or fifteen years when everyone is watching widescreen HDTVs - however long it takes - this becomes a moot issue anyway. Of your upcoming titles, what percentage would you say is affected by the decision to go with full frame only?

Chris Carey: I don't have a percentage for you, but I wouldn't say we're making any long term commitments. We're just trying some things with some titles, and then we're going to react to how that plays out in the marketplace. I don't think we've said forevermore. But clearly, the right thing to do is to try it out on the titles that are more family oriented.

Bill Hunt: I know you guys just announced your "Movie Showcase" collection through October - lots of titles - and the first question we got from hundreds of people was, "Which ones are full frame and which are anamorphic widescreen?" So looking down the line, are we only talking about 2 or 3 titles out of a 100? That's what people are asking...

Chris Carey: It's a small percentage. I don't know the number.

Bill Hunt: I know I've requested the details on that, so I'm expecting to be able to report that fairly soon...

Chris Carey: Yeah. Ask the right people. But again, it's gonna depend on the title. Most of the Movie Showcase titles are adult SKU titles anyway, where we wouldn't consider going full frame.

Bill Hunt: Am I safe in saying that you wouldn't ever release your most loved classics or animated titles or big films in one aspect ratio only?

Chris Carey: Sure. Things like Beauty and the Beast, which is coming this fall, and Snow White last year... I would hope that both families and collectors continue to be impressed with what we do there. We're gonna fire on all cylinders there. The good ones will be super well treated. We're right now in the throws of finishing Beauty and the Beast and Monsters, Inc. - buttoning them up and getting them into authoring. The Pearl Harbor: Vista Series comes out in July, which we think is really spectacular. We haven't announced any others yet, but the upcoming summer slate will obviously be out later this year and early next year, so we're pretty excited.

Bill Hunt: Thanks again for your time, Chris.


Stay tuned for more discussion with Buena Vista on the widescreen vs. full frame debate next week. As always, I welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt
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