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My So-Called Nightmare:
The Struggle to Bring My So-Called Life to DVD

DVD has seen a great renaissance in how different home video product is handled. Small cult titles are getting lavish special editions and television titles are finally getting a proper, full season release en masse. Of course, some programs are still seen as TOO niche by those who own them.

Jason Rosenfeld (of Dry Grass Partners, LLC) championed My So-Called Life's release to DVD by securing independent financing. The title was originally marketed as an AnotherUniverse.com exclusive. However, fans who purchased the set through AU.com soon began noticing double charges for the set on their credit card bills. And the sets they thought were exclusive... suddenly weren't.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jason Rosenfeld directly about the various problems with this title. Those of you who, as fans and customers, are a part of this mess, should find what he has to say interesting...

[Editor's Note: We should stress that the following interview represents only one side of this situation. Regardless, it's worth reading if you've been drawn into this mess.]


Jeff Kleist (The Digital Bits): Jason, what first gave you the inkling to try to release the My So-Called Life DVD box set?

Jason Rosenfeld: Well, the story actually starts about two years ago. I was once an employee of a company called BMG Special Products. They are a division of Bertelsmann that is primarily focused on creating products at budget prices, or creating products called "music premiums" for corporate clients. Several years earlier, there had been a division of BMG called BMG Video. They had acquired the rights to a number of TV programs including My So-called Life. They went under and their catalog was acquired by BMG Special Products, who ended up in possession of My So-Called Life.

At the time, I was working there as the manager of online operations, and my job was to find online markets for our catalog. One of the things that I found in our catalog was My So-Called Life and I wondered why my division wasn't doing anything with this title. They showed me that there was a previous release, but that it only included episodes 1-3, without bonus material. Not only that, but this release of the first three episodes was not doing particularly well in the stores. The scans were very, very weak.

Jeff Kleist: What year was this approximately?

Jason Rosenfeld: I started working for BMG in July 2000. I believe that my first contact with the MSCL fan site was in late 2000, early 2001.

The first time that I contacted MSCL.com, I believe it was only to offer some free copies of the volume one release. Since it wasn't selling, I thought that by working with the fan site, perhaps we could try to drum up interest in the product. In doing so, I learned that the diehard fans viewed the first DVD as a fairly crummy product. The fans tend to want to see some extra effort and, dare I say, "love" put into the releases, and for the art to be treated with due respect. The lack of real bonus material and the lack of a commitment by BMG to release the other 16 episodes on DVD was deterring customers from purchasing the first three episodes.

Jeff Kleist: And given that, at the time, X-Files had given TV fans a great hope, the 3-episode disc was especially crushing to them.

Jason Rosenfeld: Yes. There were many people who purchased the VHS collection from BMG Video. BMG Video went under without completing the entire series on VHS. They had only released up to episode 12 on VHS. So in other words, the only way to find a complete copy of the series was to purchase a bootlegged copy from another fan or from a site such as eBay. People were not terribly excited about the prospect of buying the DVDs in installments. In fact, several days after a strategy discussion with some of the members of the site, they posted a petition on their web site demanding that BMG release all nineteen episodes in one single box set.

Jeff Kleist: Which you then took upstairs to the brass. How did they respond?

Jason Rosenfeld: They said "that show? I never even watched that show. There is not enough support at retail. The buyers don't want it" and I think that the first 3 episodes on DVD scanned [Ed: VideoScan, retail sales tracking] really weak. REALLY weak. Most fans didn't even know that the DVD existed.

Jeff Kleist: I was a retail buyer at the time. I think we sold 2 sets and 1 set of singles with the VHS, and the DVD just sat there in apathy.

Jason Rosenfeld: The funny thing is that the VHS was still scanning about 35-40 units per week. The DVD was hardly scanning any at all. And if you looked at eBay, you saw all kinds of bootlegs, crappy VHS copies that looked like they were recorded on used cocktail napkins, selling for hundreds of dollars! The 4 episode VHS sets would routinely fetch $100-$200. So, we had a weekly DVD meeting, and I would pass around some documents and the massive collection of emails I had received. I also showed them how many signatures the petition was amassing. I even had a formula that I used, based on web activity, which fairly accurately predicted the retail demand. Hindsight actually demonstrates that it was pretty darned close to current sales figures. However, back then I was repeatedly told how buyers didn't want to buy the show. It is unfortunate that younger or newer employees sometimes lack the clout to get their point across.

Jeff Kleist: Did you show them ebay, and how much money bootleggers were making off their product?

Jason Rosenfeld: All of the time. If they weren't going to release the DVDs, I figured maybe they could hook me up with some VHS copies from the warehouse and, I don't know, I would start a coffee fund or something. I could just sell the VHS tapes on ebay and pay my salary for them.

Jeff Kleist: You mean just hock existing stock on ebay, or that you would be licensed to distribute good copies of the series?

Jason Rosenfeld: Yeah. They had a bunch of old VHS copies sitting in the warehouse. I wasn't even talking about a new release. It seemed like there was no way they would approve it.

Jeff Kleist: This was the complete set, or the aforementioned box sets?

Jason Rosenfeld: The loose sets on VHS, ending with episode 12. It was then that I realized that large companies tend to have small ears. They are not built to listen to the customers. This is not exclusive to BMG of course, and this pretty much describes all large companies. Most media companies are used to being in "broadcast mode" all of the time, and are not always the best listeners. Meanwhile, if they use the Internet properly, they can efficiently "listen" to their markets, and they can even hold "conversations" with their customers.

So, anyway, I tried to get them to release the series on DVD, and finally in July of 2001, it seemed like my tenacity paid off. At a Thursday DVD meeting, they approved my idea of selling the DVDs directly to the fans. However, bad news was just around the corner. By September of 2001, pretty much everyone at that meeting was no longer at my old division. Major restructuring had taken its toll on my division, and I was out of there on September 23. Luckily, I landed on my feet very quickly. By the following week, I had a new job at another label, and I was using my severance to start my own company on the side.

Jeff Kleist: But you still had all this work and time invested in My So-Called Life, with nowhere to go with it.

Jason Rosenfeld: Yeah. That pretty much sucked, but what can you do? There was a lot going on in NYC at the time, post-9/11, so it kind of took a back seat for a few months. However, about a month after I left BMG, I tried to find other labels or retailers who might release the show on DVD.

Jeff Kleist: Which is when you ran across Another Universe?

Jason Rosenfeld: No, I was working at another label. And this label dealt with BMG quite a bit so I tried to get them to try to do a swap for the show. Pretty much all of NYC was hurting at that time. That company needed to conserve cash, so they pretty much axed everyone involved in marketing, so again I was without a job, a label or a retailer. I thought of trying to do it all myself, but I was just "some shmoe on the Internet." I did not have the resources to fund a DVD project on my own.

Jeff Kleist: So you needed a backer.

Jason Rosenfeld: Yeah. And I contacted tons of retailers.

Jeff Kleist: Did that include Best Buy/Wal-Mart type stores?

Jason Rosenfeld: At the time, I didn't know anyone there, so I was looking mostly at e-tailers. In many cases, my emails and calls went unanswered. Those who answered shot my idea down. I had been in contact with Ross Rojek back when I was at BMG. He is the CEO of CMI Holdings. At the time, I think he was looking for someone to lend him money to buy AnotherUniverse.com. That's pretty ironic, looking back, but that was how we first came into contact. He was in the comics and collectibles business, but he was also somewhat of a vulture capitalist, buying the assets of dying dotcoms. And being in the collectible business, he expressed an interest in what I was talking about.

Jeff Kleist: And he saw an opportunity for a quick buck?

Jason Rosenfeld: He seemed to "get it." We started to exchange emails about that show and other potential shows that could be released in small batches.

Jeff Kleist: Can you name any names?

Jason Rosenfeld: Sure. Voyagers (the time travel show), Misfits of Science... fairly niche-oriented fare. The idea was to do really small batches, and to make them highly collectible by not skimping on the bonus material. No show was too obscure. Even a failure, by Neilsen standards, had millions of viewers.

Jeff Kleist: And so armed with backing, you went back to BMG for a license?

Jason Rosenfeld: In February 2002, Another Universe went to BMG offering a minimum guarantee so that BMG would not be taking a risk in releasing the discs. It was a pretty exciting time. I remember being very optimistic. It seemed like a fairly idiot-proof concept. Get people to sign petitions, and those petitions are essentially "opt-in email lists," but only in the sense that if you do ever plan on releasing a product, these people have expressed that they want to know about it. It is a very limited-use list. In other words, you don't want to piss these people off by using it to hawk other products to them.

AU decided to start taking $20 deposits to gauge interest. I don't know why they arrived at $20, but I know I argued for something closer to about $5 or $10. Enough to feel the pinch and not order more than you really wanted to buy. Later on, I would learn that the e-tailer did not have the funds for the project, and decided to pre-charge everybody for the full amount. I honestly would not have needed a retailer if I knew they wouldn't have the funds.

Jeff Kleist: Did they use the email list to market other products besides the DVDs?

Jason Rosenfeld: They did hawk some My So-Called Life T-shirts. And it was a pretty tacky email -- which I didn't even know they sent out. Someone sent me a copy and it was just like, "Buy, buy, buy! WE ARE GONNA RUN OUT fast! And you will never see them again!" Of course, they never ran out. How can you run out when you can just keep printing more? That would be like the government running out of money. They just make more.

You see, I always viewed it as an intimate email list. Something sacred. I didn't think that kind of "smarmy salesman" tone was appropriate. I demanded proof that the T-shirts were licensed. I never got proof. I am assuming they wouldn't sell something that was not legal.

Jeff Kleist: Was that the only merchandise they hawked to the list?

Jason Rosenfeld: To my knowledge, yes. It wasn't like a mortal sin, but as far as I was concerned, it wasn't really related to the DVD either and was written in pretty bad taste.

Jeff Kleist: So you buckled down to getting the DVDs out. What were some of the first roadblocks you ran into?

Jason Rosenfeld: Music clearances.

Jeff Kleist: Since music clearances plague so many TV shows, can you explain how the whole system works?

Jason Rosenfeld: Sure thing. When BMG Video released the VHS box sets, they only released episodes 1-12 before calling it quits. And you see, the way it used to work, apparently was this: You only paid for what you needed at the time. You did not anticipate that you might have a DVD or VHS release in the future. So, you would clear the music to appear on TV, but you had a whole separate clearance process if you wanted to sell copies of the show on VHS or DVD.

That's why it sometimes really sucks when a show has a great soundtrack. It can become a real nightmare to clear really good music for a DVD release... unless the studio had the foresight to pre-clear everything for DVD when they created the show. And we know how forward-thinking some studios can be. (laughs)

Jeff Kleist: And often the contracts are not worded in such a way as to include DVD, even if VHS is cleared, right?

Jason Rosenfeld: That's correct. It's a different animal. However, it really depends on the contract. All I know is that it's the Wild West right now when it comes to clearing the publishing for music on DVDs. There is no statutory rate set for those tracks. If a publisher wants too much money, you might not be able to afford it. That is why the Real World DVDs include such wonderful elevator music!

I do think that the studios are pre-clearing for DVD with their newer shows. We were joking about substituting a kazoo quartet for one scene of My So-Called Life. In the end, our worrying was for nought. The legal eagles went through the contracts and realized that the original BMG/Disney contract was pretty clear and that all of the music was pre-cleared for DVD and VHS. It meant we didn't need to edit any scenes and I didn't have to pull out the kazoo. And it's unfortunate, in a way, because I am a bit of a virtuoso on the kazoo.

Jeff Kleist: Too bad you didn't have time do make it an Easter egg.

Jason Rosenfeld: We had a lot of ideas for cool Easter eggs and bonus material. I wish that a lot more of that stuff could have been done.

Jeff Kleist: So what was going on in the background while you were doing all of this?

Jason Rosenfeld: A lot of wheels spinning. We were all waiting for music and artwork to be cleared, but at the same time I was literally being clobbered with emails from people who were being double charged by the retailer, AnotherUniverse.com. I would have to say that anyone working on a DVD project should not simultaneously volunteer to help with customer service. But I felt responsible. I am not a customer service rep, or anything like that. I am, first and foremost, a marketer who focuses on design. And the poor customer service was not a part of the design.

By that, I mean that it was not part of the plan. It's bad enough to take a deposit for something. But to double or tripled charge for the full retail price? I really don't know how the retailer got away with it.

Jeff Kleist: Well, they didn't in a lot of ways. I first noticed this whole thing when the screaming started over that.

Jason Rosenfeld: It really was inexcusable. And they had many months to correct it, and people are still waiting for their refunds. I think people want the DVDs so badly that they are afraid to complain. Kind of like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld or something. If they complain, they won't get a supposed bag of goodies from AnotherUniverse.com. "No DVD for you!"

Jeff Kleist: So while you tried to play mediator, did the production suffer at all?

Jason Rosenfeld: I don't really think so. You see, AIX Media was doing the authoring, and BMG was waiting for payment from AnotherUniverse.com. So I really only had two goals at that time: 1) fix double bills and other errors, and 2) get the retailer to pay for the discs so that the DVDs could be shipped to customers.

Jeff Kleist: So now that you had the main discs in production, how did you begin on bonus material?

Jason Rosenfeld: Well, the bonus material is a pretty tricky issue. We couldn't place bonus material on the 5 discs from BMG. I'd actually rather not discuss the bonus material because nobody is currently shipping the discs with the bonus material.

Jeff Kleist: Don't want to strike false hope?

Jason Rosenfeld: I don't want to reward a company (AnotherUniverse) that should have had this stuff done months ago and which still does not have all of its ducks in a row. All of the bonus material should have been hammered down and authored already. Sadly, it's not. However, I do have theories on bonus material.

You want good bonus material? Kick your A&R (artist and repertoire experts that labels use) reps out the door. Find the most ardent fans you can find. Tell your A&R reps to stay at work and fly the fans to do the interviews. Don't send some vapid airhead to do the interview because he/she looks good on camera. The best bonus material can probably be captured with a mini DV camera by an ardent fan. It is all about content.

Jeff Kleist: So aside from billing issues and bonus material, it was looking like smooth sailing...

Jason Rosenfeld: Pretty much, but billing and payment issues are enough to make a sea very stormy. You can't trust a company that keeps charging you over and over without fixing the problem. It kind of takes the fun out of buying online. People actually have said that they cancelled a card just to stop the charges from appearing every month! And this was not a cheap box set. They were charging $115 for a season set. People were writing to me saying that they could not afford to eat because Another Universe had charged them an extra $200. It sounds like I am making this up, but I received essentially the same message from hundreds of customers.

Jeff Kleist: What was your first clue that there was something beyond a screwed up billing system going on here?

Jason Rosenfeld: Waking up to find 200 angry emails in my inbox every morning. I cannot believe how many people were double charged. And these customers were not even receiving responses to their calls or emails. I was doing a lot of press interviews, and I swear that each reviewer had been double charged. Speaking of which, were you double charged?

Jeff Kleist: Thankfully no, I wasn't. So you had 200 people emailing you every day going "what the hell" and AU was still sitting on their butts not fixing the problem?

Jason Rosenfeld: Yeah, sitting on their butts telling their customers that their refunds were "forwarded to the accounting department," where the requests for refunds would languish for months. There are still people waiting for refunds for double charges in April 2002!

And sometimes the way to fix a problem is to shine a little light on it. All that I know is that asking "please?" over and over didn't seem to help. And even though I withdrew from the project, at least in regard to consulting for AU, I have begun to contact customers directly. Setting a deadline for AU to refund their money.

Jeff Kleist: Has AU issued an official stance on this?

Jason Rosenfeld: They sent out a pretty vague email telling people that the DVDs are almost on their way. That was about it. The email referred to overcoming whatever "obstacles lay in their path." I kind of rolled my eyes because they really have been their own greatest obstacle.

Jeff Kleist: While they were doing this, you formally and publicly pulled out of the project. What was AU's reaction to that?

Jason Rosenfeld: Well, there was also a looming deadline for them to pay their suppliers for the product. I essentially said, "I cannot do business with your company." The response was "OK, we'll figure something out. So does that mean that [BMG and another vendor] shouldn't confirm with you that product is shipping?"

Jeff Kleist: That's... apathy in a bottle.

Jason Rosenfeld: They really viewed me as an inconvenience. I was going around and finding out AnotherUniverse had basically lied to customers, lied to suppliers, lied to me. I had tried to do damage control for them for months. I realized that some kinds of damage cannot really be controlled.

Jeff Kleist: You have to know when to abandon ship.

Jason Rosenfeld: Yeah. It was like trying to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jeff Kleist: So where does this put you right now? Almost a man without a country.

Jason Rosenfeld: Not really. You move on and hopefully you learn a lesson and don't repeat your mistakes. My other clients seem to be happy that I am no longer distracted by all of this nonsense. Being a marketer, I'm glad to be back concentrating on marketing. However, even though I am no longer "officially" involved, I am still trying to help customers obtain refunds for overcharges from AnotherUniverse, and I cannot end my involvement until they have all been made whole.

Jeff Kleist: I believe you mentioned to me earlier that you had no idea how AU was going to pay BMG, or the other subcontractors. Any theories on where they got the cash?

Jason Rosenfeld: No theories, and none are necessary. Look, they charged 3,700 people between $90 and $115 apiece. In many cases they charged the customers twice. Do the math. They collected more than enough cash to pay everyone, even discounting the double charges, plus the interest they would be earning on it. The cash should not have been hard to come by.

Jeff Kleist: So while this has turned into My So-Called Nightmare, what do you think you've come out of this with?

Jason Rosenfeld: So many problems could have been avoided. If this project had been well-executed, they could have been very profitable with it. I think I've learned a lot about how to come up with a product concept. I think I have learned about the types of bonus material that matter to fans, and I think that I have learned that ardent fans will put up with a lot of crap.

However, just because they will put up with a lot doesn't mean that retailers should so blatantly disregard customers' rights. I think that AU is experiencing My So-Called Backlash right now.

Jeff Kleist: Because AU's exclusivity window expired, and BMG is soliciting? People ordered from AU at $115 shipped, and now e-tailers are offering it at $60-70 sans items that AU customers may never see?

Jason Rosenfeld: And because they haven't exactly excelled at making people happy. The customer is the boss. The company should exist for the customers. I hope that AU customers will see everything that was promised to them, because they paid for it. Those items are rightfully theirs. They have been offered all kinds of "mea culpa" goodies from AU, but a promise is only as good as the person or company making the promise.

The bottom line is that I think that every title deserves a release on DVD. With authoring costs coming down, you really can be profitable with even a fairly small project (1000 units). The upside is that once these are pressed, it's pretty darned cheap to make more.

However, traditional retail strategy doesn't work with small releases. You can't spread a small release over too many retailers; otherwise nobody has enough DVD product for it to matter to their bottom line. Labels should sell niche discs directly to customers first. Then they should use the sales data to help to determine where to channel the product at retail.

---

So there you have it. If you've ordered My So-Called Life on DVD through AnotherUniverse, you may want to go back and check your credit card bills and make sure that you haven't paid multiple times for your set. Whether or not the bonus goodies ever ship, one of the most requested TV shows has finally made it to DVD. But it's a shame that the circumstances surrounding the release weren't less troubled.

If you wish to contact Mr. Rosenfeld, he can be reached via email: dvd@drygrass.com

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com


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