Struggle to Bring My So-Called Life to 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jeff Kleist: Since music
clearances plague so many TV shows, can you explain how the whole
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: