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Studio Day 1998
Dave's Video: The Laser Place - Studio City, CA - 11/14/98

Dave's Video: The Laser Place

Introduction

Every year, Dave's Video - The Laser Place (in Studio City, CA) sponsors its much beloved Studio Day. The idea behind Studio Day is to give the home video divisions of the major Hollywood studios an opportunity to receive direct, one-on-one feedback from consumers, about their laserdisc and DVD product. Often, the studios will also reward loyal fans with a sneak peak at upcoming releases. Dave's has been holding these events for a decade, and this 11th annual Studio Day promised to be well-attended, now that most of the uneasiness associated with the DVD format launch was past (last year, many of the DVD holdout studios chose not to attend). Regrettably, both Paramount and Fox declined to send representatives again this year. I personally think they would have benefited greatly from an opportunity to meet some of their consumers, given their recent puzzling DVD decisions (which is probably exactly why they DIDN'T show). Unfortunately, Universal and New Line were also unable to attend at the last moment. Given the terrific DVD support exhibited by both studios, however, I wouldn't read anything into this.

The event was certainly well attended by consumers however. This year's Studio Day was more informal than previous ones. Rather than holding a panel discussion, studio representatives were given name badges, and were allowed to walk the floor, mingling with customers, and answering their questions. I arrived earlier, to interview store owners Dave and Linda Lukas (the full interview will be posted on the Bits soon). Then, boasting my own name badge, I began walking the floor myself, working to glean every interesting bit of DVD news possible. I was armed with a tape recorder, so as not to miss anything important, and going back through the tapes (yes, tapes PLURAL - some three hours worth) has taken some time. But, I think you'll find some interesting gems of information here. I would also recommend that you visit the Rumor Mill today, where you will find some very interesting information that DIDN'T come from Studio Day.

Keep in mind, all of the information you are about to hear, comes directly from the studios' authorized representatives. That said, as with The Rumor Mill, I would caution you to apply some sense when reading - much of what is discussed here are DVD plans far into the future - all of it should be considered tentative, as any number of factors can cause things to change.

All right, let's get into it, studio by studio…

Columbia TriStar

Columbia TriStar's presence at Studio Day was excellent - both their director of DVD marketing, and representatives from the Sony DVD Center were in attendance. Perhaps my favorite experience of the day way the chance to visit with these fine folks - they're just good people. And I've made no secret of the fact that I believe Columbia TriStar has been releasing the finest looking DVDs of any studio thus far. I quickly learned that there's a reason for this - quality is their number one mandate. In fact, several titles have been re-mastered multiple times for DVD, to achieve the best picture and sound quality. A nice recent development, however, is that special editions and added-value content are becoming just as important to the studio.

Columbia TriStar has a whole host of such DVDs in the works. The long-awaited double-feature DVD of El Mariachi and Desperado is definitely on the way. Word is that director Robert Rodriguez has prepared a Ten Minute Movie School for El Mariachi, which shows just how to make a movie on a shoestring budget. And for Desperado, he's putting together Ten More Minutes - Anatomy of a Shootout, in which comparisons between storyboards, and videotaped rehearsals of the shootout scenes, are compared to the to the final filmed sequence. La Bamba, when it arrives on DVD, will feature two new commentary tracks - one with Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, and director Luis Valdez, and another with Taylor Hackford and others. Deleted scenes will also be included. Devil in a Blue Dress is also forthcoming, featuring commentary with director Carl Franken, and Don Cheadle's screen test footage. Ghostbusters promises to be the studio's most ambitious DVD project yet. It's expected to include new commentaries, recently found deleted footage, and some other "very fun things". There's also a very special DVD version of Pink Floyd - The Wall in the works.

The process involved in planning these titles, and gathering the content, can take many months, and is extremely involved. In fact, according to the studio's DVD director of marketing, whenever one of their titles gets delayed, it is almost always because additional elements have been found that merit inclusion on the DVD. If there's a good reason to delay a DVD, that's it in my book.

On the subject of delays, the Columbia people were asked about a number of specific titles. Sense and Sensibility is still coming, but was delayed so that Emma Thompson can record a new commentary track (hopefully in February), along with producer Sidney Pollack and director Ang Lee. The actresses' Golden Globe speech will also be added. Willow, Labyrinth and Dark Crystal have all been discussed as possible DVDs, but have been postponed due to legal issues, that will hopefully be resolved soon. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King are all on the slate, but rights issues with Criterion may prevent Terry Gilliam commentary from being used. Gilliam apparently recorded commentary elements for Criterion laserdisc versions of these films, and would rather that they be used on the DVDs. Unfortunately, Criterion is reluctant to license their use. Columbia still wants them to be very special DVDs, so they may end up being delayed.

Columbia TriStar is hopeful that they will soon be allowed to release the much anticipated Close Encounters and Men in Black. These were delayed by order of Steven Spielberg, and word is that the director would like to see a particular number of players sold before allowing his biggest films to find their way to DVD (see the Rumor Mill for more on this). With any luck though, both may be on DVD by mid to late next year. Contrary to some reports on the newsgroups, Men in Black had NOT yet been replicated when it was pulled (it's not sitting in a warehouse somewhere, gathering dust), although all of the elements are finished and ready to go. As for Lawrence of Arabia, it may be a while before there's a DVD release. The reason? The studio feels that so many different versions of this classic have recently been available (on VHS and laser), that they would rather wait. When it does comes to DVD, studio reps say "we really want to do something special to make it feel like an event."

One nice thing DVD fans should know, is that (at least in Columbia's experience), most of film's creative people really appreciate being involved in DVD creation. There is a general feeling that DVD can be used as a lasting documentary of the film experience. This being the case, lots of A-list talent has participated thus far. Warren Beatty is reportedly interested in being involved in a Bugsy DVD. Robert Redford is expected to record new commentary for The Way We Were (Barbra Streisand and Sidney Pollack have apparently already done so). Redford is also planning to do a commentary track for The Natural DVD (for which Barry Levinson reportedly wants to do a director's cut). As we all know Jack Nicholson was involved in recording commentary for As Good As It Gets. And director Peter Bogdanovich apparently wants to do something special for The Last Picture Show.

An interesting tidbit from the studio, is that sales of the Godzilla DVD are currently outpacing VHS. As for other titles, Columbia is also working on DVD versions of Hard Eight, Tootsie, Shampoo, Taxi Driver, On the Waterfront, Hudson Hawk, Ghostbusters 2, Hero, Stepmom, The City of Lost Children, Christine and From Here to Eternity. We should also see DVDs of current theatrical titles, like Apt Pupil, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and John Carpenter's Vampires.

The nicest thing I took from my conversation with the folks from Columbia TriStar, is that they are really having fun with the format. They're all big fans of DVD, and are working extremely hard to make every title as good as possible for collectors. They are also trying to push the technology. For example, their DVDs are nearly all mastered using new, high definition film transfers. And at the end of December, the Sony DVD Center will be shutting down temporarily, to expand production capacity (from an average of 6-8 titles per month currently, to some 15 a month).

Artisan

Artisan was also well represented at Studio Day. Look for lots of exciting DVD product from them in 1999, including a number of titles licensed by the studio to Pioneer (episodes of Twin Peaks anyone?), and some of their recently acquired Republic titles. A Special Edition version of Stargate is definitely in the works, as are director's cuts of Basic Instinct, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Bob Roberts (a favorite of mine). The studio is very happy with sales of its recent Rambo Trilogy DVDs, and is about to release Earth Girls are Easy on the format, with lots of extras, including deleted scenes.

Of course, the most awaited DVD title Artisan has in development, is the Terminator 2: Special Edition. I've reported previously that director Cameron would like his bigger films to appear on DVD-18 discs (dual sided and dual layered). Artisan, in particular (along with at least 2 other studios), has been pushing the development of this technology, and a good deal of progress has been made. I was told by a studio representative, that he very recently viewed a working DVD-18 test disc (with enough space to contain 2 separate movies on the same disc). The basic problem with DVD-18, is improving the replication process, so that fewer defective discs are produced. Currently, most pressing plants are scrambling to fill production orders for the holiday season, so there is little time to test DVD-18 manufacturing. That said, Artisan expects production issues to be resolved sufficiently enough to make DVD-18 replication feasible as early as June.

DVD-18 isn't the only reason for the lengthy development time on this title. Artisan would like to record a new commentary track with director James Cameron (as well as on-camera interviews), but must of course work on his schedule. Tentative plans call for the DVD to include the anamorphic widescreen version on one side, and full frame on the other. And the studio would like to include the extra scenes and footage (such as the "alternate future" ending) on the disc in such a way, that you can choose which version (theatrical or longer) you wish to watch on either side. This involves some extremely complex authoring, much of which has never been attempted on DVD. So don't expect the T2: SE to appear until probably the end of next year. Artisan really wants to take their time with this title, and produce a DVD that will stand up as the definitive release of the film.

One interesting thing of note - Cameron himself wasn't heavily involved in original T2 DVD release (he was in the middle of Titanic at the time), but every aspect of the disc was run by him, or his people, for approval. He was reportedly pleased with the result. Artisan (then Live) spent almost a month doing the new hi-def transfer, with THX involved at every step. As many of you know, T2 was the first DVD to use the RSDL on-the-fly layer switch. It was also the studio's most expensive DVD to produce thus far.

Trimark

Anyone who has seen Trimark's excellent Eve's Bayou DVD, knows that the independent studio has done some very nice DVD work. The studio representative I spoke with, told me that they try to release anamorphic widescreen versions on DVD whenever possible. And Trimark is soon moving into the high definition realm, mastering a DVD version of Dentist 2 from a new hi-def transfer (their first ever).

Cube is the studio's biggest forthcoming title, and will include commentary, deleted scenes, storyboard comparisons, production artwork and more. Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is soon to be released, with an added commentary track. Slam is also in the works, along with a special edition version of Doom Generation. And with any luck, exciting DVD versions of Happiness, and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers may be released by the studio next early next year.

Buena Vista

Buena Vista's presence at Studio Day was somewhat puzzling. Rather than sending individuals involved in DVD production or decision-making, a pair of salesmen were in attendance. Therefore, when many consumers asked questions, or voiced concerns about Buena Vista's DVD product, an oft-heard answer was, "Well, you have to understand, I don't make those decisions, but we'll raise the issue when we get back." And although both were very approachable and pleasant individuals, neither was really an expert on DVD. One had just gotten his own DVD player a week before, and had but a few discs.

So what were some of the issues raised by consumers? Anamorphic, anamorphic, and anamorphic. This was, by far, the most important issue to those in attendance. So often were they asked about it, in fact, that they promised to return with the message that we all want 16x9 on Buena Vista discs. But of at least equal concern to Buena Vista, according to one of their people, is what features retailers are asking for.

I supposed I was a bit discouraged by my discussion with the Buena Vista representatives. There just doesn't seem to be very much enthusiasm by the studio for the format. On the issue of anamorphic enhancement and multiple languages, cost seemed to be the overriding concern, although not the only factor. "Most people just don't care about 16x9 and seven languages, anyway," was one response. When asked about how well their DVDs were doing, there wasn't a great deal of excitement. "DVD is performing very well for us in terms of what it is - a new format. But its not performing well enough for us to be jumping up and down. Since we don't have the hardware ties that Warner and Columbia have, we're not likely to be ground breakers. But if the market gets bigger, we'll be there."

There seems to be a feeling the size of the market just doesn't warrant a lot of attention to DVD. This is why we're not seeing classic Disney animation on DVD. And don't look for it ANYTIME soon. The studio was apparently using Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas as tests for future family releases. And the tests didn't go well.

This was a major issue for those consumers in attendance, and it's a problem of logic for me as well. The puzzle is this: Disney creates a new, higher price point for their animated titles ($34.99), then releases a straight-to-video title that no one cares about (sorry guys, but it's true), with no extras and no value-added material. This, they claim, is a test… if it goes well, it may open the door to more animated titles. But is this really a fair test of market desire for Disney animation on DVD? Imagine if they had released a single, classic animated film (even a lesser one), in anamorphic widescreen, with some extras…. "Even if every person with a DVD player bought it, that's still only about 350,000 people in the U.S.," was the response. Huh? Given that more than a million players have shipped into retail, and most manufacturers believe two-thirds of those have sold through to consumers, that's a pretty conservative estimate of market size! And what about the millions of DVD-ROM drives already shipped in new computers? Industry watchdog InfoTech estimates that some 6.5 million such drives will be in the retail market by the end of this year alone. I haven't seen a whole lot of DVD-ROM computer software, so I'm betting that those folks are watching movies. "Believe me, we would like nothing more than to repackage and sell all our films on a new format," was the response. "If DVD was selling the kind of numbers that VHS is, we'd be there - we'd have to selling 2 million units plus of a title."

The overriding feeling is that, at least at the moment, action films are what is selling big on DVD - the Con Airs and Ransoms. So that is what will dominate their release schedule at least through June or July, although there was some feeling that in a year or 18 months, the market may justify a more varied release schedule. "Our production schedule only allows us to release 6 to 8 titles per month, and we have to release titles that will sell." Boy, I WISH Buena Vista were releasing 8 titles per month!

So what is in the works from the studio? Well, obviously the Good Will Hunting and Scream Collector's Editions were a hot topic of discussion. The studio even brought along a VHS tape of some of the extras that will appear on Good Will Hunting. But, once again, these two titles are tests that will determine the likelihood of future Collector's Edition releases. And again, since neither title is 16x9, it's not exactly a fair test. Very little other information on future titles was forthcoming, although I did manage to learn that a Miramax SE of Il Postino planned, along with DVD versions of The Parent Trap (1998), Rounders and Jackie Brown. By the way, I did learn another interesting piece of Disney DVD information, from different source this weekend (see the Rumor Mill).

On a final gloomy note, when asked about Divx, the response was, "We have a licensing agreement with them, which we are obligated to honor." This apparently means that Buena Vista will license some of its films to the pay-per-use format exclusively. Ouch.

DreamWorks

Relax folks, things get better - DreamWorks is getting ready to blow people away with their DVDs. Period. Thankfully, the DreamWorks representatives in attendance, were EXACTLY the folks responsible for creating the discs themselves. Perhaps best of all, as with Columbia, they were extremely excited about DVD. "Everybody is expecting nothing but the best from us. So we're doing our best to surprise people."

If what I saw was any indication, they'll have no trouble doing just that. The DreamWorks people had a special treat for the crowd - a sneak peak at an actual copy of their forthcoming Small Soldiers DVD. The anamorphic widescreen picture was fantastic. And unlike many studios, DreamWorks' first DVDs will feature impressive animated menus - lots and lots of eye candy. When you select one option from the main menu on Small Soldiers, one of the characters swings around on the screen like Tarzan, wiping the new menu in as he goes. And as he leaves the screen, he swings off to the right side, and the surround sound makes it seem as if he continues swinging around behind you! What a treat! And each option brings a new character onto the screen. It is little touches like this that make a DVD special, and which should immediately place DreamWorks among the very best studios, in terms of DVD features and quality.

DreamWorks is committed to all the features we love: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, anamorphic widescreen, and lots of extras on each disc. And even though they don't have a large catalog, they promise to make each disc special. A DVD version of ANTZ is currently in production, and should have some great extras. "The two directors have sent down some stuff no one's ever seen before. I sat there for like an hour just laughing my guts out," said one DreamWorks representative. Among the extras that may (hopefully - it's not guaranteed) make the DVD - a very short spoof of Basic Instinct (with Sharon Stone as Princess Bala) called Basic Insect. Here's a hint - she crosses multiple pairs of legs in this one!

As for the future, DreamWorks is also planning DVDs of Paulie and Amistad for early next year. And they are hopeful that director Steven Spielberg will allow them to release a DVD version of Saving Private Ryan… eventually. A lot will depend on the success of the studio's first DVD titles. If one IS allowed, don't expect it until this time next year, however, as Spielberg will likely release the film at least once more to theaters around Oscar time.

All in all, it's very reassuring when the folks who make DVDs are as in love with the format as we are. "We're big fans," one said. "And we're having a lot of fun. That's what DVD is all about." I couldn't agree more.

Warner Brothers

Unfortunately, Warner Bros. sent mostly sales people to Studio Day, instead of the folks involved in the production end of things. The one exception was an extremely nice fellow involved in gathering special edition materials for Warner DVDs, who assured me that "some very special things" are in the works.

On display for the occasion of Studio Day, were the forthcoming DVD versions of My Fair Lady and Mr. Roberts, both in absolutely stunning anamorphic widescreen. Clearly, the studio's commitment to DVD is as strong as ever. In terms of future DVDs, the only titles that were mentioned were already announced January releases, like The Negotiator and Why Do Fools Fall in Love. I did learn that Heat was delayed due to the complexity of authoring. The studio wants to do a first-rate job with the film on DVD - it's a long film, with a lot of elements and involved authoring. Rest assured, it is still coming, but likely not until mid next year. There was no word on Excalibur, but I did learn that many of the catalog and classic titles that have been delayed, have been bumped due to a shortage of production capacity. There are only so many films that can fit on the production schedule, and with the tremendous demand for day-and-date DVD releases, many older films get delayed as new theatrical titles are readied for DVD.

In other issues, Warner is pleased with sales of their budget line of DVDs, although they admit that pan and scan only titles are not as popular with DVD consumers as their regular releases. And, finally, don't expect Warner to switch from their Snapper packaging any time soon. They're aware that consumers seem to prefer the Amaray keep case, but feel that the Snapper is a good alternative. That issue aside, as long Warner keeps releasing so many good DVDs, I don't think they'll receive too many complaints.

MGM

So what were consumers telling the MGM representatives? "We want Princess Bride," was the most oft-heard request. I learned from one person at MGM, that "Princess Bride is our most requested title, by a factor of ten." The good news: the title was just reacquired from Polygram, and the studio is definitely planning a special edition release as soon as possible next year. The bad news: the title was just reacquired from Polygram - meaning that the already announced January DVD release from the studio is no more. In fact, every title Polygram that had been announced with a street date of later than January 1st will be delayed, until MGM can assess the catalog. This means The Sure Thing, When Harry Met Sally and more. But, as MGM is doing some excellent DVD work, they should be special when they are finally released, likely in the second half of 1999.

Basically, MGM now owns the rights to every Polygram title, pre-The Game, with the exception of ITC films, and sports and fitness product. Among the titles included in this are Platoon, Blue Velvet, City Slickers, lots of Orion films, the titles mentioned above, and more. MGM is extremely excited about the DVD possibilities of many of these titles, and is already planning some very special releases, including fun stuff like Swamp Thing and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. In fact, much of the 1999 release schedule has been finalized. Some of the titles you can look forward to, are Ronin, The Train (1965 - John Frankenheimer), The Killer Elite (1975, starring James Caan), the original Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968), The Holecroft Covenant, and, in March, all of the Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers (hopefully Blake Edwards will do a new commentary - unfortunately UA wasn't in the habit of saving film materials after production was completed, so it is extremely difficult to put special editions together on their films). There may also be a summer re-promotion of The Wizard of Oz, which has just been re-released to theaters.

The studio is committed to releasing widescreen films in 16x9, whenever an anamorphic master is available, or the title justifies the cost of doing a new one (meaning most new theatrical releases, and premiere classic films). This raises the other question most consumers were asking MGM about at Studio Day: "What were you thinking with that pan and scan Chitty Chitty Bang Bang anyway?" The decision to release this film in pan and scan only, was apparently a very difficult one to make for MGM. Rest assured that MGM got the message - almost everyone who spoke with them said they wanted an anamorphic widescreen version. I did learn that a brand new anamorphic print exists, and there is a possibility that it could be re-released later next year.

Let's talk Bond on DVD. MGM thrilled those gathered, with a look at their new Tomorrow Never Dies: Special Edition. The disc (which will be available through January only) is loaded with cool features, including an animated menu system that makes it seem as if you are James Bond himself, trying to log into the British Secret Service computer system - "Welcome 007," the sultry female voice intones. "This navigation system has been specially prepared for your mission. You have unlimited access." Even the booklet included with the DVD is cool, containing a complete reference of every villain, gadget, and Bond girl ever seen on film. MGM is very pleased with the title. "We've already shipped 100,000 copies, when we were expecting only 40,000 orders." They also promise more Bond films on DVD next year, when the new film is released. Best of all, MGM is determined that any time they issue a special edition title, it will be of this caliber. "At the $35 price, we'll make sure its loaded."

One last interesting thing: MGM is very pleased with the growth of the DVD market. According to their response cards, fewer than 50% of those who owned DVD players said they had ever owned laserdisc players, which means that DVD is indeed expanding into a wider audience. "This was also back when there was only 350,000 players in the market, so it's very encouraging."

Image, THX and Pioneer

I'm not going to say too much about Image Entertainment. This is no slight to them - it's just that I regularly cover them closely elsewhere on the site. Look for lots more on Image in the near future, here at the Bits. One thing to note - although Image would like to make the move to the Amaray keep case, I'm told that it is very difficult to get orders for keep cases filled at the moment. This is why you're seeing so many variations on them now, from Fox and others. Also, Image's packaging facility of choice isn't fully automated yet for Amaray cases, so using them would require more expensive manual loading. Image may make the switch down the line, but not anytime soon. On a bright note, one Image representative had something of a revelation in terms of anamorphic widescreen, when he viewed Dances With Wolves on a 16x9 display (see, I told you it was cool…)! ;-)

As for other organizations, both THX and Pioneer were also present. But there was very little information forthcoming from THX (no new word on Star Wars DVDs), and I wasn't able to speak with the Pioneer reps before the day ended. Be sure to check out Peter Bracke's excellent report on the event at DVD File. He and I tag-team reported at Studio Day, and whereas I covered some studios in more detail, I know he was able to speak with both THX and Pioneer at some length.

Some Closing Comments

All in all, this year's Studio Day was a tremendous success. Lots of good information was exchanged, and my hope is that the studios all got the message. Consumers are certainly eager to share their feelings on DVD, and it is good to see that at least some of the studios are listening.

The biggest pleasure of the day, however, was in seeing just how excited about DVD some of these folks are. Many of those involved in creating the DVDs, are big fans of the format themselves, and definitely have their consumers' best interests in heart. As more than one studio representative said to me, "we're just really having fun." My thanks to all of the studio people who attended.

I was also very pleased to meet lots of regular Digital Bits readers, who spotted my name tag and stopped me to say hello. It's a good feeling to know that someone appreciates what you do, and I can't thank all of you enough for your kind words. We work a LOT of hours each day to make the Bits worth reading, and we greatly appreciate everyone who takes the time to do so. We're not perfect, but we promise to work hard, and keep doing our best. So thank you!

Finally, I'd like to thank Dave and Linda Lukas, and their staff, for their generosity, kindness and time. Studio Day is an invaluable experience for both consumers and the studios, and it wouldn't be possible without all the hard work of the folks at Dave's Video: The Laser Place. Well done!


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