Here Today, Here Tomorrow

'DVD is to VHS as CDs are to cassettes,' says Mitch Perliss, VP and general manager of Slingshot Entertainment, a California-based distributor that entered the DVD market in 1998. If the analogy holds true, DVD players will be prevalent in no...
October 1, 2000

‘DVD is to VHS as CDs are to cassettes,’ says Mitch Perliss, VP and general manager of Slingshot Entertainment, a California-based distributor that entered the DVD market in 1998. If the analogy holds true, DVD players will be prevalent in no time at all. And, if the statistics are accurate, the evolution is well underway. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the first half of the year saw approximately 2.7 million DVD players – about double that of 1999 – shipped in the U.S. The DVD Entertainment Group (a professional association promoting DVD technology) estimates 10% of American households already have home entertainment systems outfitted with the new technology.

Software drives hardware, however, and the documentary community is embracing the medium accordingly. National Geographic Television put DVDs on the u.s. market in late 1999 and is currently selling them in Japan, Spain, Turkey and Taiwan. Jim Kelleher, director of international video and DVD for National Geographic Television says the company will launch the format in 20 new territories in the final quarter of this year.

According to Kelleher, DVDs cost approximately 25% to 50% more than VHS titles, depending on the territory. Each DVD in Japan is about US$45 while in Germany it’s $25. Creative efforts to drive sales include a deal with Toshiba that sees 80 Nat Geo titles packaged with Toshiba players sold in Japan. In Spain, currently the broadcaster’s top selling territory, DVDs are sold door to door.

NGT plans to put about 70% of its current projects on DVD and looks for programs – such as its 1985 hit Titanic – that translate over multiple territories. The Titanic DVD includes a glimpse behind the scenes, a ‘making-of’ doc, profiles, links to Nat Geo websites, and maps. ‘For a program like Titanic, we’re prepared to spend money,’ explains Kelleher. ‘In 1985, DVD wasn’t even thought of. Titanic was timely and costly [to upgrade to DVD] but it’s worth it.’ Although Kelleher wasn’t specific, he estimates the DVD took about seven months to complete and cost in the tens of thousands to make.

In general, older films benefit from the rise of DVD because the inclusion of added elements gives consumers a reason to revisit titles. Roman Kroiter’s pair of half-hour 1958 docs about Canadian music legend Glenn Gould – On the Record and Off the Record – were two of three films included in the National Film Board of Canada’s pilot DVD project. ‘When we decided to go ahead with the project in late 1998, we looked at the classics because they have a good market and because we didn’t have to deal with a producer,’ says Ravida Din, manager of new release planning for the NFB. ‘It’s a nice way to reintroduce the classics.’

With the help of Toronto-based DVD production facility Asset Digital, the NFB took one year to produce the documentaries (as a single DVD) at a cost of approximately us$10,000. It includes biographies and photos of both Gould and the film crew, original recordings produced during the making of the film and digitally remastered 5.1 sound. A live action menu lists the DVD’s features on piano keys. When the user selects a key or feature, the actual note from Gould’s Chickering piano sounds.

‘I wanted to begin with pristine prints, so we struck new 16mm and 35mm prints,’ adds Din, who had a budget of us$30,400 for the entire pilot project. ‘The NFB has an initiative to preserve archived films, so we were able to strike new prints within this program for very little money. And, it helped that we had all the rights. I also learned the value of keeping archival material. People are buying DVD because of what they get beyond the movie. Having archived material made the project much easier.’

Slingshot’s Perliss, who distributes over 25 large format films on DVD, agrees: ‘When we started doing DVD in 1998, we weren’t adding special features. The only complaint we received was that the programs were too short – a 38-minute large format doc cost the same as The Matrix on DVD. Consumers are getting savvy. They’re interested in the how, what and why.’ When footage is not available from the producer, Perliss goes to alternate sources. This was the case for Sydney – The Story of a City, a 42-minute large-format film directed by Bruce Beresford that played in Imax theatres for a year. To flush out the DVD, Perliss licensed Australian aboriginal animated classics and contacted Aussie didjeridoo musician Phil Jones, who shot original footage of himself playing the didjeridoo (specifically for the DVD) and provided commentary on how to play the instrument. For new acquisitions, Slingshot gets involved early in order to ensure the elements needed to create a DVD will be there.

With the DVD market still in its infancy, some producers and distributors are wary of the high cost of production. Although Slingshot has producers cover the cost of creating extra elements – such as multiple camera angles or subject biographies – Perliss estimates the cost of creating a DVD can run as high as us$25,000, which includes compression, authoring and labor, as well as production of the final product. DVD packaging is also five to six times more expensive than vhs packaging. According to Perliss, printing a video sleeve runs about us$.08 to $.13; DVD packaging costs us$.60 to $.65.

Walk Associates in Tokyo, Japan, is developing its first DVD from The World Heritages, a ten-video series that visits 50 sites around the globe, and which sold over 150,000 copies in Japan. But Walk is not including any added elements to the DVD: ‘We didn’t have the budget to do extra technical things,’ says Maiko Wakui, a producer with the company. ‘But World Heritage does not include extra elements because of the unknown market, not because of the budget. We haven’t grasped the DVD market yet and we’re not sure what benefits it will bring.’ Wakui is optimistic about the future, citing as an indicator the success of Sony’s PlayStation 2, which supports video games and DVD movies and which sold more than five million copies when it was released in Japan.

‘The reality is, the DVD market is still small. It’s going to be a few years before everyone gets a DVD player,’ comments Art Skopinsky, president of both Monarch Films and Beatnick Entertainment, a newcomer to the home video market. ‘Someone has to pick up the cost of [producing the DVD] . . . But, you can’t price yourself out of the market. Smaller companies have to be more careful about what they put on DVD because our margins will be different. While smaller titles have a place in the market, they may not justify the additional cost of DVD.’ Skopinsky hopes he will be able to start offering DVD early next year.

Walk’s Wakui also believes the abolition of regional codes would help encourage the documentary DVD market. DVD manufacturers have divided the world into eight regions, each with their own code. Players sold in region 1 (u.s., Canada), for example, won’t play discs with region 2 codes (Japan, Europe, South Africa, Middle East), thereby controlling license fees and protecting home releases in one country from cannibalizing theatrical releases in another. Jim Taylor – president of the DVD Association, author of DVD Demystified (McGraw-Hill, 1998), a former DVD evangelist (yes, that was his actual title) for Microsoft, and one of the 21 most influential DVD execs, according to the DVD Report (a Maryland-based weekly publication) – agrees, arguing that the cost of regional coding usually isn’t warranted. ‘I estimate about 50% to 80% of DVD players sold outside the u.s. are modified so that regional codes no longer matter,’ he explains. ‘Players have secret menus that were intended only for manufacturers. These were subsequently published on the Internet. Other players are physically modified and still others can be de-activated by buying a chip.’

Taylor also quickly dismisses recent grumbling in the press about the susceptibility of DVDs to cyber theft, using simple economics: ‘Anyone serious about copying a disc will be able to do it. Copy protection is there to keep the average user honest. The best approach to combating cyber theft is to make your product available at a good cost.’

Despite the high cost of production, distributors and producers agree that DVD represents the future of the home video market. Notes Perliss, ‘Slingshot’s DVDs outsell its VHS titles two to one.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.