Content is king, but needs royal trappings in DVD, VOD

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Content column: Content may be king in Hollywood -- as was just hammered home again with "Iron Man's" $102.1 million launch -- but in too many cases content doesn't have enough in the way of royal trappings when it moves into its post-theatrical life in DVD and VOD.

The thought came to mind as I was catching up with reports about hopes for the new pay-TV channel planned by Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM and about concerns regarding the potential of the Blu-ray DVD format now that the HD format wars are over. Having been out of action briefly following very successful surgery on a broken elbow, I was reading a stack of articles that had piled up. What struck me was how, on the one hand, Hollywood is totally driven by content today and how, on the other hand, the industry doesn't really understand exactly what content is or should be in the digital age.

On the theatrical front there's no question about what content is -- it's the movie. As we just saw with "Iron Man," give moviegoers a movie they really want to see and they'll turn up at megaplexes everywhere to see it. In this situation, the movie is the only content that matters because in theatrical release, two hours or so in a theater is enough for most people.

This changes as soon as a film finishes its theatrical run and its DVD window opens. Now the movie itself is only part of the content. While it's still the most important content on the disc, it's now only part of a content package designed to persuade people to buy the DVD. For many people the allure of DVDs is the opportunity to find out in detail what went into making the movie. What they're interested in seeing beyond the film itself are deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers, unrated versions of the film, directors' cuts and filmmaker commentaries. In too many cases, unfortunately, these bonus features are thrown together as cheaply as possible and presented as filler rather than as the key content components they really should be.

Filmmaker commentaries are a case in point. Directors are in the ideal position to explain what they were trying to achieve in the making of a film, but the conventional DVD commentary track that's become the industry standard over the years is totally inadequate to the task at hand. Typically, a director sits alone watching his or her movie, speaking unseen into a microphone to share whatever thoughts happen to come to mind. The trouble is that this approach relies upon the filmmaker to understand what it is that viewers want to know about the filmmaking experience. And much of the time, that's just not what the director is talking about while recalling how things went in production. There's no interviewer there to raise questions and keep the discussion on track and there's really no sense of what the director is like that we'd get if we were seeing him on screen.

The absolute worst of these commentaries are those that pair up an unseen director and a screenwriter or producer and have the two of them reminiscing about how they went to some fabulous off-the-beaten-path Chinese restaurant in New Delhi for dinner the night they shot the scene that just flew by onscreen. Viewers who want to know something about how the film was made are left in the dark by such commentaries. I'm not talking about film students or movie buffs, by the way, who certainly would respond to making-of content. It's the average moviegoer I have in mind here. The kind of question they'd be interested in hearing answered would be more along the lines of, "How was it working with Lindsay Lohan? Did she show up on set on time?" than "What camera lens did you use to shoot the sunset scene?"

What Hollywood should be doing is creating new content for DVDs that gives people more of a reason to buy the product. Now that Blu-ray has prevailed as the industry's high-definition format, studios are hoping to see people start replacing their collections of DVDs with Blu-ray discs that look better onscreen but sell for about twice what basic DVDs cost. But why would people do that if the content they get on Blu-ray isn't compelling enough to push them into spending that extra money in today's recessionary economy?

We're starting to hear about DVD distributors' plans to add bonus features to their Blu-ray product in an effort to create that gotta-have-it kind of excitement. But the question is, are they starting out with the right concept of what kind of content is likely to sell Blu-ray discs? One of the great things about Blu-ray is how much storage space the new discs provide. What some DVD producers are already talking about are interactive bonus features that will let viewers play videogames built into the movie online while watching Blu-ray discs. It's the type of bonus feature that's clearly not for everyone.

Moreover, the under-25 males who are most likely to embrace it and figure out how to participate online may not even be the prime audience to try to convince to buy libraries of Blu-ray discs at $30 or so a pop. This is the demo that likes to escape their homes by going out to the movies. Are they really going to change their moviegoing habits to stay home to watch movies that let them play Blu-ray games? Of course, the already-existing link between Blu-ray and Sony's PlayStation 3 does make for some likely connections here, but will it be enough to stimulate sales of Blu-ray that are starting out as being far from sizzling?

Over 10 million PS3s have been sold by Sony since November 2006, all of which have built-in Blu-ray players. But there are currently only about 520 movies available on Blu-ray. So the numbers don't match up very well. Meanwhile, non-PS3 Blu-ray player sales were down 40 percent in February vs. January and up just 2 percent in March. Clearly, people are not rushing to be the first on their block with Blu-ray.

At least on the Blu-ray front it's understood that some kind of additional content material is going to be necessary to achieve sales. That's something the cable companies still need to come to grips with in their efforts to promote VOD. The original concept of video-on-demand was that you could see a movie without the hassle of going to a video store and finding there were no copies available to rent. That was an attractive notion five years ago, but today it's just not enough. What VOD needs is filmmaker-driven content that would, at least, offer viewers what they can get on DVDs in the way of bonus materials. Here, too, the issue is cost. Will cable companies be willing to invest what it takes to create such content and build it into their VOD packages?

To commit the money to do so means recognizing that the movie, alone, is no longer enough to make the sale. On the other hand, producing the right kind of content about these films could make a big difference. Of course, the likelihood that companies would commit money to create content about films that weren't big boxoffice hits is slim to none. And, yet, those are the very films that might do well in VOD because, essentially, no one has seen them.

Actually, that's a category that includes most of the films that are currently being shown on cable's existing movie channels. Despite the long list of premium movie channels that I have available at home via my DirecTV connection, I rarely find anything I really want to watch -- and when I do it's usually something I need to TiVo at four o'clock in the morning!

Having content that puts these movies in some sort of perspective would be a step in the right direction, but it's unlikely we'll see anything of the sort happen. For one thing, films that under-perform theatrically typically make up these cable packages and no one spends money to market titles that don't already have solid domestic boxoffice grosses to their credit.

The newest medium for distributing movie content is the just-announced Apple iTunes deal with the major studios to make their films available for digital downloading day and date with their DVD release. Nothing I've seen thus far about this deal indicates if the bonus materials on the DVDs will also be part of the digital download and I will be very, very surprised if that turns out to be the case. Here, too, an opportunity to use broader content to sell movies to the public is being lost.

 What Hollywood needs to do is bite the bullet and start investing in creating the right kind of content to help sell movies in all their new digital distribution streams. The movie itself is only enough the first time around in theaters.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 11, 1991's column: "Although it's often said that the film industry is recession proof, in reality there could be tough sledding ahead for some of Hollywood's non-moviemaking activities.

"The days when movie companies only made movies are gone. Hollywood's major players have broadened their bases by diversifying into other businesses -- like owning and operating movie theaters, theme parks, book publishers, record labels, pay TV channels and merchandizing divisions. Some studios, of course, are now subsidiaries of giant hardware manufacturers or other conglomerates.

"Hollywood is far more vulnerable on these ancillary fronts than it is in its core business of theatrical film production and distribution. Despite the recession, the public is continuing to go see movies. Business for key films was up significantly for each of the first six weekends of this year vs. 1990. Nonetheless, tighter times are having an effect on what moviegoers go to see.

"People with less money to spend typically favor escapist entertainment generating favorable word of mouth. They skip films in which they have only marginal interest. … The recession's impact on theme parks is already being felt as rising unemployment and higher prices for gasoline and plane tickets make people think twice about spending money on vacations. Disney, in announcing last quarter's earnings, blamed 'softness in domestic tourism' for hurting business at is theme parks in Florida and Southern California. Disney's theme park operating profits for the quarter were $138.6 million, off 15 percent from one year earlier. Disney's filmed entertainment business, however, had operating profits of $91.9 million, up a healthy 19 percent from the comparable period last year."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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