Sunday, March 22, 2009

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: Thoughts on the DVD Industry in 2009

Since the last time I checked in on the DVD industry, things have predictably gotten worse. More retailers are folding (goodbye, Virgin Megastores) and those fewer retailers out there are tightening their belts and are sticking with the hits. Best Buy has announced once again that they are restructuring their buying methods to concentrate on the majors and all of the Indies have to go through an intermediary. Overall DVD sales are down for the first time while rentals are up (thank you, Great Recession) and titles that were doing 2,000 units this time last year are only doing 1,500 units now (one major studio publicist informed me that they’re now seeing sales of catalog titles in the hundreds. Major studio titles!). Many labels have folded (including New Yorker Films, Fantoma Films and the great BCI Eclipse) or are on their last legs. Digital downloads and iTunes have not really done much to pick up the slack, and probably won’t be much of a revenue source to begin with. And the buyers are still idiots.

It is not, however, all doom and gloom out there. Fewer pressings mean fewer returns, so labels aren’t getting hit quite as hard as they used to (don’t mean it doesn’t still happen). Some great indie labels - like Criterion, Synapse, Mondo Macabro, and Severin Films – are still chuggin’ along and doing exemplary work. Blu-Ray sales are growing, albeit slowly, and while they will probably be no more than the laserdiscs to DVD’s VHS, they do represent some growth in the marketplace and sure as hell look pretty, don’t they? But the best news in all this is that, with almost all of the classic DVD holdouts finally released (except for THE AFRICAN QUEEN, apparently currently undergoing restoration), things are getting real interesting in the catalog releases department. Studios are not so much scraping the bottom of the barrel now as they’re starting to look in old boxes that they completely forgot they had. If you think about some of the great films that were finally released on DVD in the last year – The Budd Beotticher/Randolph Scott films; MAN OF THE WEST; AGE OF CONSENT; ROAD HOUSE (with the delicious Kim Morgan/Eddie Muller commentary); THE FURIES; MANDINGO; THE SILENT PARTNER – most die hard movie lovers have to admit that this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, when the floodgates have started to open and the rare and unique titles have truly started to show themselves. The majors may not be that enthused about putting out older catalog titles as they used to be (harder to sell them at Wal-Mart), but they’re still at it, thank goodness, and we can still count on them for at least a little while now. (As long as they make their money back, that is.) Seeing a title like Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT get announced for May release (as part of Fox’s annual WWII Memorial Day assault) still gives me hope that the majors are not abandoning their catalogs, even if they feel the only way they can sell them is to group them with similar titles. Hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Still, I feel like we’ve got to treat all this with cautious optimism. As long as sales stay within reasonable profitability, we’ll be OK. But once we get out of that zone, it’s going to hurt. Studios are cutting back, budgets are being slashed and people are getting laid off. Playing it safe will be the standard M.O. starting relatively soon (if it hasn’t happened already) and the fun we’ve all been having with DVD may end faster than we want it to with still too many cult films, classics and obscurities yet to be released. While it’s impossible to support every new release that come down the line (especially in this day and age), try and support as many as you can, either by purchase or rental. Try to get your hands on as many of these classic new releases in one way or another to send a message to the studios and the indie labels that you love them and want more of them. If you know you’re going to buy one of them and you know you can find it at Best Buy, then buy it at Best Buy (use the store locator available on their website). If you just want to rent it, put it in your queue ASAP so that the rentialer (yes, it’s a real word, though a diminishing one) will order more copies (or order more of a similar one). I know a lot of this sounds like a simplistic way to keep a complex industry humming, but in all my conversations with DVD industry folks through the last few months, that’s what I’m hearing. It’s an industry mostly filled with fellow movie lovers who care about it as much as you do and don’t want to see it fade out. It’s a great time in a lot of ways, but it’s walking on a wire at the moment and could go either way. Let’s support it enough to keep it going strong.

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