Studios, indies size up potential for DVD releases

It’s the dawn of the digital age and videotapes have begun to give way to new CD-size plastic discs known as digital virtual discs, or DVDs. But if your film’s budget is not quite at the blockbuster level, is it technology you can do without?

“All the studios are looking at DVD, and as an independent, we can’t afford to fall behind the times,” says Lorenzo Doumani, CEO of DMG Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production and foreign-distribution company. “DVDs offer greater flexibility. Now you can look at different takes and even have alternative endings to choose from. Musical and family products really lend themselves to this new format, but we’re also planning to release early next year a special DVD version of ‘The Cotton Club’ with behind-the-scenes interviews on one of the channels.”

DMG plans to eventually release all of its library on DVD. “It doesn’t cost that much more for us, because we have to do a high-quality telecine anyway for broadcast,” Doumani explains. “Five to 10 years from now, I think DVD will be the norm.”

Interest limited so far

Burbank-based post-production facility Four Media Co. (4MC), which has an expertise in compression, sees about 400 independent films a year run through its laboratory. But Kathy Zotnowski, director of compression services, says only Taurus Entertainment has asked for DVD.

“There’s been a lot of discussion and testing, but most can’t find a reason to do it yet,” Zotnowski says. “We believe there is a learning curve to this, and you had better get on the train today, or you will be passed over. You may not want to cut the DVD now, but you should at least try to do the compression so you are ready to roll when the new technology makes economic sense.”

Taurus Entertainment is one of the only independents currently producing DVDs. President James Dudelson says he’s taking 13 of his titles out on DVD “because I think it’s the future. Unlike the laserdisc, you can fit an entire movie on one DVD, and it will be price-competitive with VHS technology. Since we shoot everything digitally, and transfer our dailies digitally, going to DVD won’t be much of a problem for us. Eventually, all of our library will be on DVD. The first titles out are from the Showtime TV series called ‘Compromising Positions.’

Keeping up

“I think if you want to be a player in this business, you have to invest in new technology to stay in the game.”

Burbank-based Image Entertainment, which handles about 40% of the laserdisc licensing market, thinks DVD is a natural extension for its existing customers.

“We do $90 million a year in laser, and my sense is that this year, DVD will be 10%-15% of our revenue,” predicts president Martin Greenwald, whose company just released its first DVD title, “Playboy’s Playmate of the Year.”

But buyer beware if you decide to invest in DVD.

“Reading the specs out of the book and making the picture is only half the job,” warns Steve Wyskocil, executive VP of L.A.-based EDS Digital Studios. “Our company is seeing a lot of DVD work for musicvideos, old black & whites and classics, and we are currently working on DVDs of ‘Terminator’ and ‘Into the Woods.’

“EDS was one of the first to offer DVD services this year, but we have been in the compression business for six years. Our bids almost invariably get undercut, but we always say, ‘OK, but when you come back to us, it’s double our rate to fix it.’ ”

While many estimate $30,000 as the minimum amount needed to pre-master a project for DVD, Steve Thompson of Santa Monica-based POP’s DVD center believes an independent with a very simple project could do it for half that.

“If you limit the features of your disc, and just want it to play like a video, you won’t have to pay for an artist to create a menu,” Thompson says. “While length of a program is a price determinant, pricing is very content-dependent. Some scenes compress easier than others. Hand-drawn cartoons and images with lots of motion detail are harder to compress and take more time.

” ‘My Dinner With Andre’ would be an example of a simple film to compress. Also, if we’re working off an analog source, the compressor is going to be working overtime to encode all that background noise, and that costs more. Independents should definitely consider going with a high-quality telecine.”

Thompson reports that POP has had many inquiries since it opened its DVD center earlier this year, but most of its projects so far have been specialty programs.

“The same people that release non-theatrical things on video are working on releasing titles on DVD, but there’s not a whole lot of interest yet from the independents,” Thompson observes.

Making educated decisions

“I think it’s important that the independents become familiar with what the format offers so they will be able to make educated decisions when DVD becomes a financially viable format for them. If they really care about the integrity and quality of their work, now is the time to do a quality film-to-tape transfer. That way they will have a master suitable for DVD when the format takes off.”

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