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DVD disc jockeying

Hollywood hoards high-tech treasures

The film biz is fast approaching DVD D-Day.

Just two years ago, only 4.8 million people in the U.S. owned DVD players, so it was no surprise that major titles like “Star Wars” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” were unavailable.

But now, there are 19.6 million players (nearly 25% of U.S. TV homes); consumers in the U.S. last year spent $4 billion on DVD purchases and rentals.

Studios are anxious to tap into this economic windfall: In the next few weeks, Hollywood will release a flood of previously unavailable titles, including “The Godfather” trio, “Citizen Kane,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Dr. Zhivago.”

But considering the boom, there are some astonishing holdouts: Though the new format boasts everything from Pauly Shore’s films to “The All Stars of Rodeo,” a lot of heavy hitters are still MIA.

Aside from “Star Wars” and “E.T.,” that list includes the Indiana Jones movies, “Sunset Boulevard,” “The African Queen,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Beverly Hills Cop” as well as “Eraserhead,” “Blowup” and and “Inherit the Wind.”

There are numerous reasons films are withheld: copyright issues, a glut of catalog titles, availability of filmmakers to work on DVD extra features, etc. But the most frequent reason for the no-shows is simple: greed.

Filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who have refused to give their go-ahead for certain titles, want to maximize coin for event pics like “E.T.” and “Star Wars.”

As for Indiana Jones DVDs, Paramount has not raised the issue with Lucas since the subject was broached nearly two years ago — and he refused to discuss it.

“Decisions are not made without (their) full approval and blessing,” says Paramount senior veepee of marketing Michael Arkin.

Universal is expected to release “E.T.” on DVD following a 20-year anniversary theatrical re-release next spring.

When the DVD format was launched in 1997, Universal — then owned by consumer electronics company Matsushita — joined pioneers Warner and Sony in promoting the format. That meant introducing some of the studio’s most prominent titles, to encourage consumers to buy a machine, which cost $500 to $700 at the time.

U announced plans during that era to release a number of Spielberg’s biggest hits but quickly backed off that strategy. Some with inside knowledge say the director wanted to wait until there were DVD players in enough homes to ensure sizable sales on initial release.

He also was disappointed at the time that the DTS sound system, in which he and U have partial ownership, was not chosen as the primary audio format for DVDs (the competing Dolby Digital is the mandatory default format).

So when “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” finally were released by Universal last year, they were introduced with DTS sound as an option on the DVD, as are most of Spielberg’s movies.

Aside from these motives, there are other reasons for delays in DVD releases — such as legal matters.

MGM, for example, owns the homevid rights to some pics from Polygram and Orion, so previous contracts have to be tracked down, and that takes time.

It’s also a challenge to find the best print or negative. “Finding the best possible source of the film can become a problem,” says David Bishop, president and chief operating officer of MGM Home Entertainment Group. “It’s even an issue with contemporary titles, not just old films.”

Other factors in determining a release of an older catalog title include the ability to secure the right elements. The marketability of most library titles relies on added value; the more bonus material a studio can cram on two or even three discs (making-of documentaries, running commentary by the filmmakers, etc.), the better.

The participation of Bob Evans gave extra juice to the plans for Par’s DVD edition of “Marathon Man.” “A Place in the Sun” is also on the horizon. “Once we knew we could get Elizabeth Taylor to sit down for a new interview, that kicked it up a notch,” Arkin says.

MGM’s Bishop adds: “We thought added-value material would be less important than it has turned out to be. VHS never offered the opportunity to canonize big titles like this format does. It’s now all about a collector’s mindset, and waiting to get the elements perfect is a smart thing to do.”

Thanks to the easily copied digital format, possible piracy is a constant fear of distribs, but never a factor in DVD releases. However, market saturation is a big ingredient.

“Studios definitely don’t want to put everything out at once,” says Fox homevid senior VP of marketing Peter Staddon. “Spending power is maximized if titles follow a release schedule that highlights classics mixed with new releases.”

As one of the least aggressive studios to get into the DVD game during the format’s first few years, Paramount now has the most number of big catalog titles that are still unavailable on DVD.

The studio has been rectifying that with this year’s release of “Ghost,” “Forrest Gump” and the “Godfather” trilogy, but still unplanned, along with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” are “Grease” and “Crocodile Dundee.”

Arkin says the studio has ramped up its DVD activity because “it is no longer a niche business. We want to provide people with the best that we’ve got.”

He adds, “We want to devote time to nurture the projects and devote the proper manpower. We worked on ‘The Godfather’ for a year.”

Recently, it was announced that “Funny Girl” will be released; Barbra Streisand earlier approved rights on all elements, and Columbia TriStar worked closely with her on the film.

That pic was one of several big titles in the Columbia vaults heretofore unreleased on DVD, but in the wake of its announced coming, additional expected titles in the coming months include “On the Waterfront” and “From Here to Eternity.” And, as is the case of many DVD efforts, the release of “Funny Girl” will be accompanied by a limited theatrical reissue.

MGM this fall will release “Fiddler on the Roof” on DVD for the pic’s 30th anniversary. Along with an introduction by helmer Norman Jewison and audio commentary from Jewison and star Topol, the disc’s most notable feature is “Any Day Now,” a new song that never made the cut for the original.

Some studios are tying DVD debuts to other “event” pics. Touchstone’s “Pearl Harbor,” for example, opened the DVD war chest from other studios’ libraries.

“We had success with ‘Tora, Tora, Tora,’ ” Fox’s Staddon notes. “Now we’re looking into other titles like ‘Guadalcanal Diary’ and ‘A Wing and a Prayer.’ ”

Despite the list of titles that are unavailable, the stats of DVD growth ensure that plans are in the works for almost every remaining library entry. “The list of factors involved in determining which catalog films get released on what dates is longer than the number of films unreleased on DVD,” explains Alison Biggers, Col TriStar Home Entertainment’s executive director, marketing of DVD strategy.

So be prepared — be very prepared — for a Pauly Shore boxed set.

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