Like latenight pitchmen for Ginsu knives, studios keep upping the ante in their drive to sell more catalog fare. Studios have progressed from double-feature discs to triple features, while lavish box sets are being released side by side with film collections that offer affordability but few bells and whistles.
In some of the multi-title sets, the movies seem almost like an afterthought. But that may be wise, given how marginal some of these pics are.
None of the five pics in Universal’s “Cary Grant Screen Legend Collection,” for instance, could be construed as his finest, though they’re not without their charms. All made early in his career when he was under contract at Paramount, the pics include “Thirty Day Princess,” a fitfully fizzy romp co-penned by Preston Sturges, and “Kiss and Make Up,” a strangely compelling allegory about the dangers of cosmetic surgery set in Paris, with Grant the shallow doc who learns to appreciate his faithful secretary.
U’s “Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection,” released earlier this year, has even more pics (six) and a lower price ($26.98 to Grant’s $29.98 set), but flimsier packaging with plot descriptions reduced to a few words each on the box art.
Warner, meanwhile, has started stuffing three pics on a single disc for $14.98 each. Its first wave, released early last month, included some early John Wayne Westerns (co-starring Duke the miracle horse!) and Randolph Scott oaters making their disc debut, along with more recent fare. Some newer trios come with a few extras, but the focus is on movies, not bonus features.
This no- to low-frill approach allows studios to reap more coin from their libraries without major expense. Studios have already mined their vaults for the biggest gems, but plenty of interesting — if limited in appeal — pics remain untapped on DVD.
More recent catalog releases also have earnings potential provided the price is right. In their quest for coin, studios have ramped up double features in the past year to include popular hits such as “Legally Blonde” and “Legally Blonde 2.”
Sony, which has been bullish about double features, has also explored triple features but has yet to release any.
“DVD is getting into mass market with more price conscious consumers,” explains Warner homevid prexy Ron Sanders, who notes that these buyers may not care about bonus features the way collectors do.
Warner is known for its lavish sets — last week it released a 14-disc “Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition” — but has always pushed low-priced discs.
“We play at both ends of the spectrum because there’s consumer demand for it,” Sanders says.
Universal has also been known to “plus up” major releases such as the “King Kong Extended Edition,” but isn’t afraid to go the no-frills route on catalog gems and marginal pics alike. Last year, the studio released a major Alfred Hitchcock set with light features, and a few weeks ago, it released a barebone collection with a trio of Sturges’ finest films.
The $59.98 set boasts “Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story” along with the disc debuts of four lesser-known films, but at most the pics are accompanied by a trailer; “Hail the Conquering Hero” doesn’t even have that. There are no featurettes on Sturges, a colorful character who enjoyed a creative burst in the 1940s with many of the films here, or references to the fact the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” was inspired by Hollywood satire “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Universal defends its approach, arguing that the movies themselves are the most important ingredient in any release.
“The key thing to the purchase of a DVD is you have to like the movie,” maintains U homevid exec marketing VP Ken Graffeo.
Still, cinephiles can be excused for their disappointment, given the quality of the pics. Those eager to learn more can turn to the Criterion releases of “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Lady Eve,” but what of the pics making their DVD debut in the set?
In its Cary Grant box set earlier this year, Sony at least included several short featurettes on the star and his work at Columbia. That five-disc set, which includes “His Girl Friday” and the DVD debut of “Holiday,” was relatively affordable at $49.95.
Another disappointment: The print quality on some of older pics making their debut. That’s bad news for completists.
Some studio execs, meanwhile, worry that focusing on lower prices hurts the biz overall.
“People are trying to artificially drive growth by lowering prices,” says Fox homevid exec VP and G.M. Simon Swart.
However, other studios parry that there’s room for high and low end packages.
“We don’t intentionally stamp things out,” Graffeo says. “There’s a life cycle for different product.”