Columbia Tristar Media Event

Tuesday 20th February 2001

Introduction - "DVD Dominates The New Millennium"

    Columbia Tristar recently invited members of the media to an event highlighting their DVD plans and projections for 2001. In addition, they showed an early sneak preview of Lawrence Of Arabia on DVD to the assembled (and very enthusiastic) crowd. We sent both Murray Glase and Dean McIntosh along to cover the event.

Murray's Report | Dean's Report

Murray's Report

    We had the pleasure last night of attending the Sydney launch of the upcoming Columbia Tristar DVD release of Lawrence of Arabia. This is in fact the start of a concerted nationwide marketing programme by the company to herald the release on March 21 of what is probably the jewel in the crown of their film library.  They were also very keen to point out that Australia will benefit by being the first country in the world to have the film available on the DVD format.

    Without counting heads, there must have been something of the order of 40 to 50 people attending the function. In addition to we two scribes, there was at least one other DVD internet site represented, together with various marketing agencies and advisors and other external parties. It turned out to be quite a knowledgeable group, since a quick hand poll found only two people who didn't already own a DVD player!

    The evening started off quite pleasurably, with food and drinks being served in the foyer of the company's theatrette. On hand to take care of the host duties were at least 8 of the company staff, including Michele Garra, Managing Director of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment. This provided a great opportunity to talk informally about the company, its general operating philosophy and DVDs in general. It's great to see that the people on the other side of the great "industry divide" actually share many of the views of we film and DVD enthusiasts, in particular when they relate to such things as widescreen enhancement, DVD extras and rental windows.

    The second half of the evening had everyone move into the theatrette for a series of brief comments from the marketing staff of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, among them Michele Garra and Biljana Stanojcic (Marketing Manager).  Michele proceeded to tell us all how successful the DVD format has been (of course, we already knew!), and in particular how Gladiator has become the most successful title yet to hit the shelves (115,000 units released in Australia pre-Christmas with 10% sell-through on Day 1, 61% after 3 weeks). Marketing plans are being based around expectations of 1 million stand-alone DVD players in Australian homes by the end of 2001, with 8 million discs being sold this year and double that next year.

    Finally, the presentation moved onto the release of Lawrence of Arabia itself. We understand that the first 10,000 copies of the disc will be made available in a limited cloth-covered case. A closer look at the case later on (incidentally, the only example of such a case currently in the country) showed it to be very nice, and a great value-added feature to induce even first time purchasers. Thanks to the theatrette's video projector, we were given a sneak preview of the disc and some of its features. I think there have already been plenty of press releases listing all of the added features on the disc, but we can assure you of the quality of the material on the disc, including the film itself.

    The formal part of the evening ended with questions for Michele Garra from the floor. Among the more important answers she gave were comments on:

    All in all, it was a very polished evening. We can only say that it's good to see such dedication to the format from a company that has consistently provided very good quality technical results on their discs.

    Thanks to Michele Garra for hosting the evening, and in particular to Iain Cooper with whom we spent an hour in very pleasant conversation.

© Murray Glase (read my bio)
21 February 2001


Dean's Report

Introduction

    At six in the evening on the twentieth of February in 2001, Murray and I had the privilege of attending Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment's first major media event for the year. The primary focus of this event was the upcoming re-release of Lawrence Of Arabia, and we also got a sneak preview of other titles that are planned for release in the first half of the year. More than that, however, we were pleasantly informed that the format has exceeded all expectations in terms of commercial success, and we got to see that Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment are indeed very committed to it. Indeed, if you are to believe what we were told at this conference, the future of home video is DVD, and the extinction of analogue video formats may indeed be closer than you think.

The Level Of DVD Awareness

    Although pretty much everyone who was present at this conference was a proud owner of a DVD player, there were in fact two people who didn't own one, and it is pretty hard to talk about the extra features of the format without making these people feel as if they're being told to suck eggs, to quote Michele Garra, Columbia Tristar's Managing Director. The real focus was on what we need to point out to the consumers out there. One thing that was addressed is the fact that when you go to the average consumer or even the average retail employee, you find that they really don't know that much about the format.

    "To say that DVD is a revolution in home entertainment would actually be a gross understatement," says Michele. "Our rising star, as we call it, is already shining quite brightly in this country. DVD is emerging as the biggest thing in entertainment since the invention of television, and it's fair to say that DVD in all its permutations, whether they be DVD-ROMs, the new game platforms, DVD Music, or DVD-Video, will in fact dominate the new millennium." Michele then informed us of a DVD Camcorder product that was apparently all the rage at a recent Consumer Electronics Show, giving us hope that DVD-Recordable is not far off into the horizon. "So everywhere we turn, there's another DVD product."

    Indeed, consumption of the DVD-Video format has risen quite rapidly in the last twelve months. Gladiator has now sold more copies in three months than the previous top seller, The Matrix, sold in the entire year. So where do Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment see themselves as fitting into this revolution? Well, it seems they have enjoyed being a key player in the format's success, and indeed, the rate at which Australians are converting to the new format is extraordinary. As a matter of fact, this rate even exceeds Columbia Tristar's own "bullish expectations", as Michele puts it. Last Christmas signified DVD-Video's potential, with Gladiator making DVDs the Christmas gift of 2000, with over 115,000 copies shipped in the first week, three times as many as that of the previous top seller. As a matter of fact, Gladiator apparently sold-through sixty-one percent in its first week of release, so retailers certainly have no excuse not to embrace the format.

    The statistics apparently show that forty thousand DVD players are being sold every month right now, and this is expected to increase even further during the next year. Some 475,000 DVD players were in Australian homes at the end of the year 2000, with that figure expected to exceed the one million mark by the end of 2001. Those figures don't include sales of DVD-ROM drives, Sony's Playstation 2, or DVD Camcorder units. As a matter of fact, more than twice as many DVD players were sold in the first year than VCRs from 1975 to 1977, and more than twelve times as many DVD players were sold in that year than CD players when they first hit the market in 1983.

    DVD software purchases are already outstripping VHS purchases. According to the statistics, the average Australian only buys two VHS cassettes in a year (I bought about a dozen in five), while DVD-Video owners are buying eight discs in a year (I owned twenty-four in three months, and I hasten to add that this was before I began reviewing for this site). Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment conservatively estimate that eight million discs will be sold by the end of 2001, with that figure doubling by the end of 2002. Currently, it is estimated that the DVD-Video retail market is worth about 155 million dollars, and the value will increase to 700 million dollars by 2003. "To give you a point of comparison, this will rival the book and cinema markets, and probably surpass the music industry. So the real telling point of DVD's popularity is when you compare these sales to CDs," says Michele. "Consumers are buying DVDs eight times faster than when CDs were released." As a matter of fact, two music retailers have reported that the Gladiator DVD outsold their fastest-selling music CDs, one of which happened to be The Beatles' #1s.

    The DVDUsergroup was then cited as another example of the fast-growing DVD phenomenon. Launched in September of 2000, this user group now boasts over 40,000 members, with half a million page impressions per month. If nothing else, this at least tells us that the DVD-Video consumer is a more involved, more informed, and ultimately, more dedicated breed. Indeed, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment believe that the DVD-Video format will achieve ten percent hardware penetration in Australia by the third quarter of 2001. By comparison, we'll only be nine months behind the good old USA in reaching this milestone when they had an eighteen month head start.

    So all in all, the future is looking extremely bright for the DVD format.

DVD On A Car, A Train, A Bus, Or Even A Plane

    Standalone DVD players aren't the only appliance behind the meteoric rise of our beloved shiny discs. Sony's new flagship games machine, the Playstation 2, has established the Digital Versatile Disc as a format that can do more than just carry a film. The fact that it is also able to play DVD-Video, reports of it not doing this well from other Regions notwithstanding, takes the format into another sixty thousand households that might not have otherwise seen the need for it. Microsoft's X-Box, a similar DVD-compatible games console, is expected to do the same.

    DVD-ROM hardware is also allowing consumers to view DVD-Video on planes, buses, and trains as well. Indeed, there are new models of car being produced in the USA with display screens mounted in the backs of the front seats so the children seated in the back of the car can view films on long, cross-country drives. The idea behind this is nothing new, as my sister and I used to view films on a crudely mounted VHS system during long car trips, but obviously, the addition of high resolution displays to the equation is taking this idea to a whole new level. It is expected that there will be approximately 2.75 million DVD players or devices with comparable capabilities in Australian homes this year. The fact that the average price of a standalone player is slowly creeping down is certainly helping matters, with a DVD-Video player being well within the grasp of the average Australian in spite of the exchange rate problem.

So What Makes The DVD Supreme?

    Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment take great pride, it seems, in the design of their DVD-Video titles and the menu systems. As they provide access to up to eight audio tracks and thirty-two subtitle streams, as well as a chaptering system that allows the user to move around the film "hassle-free", they have every right to. From a sales point of view, the ability to include up to eight audio tracks allows the breaking down of language barriers. Extra features also increase the popularity of the format, as you'd expect, due to their ability to further draw the viewer into the experience of the film.

    This all begs the question of what makes Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment's discs as great as they generally are. If you believe their answer, it's because of their availability and range as well as their dedication to quality. This is reflected in their dogged refusal to make use of rental windows, which has attracted a lot of heat from the rentailer chains. The fact that the rental window is of no real benefit to the serious movie collector has obviously been taken into account with this stance. It is also reflected in the use of the Gold Standard Quality sticker, which is used to indicate that the DVD in question has been authored by the Sony Pictures DVD Centre in Los Angeles for the best possible quality. This is supposed to be Columbia Tristar's guarantee to the consumer that they will be getting the best possible value that DVD-Video can deliver for their dollar. "Why buy the latest technology for your home and watch inferior recordings?" rationalizes Michele.

    In discussions before the presentation began, it was generally agreed that the standard of DVD authoring is improving across the industry, especially in the last six months. The only caveat to this, as I discussed with a couple of those in attendance, is that it can be hard to convince newcomers to the format of this when we have cheap knock-off distributors in the market. "I've always said that when the standard is high across the board, I'll take the stickers off, so I'm really glad to hear that," says Michele.

    Columbia Tristar are also committed to bringing us a decent selection, it seems, of back-catalogue titles, something that was not previously economically viable with the VHS format. DVD-Video's success has been attributed as much to back-catalogue titles such as Jaws, and Dr. Strangelove, as it has to recent releases such as The Matrix or Gladiator. More people seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity to build a library of films, proving that, as an earlier press material I've read states, DVD-Video makes movies collectable in a way that wasn't previously possible.

    It was at this point that we were introduced to Martin Burton, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment's Director of Marketing, who unveiled the DVD re-release of a cinematic classic.

Lawrence Of Arabia on DVD, The Marketing Side

    Martin Burton's favourite film, as he tells us, is Lawrence Of Arabia, so he must have been pleased with the way it has scrubbed up on DVD. Myself, I have never seen this film except for a brief, Panned and Scanned snippet of Peter O'Toole bellowing "no prisoners", so I am very glad that my first significant viewing of the film has been in the proper aspect ratio. Columbia Tristar are planning to re-release Lawrence Of Arabia on DVD throughout March and April of this year, and in a surprising move, Australia will be the first nation on the re-release schedule, with the local disc being released on March 21. This is two weeks before the American release, which is actually a first for a major back-catalogue release on DVD. Being one of the first great action-adventure epics, Lawrence Of Arabia is a film that the DVD-Video format was designed for.

    The first ten thousand copies of Lawrence Of Arabia will be presented in a limited edition collector's pack, consisting of a cloth-covered, book-like case with a miniaturized version of the theatrical poster bonded to the front. The sample of the packaging that I looked at was, at the time, the only such sample available in the country, and from briefly studying the design, I can say that this is a much sturdier and more durable case than what we are used to seeing with special collector's packages (Fight Club, anyone?). Shortly after I was able to look closely at this case, I made a polite enquiry as to the reason behind the switch from the standard durable Brackley case to the more flimsy Soft Brackley style of casing. The answer was that the standard Brackley was a fixture of the days when discs were shipped, packaging and all, into Australia rather than replicated and packaged locally. As a further answer, I was advised that constant experimentation was taking place with new packaging designs and that the best type would eventually become the standard. Hopefully, this will mean the end of the Soft Brackley and the C-Button cases in the foreseeable future.

    Anyway, getting back to Lawrence Of Arabia, the film is being re-released in its 218 minute form, which was reportedly director David Lean's preferred cut, as a two-disc set. As is the norm for Columbia Tristar releases, it is loaded to the eyeballs with special features, a total of about six hours worth, according to Martin. As he rightly states, this allows not only fans of the film to add to the experience of viewing the film, but it also allows a new generation of viewers such as myself to get a rich, in-depth first impression of it. This is another reason why I pity the poor people who don't realize how much they're missing out on with the Very Hazy System. All kidding aside, however, Martin goes on to say that it is indeed the collectible nature of DVD that Columbia Tristar are focusing on. With re-releases such as this, it affords the opportunity to entice the old-school movie buff as well as the fan of the special-effects extravaganza to become new consumers of the format. Such new consumers can then experience Lawrence Of Arabia exactly as David Lean intended it to be experienced. It makes me very glad that the first time I will view this film at all will be an experience delivered by the DVD-Video format.

    The DVD release of Lawrence Of Arabia will be supported by a national consumer publication campaign, with publications from both ends of the spectrum being included. This will apparently include general entertainment magazines such as Who Weekly, as well as specialist DVD magazines such as DVD Now and Region 4. This part of the campaign will apparently be coupled with a promotion on the DVD Usergroup web site, and a dedicated Lawrence Of Arabia web site. The film is also set to be displayed in key retailers around this country, in the same style of stand that has been used already to promote the format in general. This gives the impression that Columbia Tristar are not only deadly serious about promoting the DVD release of the film, but also about promoting the DVD-Video format.

    Next, we were introduced to Jeff Doyle, who proceeded to show us some of the added-value features that have been packed onto the Lawrence Of Arabia DVD.

Lawrence Of Arabia on DVD, The Discs Themselves

    It was at this point that we were shown exactly what is contained on the Lawrence Of Arabia two-disc set. In an interesting move, the film itself will be split over the two discs, mostly due to its whopping length. The film will be presented as David Lean intended, with a music-only overture and a similar intermission, with the disc-change point coming after the intermission, a natural break in the film as it were. As a result, the first disc contains nearly 134 of the film's total 218 minutes, while disc two contains just over eighty-four. All of the extras save for the DVD-ROM Archives Of Arabia feature, which shows the film with production notes and photos that serve to link a sort of making-of documentary with the story unfolding on-screen, are contained on the second disc. It appears as if someone is finally doing something substantial with the DVD-ROM format, rather than merely using it to provide links to out-of-date websites.

    There are also a number of special features included on the DVD that are compatible with standalone DVD-Video players. The first of these to be mentioned was a sixty-minute documentary exploring the making of the film, which features such interesting facts as Peter O'Toole's being the third choice for the role of T.E. Lawrence, behind Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. Also included are new interviews with co-stars Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, plus members of the crew such as editor Anne Coates and production designer John Box. Sadly, David Lean passed away in 1991, so he didn't have the chance to be involved with the production of the DVD even in an audio commentary capacity. However, the documentary apparently also features a large part of an interview he made in 1989.

    Other special features include four behind-the-scenes featurettes about the making of the film, each offering an insight into the making of a particular part of the film. However, the real jewel in the crown of Columbia Tristar's preservation efforts for Lawrence Of Arabia is the inclusion of an original piece of newsreel footage that has been sitting in a vault for years and is now committed to the format for posterity. Not only does this preserve a large chunk of the film's history, it also serves to provide a look back at the methods used to publicize films in the early 1960s, something every film buff will appreciate. This newsreel footage is an original live shooting of cast and crew members arriving at the New York premiere, and aside from the fact that it is in monochrome and was obviously filmed using very early newscasting technology, the footage barely shows a hint of its forty years.

    Also included amongst the extras is an interview with Steven Spielberg, who describes Lawrence Of Arabia as "a miracle of a film". By far, however, the most interactive feature of this release is the Journey With Lawrence set-top function, as Jeff describes it. Following in the footsteps of previous Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment set-top functions on such releases as Hook and Bridge On The River Kwai, this feature will allow the viewer to follow one of four paths, using their remote control, through the Arabia of T.E. Lawrence's campaign, complete with pictures and narration. Adding to the value of this extra is the fact that the photographs featured are of such figures as the real T.E. Lawrence and Sharif Hussain, providing a look at the world as it really was in the era depicted in the film. Along with these features, we will also be treated to the original theatrical trailer, filmographies of the cast and crew, and a featurette on the advertising campaigns.

    To cut a very long story short, purists, film buffs, and curious first-time viewers alike will have almost nothing to complain about with this DVD re-release of Lawrence Of Arabia. Funnily enough, all of the equipment used in the demonstration we saw that night was no different to that which is available to the public from any given Hi-Fi store. It goes to show you just how excellent a format is when even a marketing team who have access to an actual film projector will use it for demonstration purposes.

Question Time

    We were then handed over to Michele Garra and Biljana Stanojcic, the Marketing Manager for Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, who both began answering questions from some of the guests. I won't repeat the questions and answers here, as Murray has covered that in his write-up of the event in a much better manner than I was willing to give myself credit for being able to do. However, I will cover some of the salient points that were raised which should interest consumers:

Coming Soon To A Home Theatre Near You

    Once the presentation and the answering of questions were finished with, we settled back and viewed some previews of films that are expected to be released in the first half of 2001. Granted, the previews were on a VHS cassette due to difficulties in putting together a DVD for this purpose, but it looks like we're in for an exciting six months. The titles included in the March release schedule were Billy Elliot, Hollow Man, and Lawrence Of Arabia, three films that should suit three wildly different tastes. April will see the release of Snatch, The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, as well as The Blues Brothers and Blues Brothers 2000, making for a very comedic month. May will see the release of Charlie's Angels, which I saw theatrically for reasons that I still can't quite fathom months later. June and July will see the release of The Sixth Day (expect to see a lot of angry ranting in my review if I get this one) and Vertical Limit (which I would eat my arm off to get allocated).

    With that, we came to the end of what was a very informative, enjoyable and well-run evening. It's certainly encouraging to see that Columbia Tristar are standing behind the format, and the lineup of releases they have for the next six months will certainly keep them at the top of the heap when it comes to producing quality products for a wide variety of tastes. I'd like to thank Michele Garra for hosting this event, as well as Suzannah Nicholson for showing up and allowing me to put a face to the name, and Iain Cooper for providing some rather pleasant conversation. It's always nice to see that, contrary to what some might believe, there are human beings behind the industry after all.

© Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
February 21, 2001.


Murray's Report | Dean's Report