Q&A: Ralph Tribbey on DVD (and Blu-ray Disc) by the Numbers

Media Play News kicks off two months of celebrating the 25th anniversary of DVD, and looking at a quarter century of digital entertainment, with a Q&A with the king of numbers, Ralph Tribbey.

Tribbey is the publisher of The DVD & Blu-ray Release Report, a weekly newsletter that tracks physical media. Tribbey began his long career in entertainment in theatrical exhibition before opening the second video store in all of San Diego as an adjunct to the Strand Theatre. There, he met Herb Fischer, who opened the Major Video distributorship in nearby La Mesa, and Jim Lahm, who was pioneering the video rental market in Orange County with Video Crossroads. Tribbey became VP of Video Crossroads and created a monthly fold-out poster newsletter that turned into a lucrative side venture for him. When Fischer was hired by Len White of CBS/Fox Home Video to run a new video label, Key Video, he hired Tribbey as head of marketing. Three years later Fischer was recruited to become SVP of sales and marketing for MGM/UA Home Video. He promptly hired Tribbey as VP of marketing for MGM, working alongside VP of sales David Bishop. After studio owner Kirk Kerkorian sold MGM, Tribbey ventured into consulting. He started what was originally called The DVD Release Report shortly after DVD’s March 1997 U.S. launch.

We asked Tribbey to share some thoughts on the launch of DVD 25 years ago this month, what trends he’s seeing, and the future of physical media.

MPN: What were you doing at the time of DVD’s launch, and what were your thoughts about the new format?

Tribbey: I was working on both coasts simultaneously when DVD was just surfacing.  On the East Coast I was consulting for Cabin Fever, and in Los Angeles I was working for two of my previous employers, Len White (20th Century Fox’s Key Video) and Bud O’Shea (MGM), who were both at Orion Pictures. The focus was still on VHS, but I recall very vividly that I was sitting in Bud’s office chatting with him when he got a special delivery of Columbia Pictures’ first DVD releases. The obvious thing was the size difference and how cool this was going to be. But the twist that I also noticed was the weight. This was going to be a game-changer in terms of shipping costs.  Having worked at West Coast Duplicating (Media Copy) for several years, I knew that the concept of stamping out a disc (like a CD) was going to be far more efficient, and eventually cheaper, than having racks and racks of VHS slaves doing real-time duplication. The price had to come down, as the early estimates put the costs at over 10 times the equivalent of the same product on VHS. That would have to be addressed quickly if the format was going to catch on — otherwise, it is just a smaller laserdisc, a niche market. I said to Bud, “You know what a carousel is — if you walk up to it when it is stopped, you just pick a horse and get on, but once it starts moving it gets harder and harder. I’ll bet there’s a business here documenting the releases on DVD and reporting on trends, new releases, genre, pricing, etc.” That’s how the DVD Release Report was born.

MPN: Despite the subsequent launch of two next-generation formats, Blu-ray Disc and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD continues to dominate release schedules. Why is this?

Tribbey: After 25 years, the DVD SKU count stands at 260,000 unique product offerings. Blu-ray has generated just over 33,000 titles since 2006, and the 4K Ultra HD line of products is at just under 950 titles. DVD remains the workhorse, because it is easier to replicate, especially since MOD has become the dominant factor. Eighty percent of all new DVD releases are manufactured on demand these days. We tend to focus on the next new big theatrical release coming out from the studios, or what cool collector’s editions are on the way from sources like Criterion, Severin Films, Vinegar Syndrome, Shout! Factory or Kino Lorber. But these two industry focus areas account for just 15% to 20% of all new releases. Sports on DVD (especially high school and college), religion, direct-to-video, foreign language, kidvid and the catch-all of special interest account for the lion’s share of new titles reaching the marketplace each week. Blu-ray has seen a dramatic increase in title count during the past couple of years as MOD and storage replication has become big driving factors. It doesn’t hurt that Blu-ray as a machine purchase is where the market is … who buys a DVD-only player these days?  Backwards compatibility keeps the DVD format working just fine.

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MPN: One of physical media’s advantages over digital is that you have a physical product you can hold in your hand and keep, without worrying about your hard drive crashing or your digital locker or streamer going out of business. Is a DVD as durable as, say, a hardcover book or vinyl LP?

Tribbey: Other than the plastic storage cases coming apart over time, I, personally, haven’t seen any issues with the discs themselves. DVD has been a durable format, with little issues. I have library titles from 1997 and everything still plays without issues. If you recall, vinyl was dead, that was premature, it is still going strong. CD music was headed to the graveyard, but has made a turnaround and remains vibrant.  Judging from the SKU counts each week, DVD and Blu-ray will be going strong for the next 25 years … there are just so many uses that transcend the current trend of streaming and all of the various platforms that are offering up movies and series programming.

MPN: In what ways has packaged media adjusted to the dominance of streaming services?

Tribbey: Twenty-five years later, despite all of the changes, DVD is still going strong … and now, beyond DVD, you have Blu-ray and 4K Ultra.  New merry-go-rounds, so to speak.  There certainly have been lots of changes over the years. New trends have emerged and the attitude of the “Hollywood” studios has changed as well. Plus, there is the growth of Netflix and Amazon as players, although they are not attentive at all to package media — it’s all about streaming — which means they are leaving money on the table and creating a lucrative market for piracy. The rise of replication-on-demand has been a major factor over the last 10 years, not only for DVD, but for Blu-ray as well. MOD is something of a double-edged sword — it gives the studios flexibility in dealing with low-demand library releases, but it also has created an opportunity for special programming that runs the gamut from how-to, to sports, to religion, to music and more. You name a subject, a topic/interest, and it is likely available on DVD.  

Piracy is the other big beneficiary of manufacturing on demand.   Right now, piracy is on steroids, which is a direct result of the various streaming platforms serving-up pristine masters. You don’t need someone in a theatre any longer with a video device to capture the latest blockbuster. It is delivered directly from the source.  

MPN: What impacts have these trends had from a studio perspective?  

Tribbey: The studios were the dominant players in the early days of DVD, accounting for 20% of all new releases and probably 80% of the revenue, with new theatrical releases and the vast film libraries being the driving forces.  Now, their collective annual output on DVD is between 5% and 8% of the total SKU count.

Blu-ray followed the same pattern.  When it was launched in 2006, the “Hollywood” studios accounted for 77% of the new titles released. By the 10-year mark, their annual commitment to Blu-ray was down to one in four new releases … and last year it was just 12% of new arrivals. The other big trend with Blu-ray is it is now being used as a “storage” medium for its bandwidth, more so than quality.  The pirates can snatch an entire season of studio-produced Amazon Prime or Netflix programs — stuff like “Ozark,” “Reacher,” “The Mandalorian” or “Inventing Anna” — jam it onto one or two discs, and make it available for purchase within hours of the final episode being broadcast.

The only area where the studios continue to maintain dominance is the 4K Ultra HD format, where cumulatively they hold an 84% share of the title count.