Jonathan Dolgen, Hard-Driving Studio Boss and Home Video Pioneer, Dies at 78

Jonathan Dolgen, the tough-as-nails Paramount Pictures boss and a home video pioneer, died Oct. 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 78.

A former Wall Street lawyer, Dolgen took the reins of Paramount in 1994 when he was brought in as chairman of the Viacom Entertainment Group by Sumner Redstone. His mandate was to rebuild the ailing studio, which Viacom had just acquired. Dolgen came to Viacom with a reputation for abrasiveness and a track record of extreme cost-cutting and shrewd deal-making.

Working closely with studio chief Sherry Lansing, who had joined Paramount two years earlier, Dolgen succeeded famously. Over the pair’s 10-year run Paramount scored such huge theatrical successes as Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, Deep Impact, The Truman Show, Runaway Bride, and Mission: Impossible 2. The studio also became a major force in home video, under the auspices of Eric Doctorow.

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“Jonathan was the smartest executive I ever worked for, and the toughest,” said Doctorow, who now runs his own independent film distribution company, Random Media.

Dolgen was born on April 27, 1945, to a working-class family in Queens. He graduated from Cornell University in 1966 before earning a law degree three years later from New York University Law School.

He began his career with the Wall Street law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, focused on corporate law. He moved into entertainment in 1976, shortly before the birth of the home video business, when he took a job as assistant general counsel for Columbia Pictures. In June 1978, the studio launched its own home video division, which released its first 20 movies on videocassette in November 1979. This initial batch of movies was distributed through a rental “club” run by Time-Life, but Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment, as the home video division was called, soon set up its own distribution arm.

In 1981, Columbia teamed with RCA to set up an international home video division, and in 1982 RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video was launched to service the North American market. Dolgen was involved in all these ventures, and in 1983 was promoted to president of the studio’s Pay Cable & Home Entertainment Group.

In January 1985, Dolgen left Columbia to become Senior EVP at 20th Century Fox. In July of that year the New York Times reported that Lawrence Hilford, president of CBS/Fox Video, “the largest videocassette distributor in the country, … would leave the company…. Recently, there have been reports of conflict between Mr. Hilford and Jonathan Dolgen…. Mr. Dolgen has played a key role at Fox since he joined the company in January, shortly after Barry Diller was named chairman in October. Among Mr. Dolgen’s responsibilities at Fox is the videocassette operation….”

Dolgen later served as chairman of 20th Century Fox Television before leaving the studio in 1990 to assume the presidency of Columbia Pictures.

After Paramount, Dolgen held various board seats, including at Expedia, the travel website. He also served as a senior consultant at the ARTISTdirect Network, a music destination website.

He also became involved in philanthropy. He was a big supporter of his alma mater, Cornell University, and served on the Cornell Major Gifts Committee. He was a founder of the Friends of the Cornell University Theater Arts Center and, in 2011, was celebrated along with his wife, Susan, as Foremost Benefactors of Cornell. Dolgen also has served on the boards of such nonprofits as the California Institute of the Arts, Claremont Graduate University and The Simon Wisenthal Center. 

Dolgen is survived by his wife, Susan; two daughters, Tamar and Lauren; three grandchildren; and his brother, David Dolgen. 

Rewind: Home Video Industry Reunion

Veterans of the home video industry, many of whom began their careers back when home entertainment revolved around the VHS rental cassette, gathered at the Valley Inn Steakhouse and Bar in Sherman Oaks, Calif. on the evening of Sept. 12, 2023 for a reunion. The event attracted nearly 100 people, including former WEA chairman and CEO Dave Mount; Marty Jorgensen of Video Products Distributors (VPD); Mitch Perliss of The Wherehouse; Eric Doctorow, the former president of Paramount Home Video; and David Bishop, who served as president of MGM Home Video and, later, what is now Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The reunion, and two prior ones, were organized by Jodie Francisco, now a Sherman Oaks realtor whose own home video industry career ran the gamut from distributor (Metro Video) to studio rep. (Media Play News staff photos)

Ex-Paramount Home Video Chief Eric Doctorow Ready for Next Round

At the age of 70, Eric Doctorow is getting a second wind.

Having weathered a health crisis and the loss of his wife, all in the past year, the former Paramount Home Video president is giving Random Media, the independent film distributor he co-founded 10 years ago with partner Tom Skouras, a renewed push, with a focus on quality over quantity.

“A near-death experience is a profound catalyst for change,” he says. “I’ve discovered a heightened sense of purpose in my personal and professional life.”

Doctorow wants to sustain Random Media’s current annual release schedule of approximately 30 films, aiming for the ideal equilibrium between disc, digital TVOD, and streaming.

“Our strategy over the next few years is to refine our expertise, draw more filmmakers to our innovative approach, and assist in shaping new careers for emerging filmmakers,” he says. “Nurturing the growth of novice filmmakers is immensely gratifying. It’s one of the key motivations behind our passion for this industry.”

Doctorow says that when he launched Random Media a decade ago, “we envisioned creating a vibrant market for cutting-edge, potent independent films in various genres that might otherwise remain undiscovered. We were prepared to dedicate ourselves fully, focus on minute details, and establish a reputation as a trustworthy independent distribution company.”

To achieve this, he continues, “we chose to take a unique approach. Firstly, we decided to limit our monthly releases to a few select films. Some companies release 10 or 20 films monthly, but that didn’t seem right for us. So, we concentrated — and continue to concentrate — on two to three films a month. This way, we aren’t indiscriminately throwing ideas around, but instead, each film receives our dedicated focus.”

Secondly, he says, “we prioritized forging strong, personal relationships with every filmmaker. We ensure they’re familiar with each member of our team, guaranteeing constant accessibility. We are always at hand to answer phone calls and emails promptly, and diligently provide follow-ups. This is basic, but crucial customer service.

“Thirdly, although we don’t offer advance payments for our films, we allocate substantial marketing resources for each release. Without creating buzz, a film simply dissipates into obscurity — an idea we find inconceivable. We engage PR and social media experts and closely collaborate with filmmakers to uncover any potential opportunities that may have gone unnoticed.

“And, lastly, but of paramount importance, we respond to emails promptly, issue statements on schedule, make timely payments, and value our relationships with filmmakers highly. In essence, we epitomize the ‘good guys.’”

Random Media primarily acquires genre films, spanning horror, sci-fi, comedy, and documentaries. “We fervently believe in each film we release and we try to seize every opportunity,” he says. “Despite the dwindling marketplace for DVDs, we still have faith in them. Therefore, we ensure that each film is released on both physical and digital platforms, globally and across all streaming, SVOD, AVOD, and other platforms, including, recently, FAST channels.”

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The home entertainment business, Doctorow maintains, “is more multifaceted and varied than ever before. Thus, staying informed about current trends has become increasingly important. Consequently, we spend a substantial amount of time discussing trends and opportunities with our wide network of long-term contacts and associates.”

Doctorow spent 20 years at Paramount, culminating in the presidency of the studio’s home video division under studio boss Jonathan Dolgen.

When his Paramount job ended in 2003, Doctorow briefly took over operations of first THQ, the video game maker, and then Ventura Entertainment, an independent home video distributor.

He later spent five years as GM of MGM, managing the distribution joint venture with 20th Century Fox. He capped his studio run as EVP of Miramax.

Doctorow and Skouras launched Random Media in 2012, with Don Rosenberg as COO. The company has, to date, released 250 films, including titles such as Hoaxed, The Kybalion, Iron Brothers, and Incident at Guilt Creek.

Upcoming releases include: 

  • The Joke Man: A biopic about Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, famous for being the head writer of Howard Stern’s show for 15 years and infamous for leaving that position. Digital and DVD, July 18.
  • Vengeance Turns Vol. 1:  Following a brutal attack in which her husband and children are murdered and she is left for dead, Rebecca Falcon rises from the carnage of her former life hellbent on revenge as a bloodthirsty vigilante called Mia. Digital and DVD, July 25.
  • The Oyster Shucker: In the world of competitive oyster shucking, Honor Allen is among the planet’s best. This documentary follows the four-time U.S. champion over several years, exploring the unique subculture and meeting competitors from around the globe. Digital and DVD, Sept. 5.

Eric Doctorow: Internet Still Lacking When It Comes to Discovery, Particularly for Indie Fare

Four years ago, I wrote a guest commentary in Media Play News about the inherent problem with the internet and independent film distribution. Back then, I argued that the internet was a great search tool, but a terrible discovery tool. 

Eric Doctorow

I compared video stores (remember them?) to the internet and found the opposite to be true: They were terrible for search because you could never find what you were looking for, but they were great for discovery. Indeed, video stores basically built the independent film business because customers were able — essentially forced — to discover new films when they couldn’t find what they really wanted to take home. Hundreds of filmmakers and thousands of films found their audiences because their films were available on shelves Saturday night. (By the way, when I refer to independent film I am referring to small-budget, no-star projects. These films are almost never released theatrically, but end up on streaming platforms.)

The internet, on the other hand, is a place where you can find anything you are looking for, provided you know what you are looking for. It’s true that discovery on the internet is better than it used to be, but it is not a discerning experience.

Digital platforms have famously bad recommendation engines, though they are getting better. But even Netflix, which has an advanced system, tends to recommend films that are not true independent fare because Netflix is less a movie site than a television site.

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Most, dare I say all, streaming and TVOD platforms are now pretty good at recommending films that are like the ones you watched recently. But more and more, they are recommending films and other content with well-known cast or solid box office success. They are not recommending true independent low-budget films that star someone named Fred Cruise, rather than Tom.

FAST channels can slice and dice big genres into smaller and smaller sub genres and certainly provide a cool viewing experience for fans.  But FAST channels still don’t solve the bigger problem: where do smaller, independent films go to breathe and be seen?

I know from experience that one problem with independent films is that there are too many of them. When anyone who wants to be Quentin Tarantino walks into a Best Buy and walks out with a fantastic camera for under $1,000, is it any wonder that films seem to be falling out of the sky?

Many people will say, “Good films rise to the top,” but we all know that this is simply not true. Good films, like any good art, can only rise to the top when it is promoted and pushed. That seems simple enough — find people to promote and push great independent films.  But it’s not that easy. The cost of promotion and advertising is growing much faster than the potential revenues generated from most films.

There is a reason that studios spend upwards of $100 million to open an important, expensive film. It’s because that’s what it takes.  Trying to get consumers first to be aware of a film and then to get them to watch it is hard, given all the media messages that bombard each of us each day. 

The BFI recently declared that the independent film industry in the U.K. might end up being killed because the combination of rising marketing and production costs and lower revenue is making the industry unsustainable. The same thing could happen here in the United States.

One possible solution is to follow the ancient Greeks and the Medicis.  In those times, art existed by virtue of patrons. Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel on his own. He was sponsored by the Medici family.  Today, we have some of that — would opera exist without wealthy patrons? How about orchestras, art museums and dance? 

But film seems to be a different animal. Yes, we see some tax incentives to help support production and marketing. Canada is a good example of this. But it is not likely that widespread use of this tax advantage will happen in our increasingly frugal federal and state government bureaucracies. Certain private patrons will do good work, but not enough and rarely for small independent films. These investors are usually rich individuals who often say they don’t want a financial return on their investment but, like all good capitalists, eventually want a return on their investment.

Our industry is at a crossroads. Supporting and seeking out good independent films is critical to the industry’s future. These films are part of the food chain that helps create future “big film” filmmakers.  Ask almost any directors of note and they will concur. Ask Nick Cassavetes or Wally Pfister or Darren Aronofsky, among many others, whether independent film was important to their career development.

So, what is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer to this complicated question, but here is some food for thought.

  • Let’s get the DEG and OTT to focus on independent films: these two organizations reach a lot of important executives and taste makers. Would it be so terrible to have a seminar or two on the independent film business?
  • Perhaps some streaming platforms should create an “independent film corner” on their sites.
  • Maybe certain media outlets that list top performing films could also have a section on independent movies.

 

These are just a few ideas. I am sure there are others that make sense that other people might envision. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have many of the questions.

Anyway, as our business evolves let’s not forget that in many ways, the independent film business is at the heart of our industry’s future.

Eric Doctorow is president of independent film distributor Random Media. He previously was president of the home video divisions of Paramount Pictures and MGM.

Indie Random Media Issues Faux Doc ‘The Landing,’ About Apollo Mission That Never Was

Random Media, the independent film company launched by ex-Paramount Pictures home video chief Eric Doctorow, is hoping to capitalize on the “fake news” phenomenon.

Random on Oct. 2 releases on digital and DVD The Landing, a “documentary” about the disastrous Apollo 18 mission. The story takes place years after the mission’s controversial catastrophe that left two American astronauts dead and which marked the end of U.S. moon missions.

Fake news. There was no Apollo 18 mission. The Apollo program ran from 1961 until 1972 and resulted in six successful moon landings, with four more planned. The program ended, early, with the seventh attempt, by Apollo 17.

The Landing is the product of filmmakers David and Mark Dodson, who created the film first as a short and, years later, developed it into a full-length faux documentary, with the benefit of having the same actors recreating their roles.

A production of Los Angeles-based Rocket 66 Entertainment, The Landing was released theatrically by broadband distributor myCinema (www.myCinema.live).  “The theatrical distribution marked a new era of digital cinema using myCinema to deliver high quality moving images via broadband into the theaters,” Random says in a news release.

Prior to its theatrical release, The Landing made waves on the 2017 film festival circuit, perplexing audiences and dividing opinions on what is fact and what is fiction.

The film racked up several honors at such prestigious film festivals as the Austin Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award and was named “An Official Buzz Film”), the Seattle International Film Festival (Official Selection and finalist, New American Cinema Competition), the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival (winner, Best Director), the Burbank International Film Festival (winner, Best Feature, Thriller) and Escape Velocity 2017 (winner, Best Feature).

The release coincides with the 60th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958.

‘Dead Envy’ Hits Digital in September After Limited Theatrical Run

Random Media on Aug. 8 announced the limited theatrical and nationwide VOD release of Harley Di Nardo’s Dead Envy, a thriller following an aging rocker who finds himself in over his head when he thinks he meets the perfect protege.

The semi-autobiographical debut feature of writer-director Di Nardo and co-writer Stacy Hullah, Dead Envy had its world premiere at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, where the filmmakers took home the prize for Best Thriller.

Dead Envy will open in Los Angeles August 24th at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset, followed by a launch on cable and digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play and Vudu, on Sept. 3.

Random Media is the film production and distribution company founded in June 2013 by Eric Doctorow, a home entertainment industry veteran who is a former president of Paramount Home Video and a member of the Video Hall of Fame.

Indie Suppliers a ‘Blessing’

If you really want to get an idea of how fast the home entertainment industry is changing, talk to any of the independent suppliers who are still going at it, competing with the big studios and their theatrical blockbusters.

As Ringo Starr would say, it don’t come easy.

Studios generally release their films on all the major platforms: Blu-ray Disc, DVD, digital, on demand, and, increasingly, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Indies, however, typically have to pick and choose, because just as not all movies warrant a wide theatrical release, when it’s time for them to be sent home some platforms work better than others, depending on the film.

And yet despite the challenges and obstacles, our industry is still blessed with a handful of indie stalwarts, from Cinedigm and Magnolia to Random Media, a film company headed by Eric Doctorow, who from 1983 to 2003 was president of worldwide home entertainment for Paramount Pictures.

I say “blessed” because without indies, home entertainment would consist primarily of big-budget blockbusters already familiar to viewers from their successful theatrical runs.

Independent home entertainment suppliers add variety to the mix. They also give independent filmmakers a chance to find an audience and maybe even make some money so they can continue to produce quality films and documentaries that otherwise might never be made.

And we must never forget that the indies are the ones who built this business. The home entertainment industry might have been launched more than 40 years ago when Andre Blay licensed 50 movies from 20th Century Fox and released them on videocassette under the Magnetic Video banner.

But the industry didn’t begin to grow and prosper until mom-and-pop video rental stores began to spring up all over the country, their growth fueled through the against-the-grain concept of “consumer dissatisfaction.”

Not only were the big studios dead-set against retailers renting their movies to the public, but when the courts ultimately ruled in favor of the retailers Hollywood had a hard time keeping up with the demand. Retailers soon discovered that the public’s appetite for movies was so voracious that if the latest studio hit wasn’t available, they’d be perfectly content with picking up something else. Shrewd mom-and-pops invested heavily in a broad selection of product and purposely limited the copies of the hits they brought in — figuring, correctly, that if customers were immediately “satisfied” with the latest theatrical hit, they’d rent it and leave. But if customers didn’t find what they were looking for, they’d pick up one or two or even three other movies, based on box art, posters or personal recommendations from movie-savvy clerks.

This successful, albeit unconventional, business model collapsed after the big chains got involved. Blockbuster, in particular, figured it could put the little guys out of business by promising consumers guaranteed availability of the latest theatrical hits — failing to realize it was merely sealing its own doom. “Big Blue” ran expensive ad campaigns and built massive “new release” walls packed with the latest theatrical hits.

I am convinced this focus on the hits led to a decline in consumer rental spending and paved the way for DVD, with studios jumping at the chance to sell their movies to consumers instead of rental dealers. Indie product suffered even more: consumers who used to rent three or four movies a week for $10 from the local video rental store were now spending twice that amount to buy the latest theatrical hit at Walmart or Best Buy. Yes, they were digging deeper into their pocketbooks, which made Hollywood very happy. But they were watching fewer movies.

Ultimately, the DVD bubble burst — and we all know the rest.  So thank God for the persevering indies who are keeping the spirit of the business alive – and independent film makers in business.

‘Funeral Day,’ ‘Sacred Blood’ Top Random Media Summer Release Slate

Random Media, the content company headed by former Paramount Pictures home video chief Eric Doctorow, has announced the following release schedule for June and July. All releases are digital, with a DVD available through MOD (manufacturing on demand).

Funeral Day, June 12: The darkly funny story about Scott, a neurotic young man, who thinks he’s found a lump on his testicles. Fearing he might be dying, he skips his friend’s funeral in an attempt to start living life to the fullest.  Watch trailer here.

Sacred Blood, June 19: After being bitten by a vampire, NATIA leaves her native country of Georgia and arrives in San Francisco. Natia tries to understand what is happening to her as she is confronted with a violent darkness rooting within her. Fighting against her loneliness and the rules of this new world, she is befriended by a troubled young artist with an innocent soul. Will this tenuous love lead her out of trouble or will they both be pulled into the darkness? Watch trailer here.

Pow Wow, June 26: In the Coachella Valley, country clubbers prepare for their annual Pow Wow party. The backdrop for this festivity is a native American youth named Willie Boy who outran a mounted posse on foot across 500 miles of desert 100 earlier. An experiment in comparative storytelling, as well as ethnographic study of the people of the Desert Empire, Pow Wow is a cinematic walkabout through the beauty and brutality of the Sonoran desert. Watch trailer here. 

Sunset, July 3:  A diverse group of people grapple with the imminent probability of a nuclear strike on the east coast of The United States. Watch trailer here.

Across The River,  July 17: Emma has it all. She’s a successful lawyer with a loving husband, two wonderful children and a beautiful home. Ryan is trying to build an elephant out of sand on the beach. He was her first love; it ended badly many years ago and they haven’t seen each other since… It’s awkward at first but they have one thing in common. A strike has paralyzed public transport and they need to get to their homes: quite close, but on opposite sides of the river. On their way they reminisce, argue, cry and laugh. They can never recapture what they had, but the memory of it tempts them. Watch trailer here.

Iron Brothers, July 31: Fur trappers Abel and Henry Iron struggle to make a living in a dying industry in the Rocky Mountains. Following in their late father’s footsteps, they travel the mountains searching for beaver, carving out a meager existence in the western wilderness. When Abel encounters a band of  Shoshone Indians, a misunderstanding leaves one Indian dead and the Iron Brothers on the run. Together, Abel and Henry flee into the mountains to escape the warriors that are pursuing them. In the end, they will learn if the bond of brotherhood is enough to save them.  Watch trailer here. 

Random Media acquires and distributes films on a worldwide basis through movie theaters, conventional brick and mortar retailers, digital platforms, cable and satellite companies and television networks.

 

Eric Doctorow: Search and Discovery and the Independent Film

More than 40 years after the home video business was launched, distribution is becoming more and more centered around digital distribution. This is a good thing and a not-so-good-thing.

And it all has to do with the problem of “search” vs. “discovery”.

Think about it this way: Search is people looking for content, and discovery is content looking for people.

A little history:  The Internet was pioneered by the U.S military.  It was designed as a tool for the military and other government agencies to be search vast amounts of data quickly.  This became an important initiative as the amount of data and information that resides at colleges, universities, think tanks, governmental facilities and other places began to soar in the 1960s and beyond. It was at this time that the conventional search process, using the phone to call around to see who had what, just didn’t work anymore.

Thus, the Internet came to the rescue. The Internet gave users the ability to search vast and disconnected databases quickly and efficiently. It became one of the greatest inventions in human history.

If you knew what you wanted to find, you could easily do so on the Internet.  You could find information about what you wanted in a blink of an eye. The Internet is the perfect search engine.

But search is not discovery … and the Internet is not a great discovery engine.  In fact, it’s a pretty terrible discovery engine. Browsing on the Internet, well, sucks.

This is a problem for the independent film business.

And, in a weird twist of history, guess what … video stores, which were terrible search platforms, were great discovery platforms.  Video stores were great for the independent film business.

Remember how it was, back in the 1980s and ‘90s. You would walk into a video store wanting to find a particular movie and always had trouble finding it.  Much of the time you couldn’t find it – maybe it was a big hit and demand was so high it was hardly ever in stock, or maybe it was hidden in the constantly growing inventories of rental videocassettes stocked by the average retailer.

We all remember that searching for a film in a video store was not a great experience.  But the video store did provide a great experience to discover great new films – introducing millions of consumers to films they would never have been exposed to.

Maybe the box art caught your eye. Or you were drawn to a particular film by the trailers playing in the store, on the boxy TV perched up in a corner. Maybe it was the posters, standees and other merchandising materials. Or maybe a random customer would come up and recommend a movie. Oh my, what an experience that was.

Yes, Video stores were terrible search platforms, but were exceptional discovery platforms.

History will show that the heyday of the video business was the heyday of independent filmmaking. Before video stores there were really very few ways for anyone to discover a film unless it was in a theater or played on television. The idea of just learning about a new film by browsing or walking up and down aisles was simply unheard of.

The video store created an ecosystem that suddenly allowed tens of millions of consumers to be exposed to movies in a whole new way … and they responded incredibly well.  Video store customers loved being able to watch movies in their own homes, whenever they wanted to. No longer at the whims of broadcast or cable television, they were in control. Hey, they could even pause or rewind in case they missed something. And discovering new films by new filmmakers, with new actors, was a fantastic experience. Consumers fell in love with independent films. This set up an entire generation of filmmakers to experiment, learn to make great films, develop a fan base and audience and, yes, make money – fueling hundreds of millions of dollars into the system to support independent filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the video store discovery engine died when the video store ecosystem collapsed.  When tens of thousands of stores closed, consumers lost their life lines to discovering new films in such an entertaining and positive way.

Now, we have Internet “video stores” like Apple iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Fandango Now, among others. These stores are amazing for a variety of reasons: the vast amount of films that are available to the consumer, the superb viewing experience, the ability to search for favorite films quickly/instantly, superior customer service, the ability to watch any film anywhere.  But, let’s face it, they are not great places to browse and discover new films. And this is a critical issue for independent filmmakers, distributors and the independent film business.

Raising consumer awareness for films that don’t have big stars, aren’t made by famous directors, aren’t released theatrically in a meaningful way, is so very hard – and very expensive. And in today’s environment, that means that the era of a flourishing, powerful and impactful independent film business is threatened.

Addressing these challenges is a great discussion topic for another time.  For now, let’s at least understand what we are up against.

The Internet is a great search platform, but not a great discovery platform.

Maybe those old video stores weren’t so bad for the business after all. This, too, is a story for another time.

Former Paramount Home Video president – and Video Hall of Fame member – Eric Doctorow currently heads his own film company, Random Media.