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.