MARKET FOCUS: DVD goes bananas

Anita Chabria finds DVDs being launched with the same razzmatazz as theater films

Anita Chabria finds DVDs being launched with the same razzmatazz as theater films

A four-foot tall chimpanzee named Jonah is working the catwalk for an admiring crowd of media and fashionistas gathered for the DVD/VHS launch of The Tuxedo. Jonah is one of five chimps hired to don "monkey suits" for an expensive premiere party meant to woo the press and raise buzz for the popular Jackie Chan picture that played in theaters last year. Four broadcast cameras and many photographers crowd around the stage as the simian celebrity preens in the spotlight, creating the kind of charming animal footage that will ensure both Jonah and The Tuxedo earn media hits. DVD promotions like this fashion show are becoming increasingly commonplace in Hollywood as studios seek publicity for their newest home entertainment offerings. The DVD marketplace has exploded since the discs were first sold in 1997, changing not only the landscape of the home entertainment market, but film marketing as a whole. In the days of VHS, studios looked at video releases as a secondary area with limited revenue potential, since most consumers rented films instead of buying favorites and creating libraries. But DVD has changed that. "People are excited about DVD," says New Line's VP of marketing and promotions Justine Brody, whose team launches The Lord of The Rings home entertainment releases among others. "People are buying DVD players at a record pace, and people are in a real collector mindset." Today, the DVD "sell-though" market is a significant source of income for studios, and is growing each year. In 2002, consumers spent $12.1 billion buying DVDs and videos (DVDs accounted for $8.7 billion of that, up 53% over 2001), and an additional $8.2 billion renting them. Consumers' rapid acceptance of the new format has changed studio executives' perception of home entertainment, raising its profile and giving DVD and VHS promotions new importance in overall business plans. For entertainment PR teams, the growth of DVD means a more challenging environment, but also more dynamic opportunities. "DVD is certainly a growth engine for any entertainment company," says Lori MacPherson, VP of marketing for Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment division. "The average DVD household is buying more than one DVD per month, and, of course, everyone wants to be that one DVD that people buy that month." To lure sales, studios are treating discs like theatrical launches, complete with hefty marketing budgets. Relying on additional never-before-seen content made possible by the digital format, studios have ramped up efforts to make DVDs new and independent entertainment experiences apart from the theatrical release. Fresh material not only entices consumers, but also gives PR teams an angle to use when approaching entertainment media who already covered the film's big screen run. "That is one of the many things DVD has brought to promotions. You have exclusive new material," says Cheryl Glenn, head of worldwide publicity for DreamWorks' home entertainment division. "Before you had old material that the media has covered before. Now you have new information to give out." Media takes notice Media coverage of the home video market has increased as well, offering more placement opportunities, but also raising the bar on what's worthy of attention and what makes a client happy. "We always look at ways to get on national TV," says Carl Samrock of Samrock PR, which has promoted titles like White Oleander. "That hasn't changed." But magazines and print outlets from all demographics also now find ways to cover the market, from coveted spots in trend feature stories to more run-of-the-mill reviews. "In the past year or two, there has been a lot more coverage in major publications," says New Line's executive director of PR Amy Gorton, citing industry leaders such as The New York Times. "It's not just a young male demographic anymore. Women's magazines are even starting to cover it." Premiere events - once the territory of first-run films - are also becoming a staple tactic for important titles. Always hungry for a good photo-op, the media loves big-budget theme parties hosted by studios. A glamorous or clever event that pleases the press can earn placements that help reignite the excitement of the original release. "It lifts the perception of this home-entertainment commodity," explains Dorrit Ragosine, EVP of Highwater Group, which works with DreamWorks and other studios on home entertainment projects. "It takes it out of the realm of just a packaged good and explains to consumers that the entertainment experience is encapsulated in this little disc." But unlike theatrical premieres, DVD launches often make do without stars, who have moved on to other projects and aren't available for promotions. The lack of celebrity power has lead many marketers to fall back on more traditional stunts and parties - like monkey fashion shows. "Talent always lets you get additional media coverage," explains Paul Pflug, Artisan Entertainment's EVP of national publicity and corporate communications. "But if you don't have it, you must be creative and find a new hook." The need for inventive approaches often leads to cutting-edge guerrilla campaigns that play on less publicized aspects of the film. Ragosine uses the example of DreamWorks' upcoming release of The Ring. The Highwater Group is arranging screenings on college campuses to raise grassroots interest, while DreamWorks also plans a stealth campaign centering on the deadly videotape that is featured in the film. This mini-film is never shown in its entirety in The Ring, but the DVD begins with it, giving DreamWorks excellent ammunition for viral publicity. "The first thing you'll see (on the DVD) is this creepy video, this cursed video that kills people," says Glenn. "We'll be very grassroots with that, and try to start a buzz of 'how did it get there and are you brave enough to watch it?'" PR reacts to quick turnaround But finding those new approaches is tough because studios are increasingly putting out their home video titles soon after the film leaves theaters to recoup production costs and tap into the money-making DVD market. Hollywood has traditionally enforced strict distribution windows, time frames when films were released in different outlets such as theaters, pay per view or video. DVDs profits are changing that system. "Looking at the overall revenue stream, it certainly makes sense to get something out on DVD the day after it leaves theaters," explains MacPherson. Such quick timing is a double-edged sword for publicity. It gives PR teams the momentum of the theatrical campaign, but also makes it harder to come up with new angles. "Usually the studio or theatrical PR team has already uncovered every stone there is, so when you get to the DVD window, it's harder to get media coverage," points out Alan Amman, SVP of the TV and home entertainment practices at MPRM. " But (studios) are realizing that with the amount of money it takes to launch a film theatrically, they can take advantage of that when the film is still fresh in people's minds." The raised profile of DVDs and their rush to the market have combined to make publicity teams a more integral part of studio planning. Where home entertainment departments used to be left out of a film's production planning, DVD publicity teams now routinely give input about what should be done early on to create a successful home video product. "Basically we start working on the DVD the day the picture is green lit," says MacPherson. That means greater access to talent and execs, increased prominence within studios and agencies, and greater opportunities for home entertainment execs to grow with and influence companies. "It's such an interesting transition going from the tape world to the DVD world," says DreamWorks' Glenn. "It's much more exciting." ----- Keeping it in the family When VHS became hot in the 1980s, it was moms searching for kid-friendly diversions that drove a profitable market for family-friendly films. With the DVD, mothers stayed hooked to their VCRs while tech savvy men adopted the latest technology. It may be a bit behind the curve, but women are once again crowding the lines at the checkout counter with new family titles on DVD, making the tot-centric home entertainment market one of the biggest money-makers. "DVD adoption among families is outpacing that among non-families," says Lori MacPherson, VP of marketing for Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment. "It's the fastest growing market segment." While Disney used to be the undisputed king of kid's entertainment, other studios like DreamWorks (Shrek) and even independent Artisan (Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie) have jumped into the fray. Increased competition means big marketing bucks for flashy campaigns that often rival silver screen efforts. "Direct to video is hard to get publicized," says MPRM's SVP of TV and home entertainment Alan Amman. "But the kids market has exploded." This time, though, mom isn't just shopping for her tykes. Studios are betting women want a little Hugh Grant with their Elmo and are pushing romantic comedies and other female-oriented fare. Buena Vista showed that women do have control of the remote when the February launch of its heavily promoted Sweet Home Alabama scored $34 million in rental earnings in three weeks of release, according to the Video Software Dealers Association. On top of that, Disney hopes to sell 9 million copies of the Reese Witherspoon film. That's love - for studio execs, anyway.

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