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Classic Front Row, Sofa articles from the days.


Playstation2: Dreamcast's Nightmare

The Playstation2 is set to hit the Japanese market March 4, 2000, and the North American release will be in the fall of 2000. Normally, the release of a videogame system wouldn't have a lot of business being discussed on a DVD website, but the PS2 is unlike anything we've ever seen before.

Not only does the Playstation2 have more computing power than any consumer device (including personal computers) ever, it incorporates a 4X DVD-ROM drive in its specifications.

The heart of the Playstation2, however, is games, and it is a very robust unit for this. The system is so powerful that it can render 75 million polygons per second. To put this into perspective, rendering the film Toy Story in real time is not an unrealistic job for the Playstation2. Early footage of Gran Turismo 2000 shows that a video game can now be

Gran Turismo 2000
photo-realistic. Even filmmakers (including Lucas and Spielberg) have been wondering about the possibility of using the technology in the Playstation2 for film rendering jobs (and Sony plans to license it, so they should be able to).

Now Sony could have followed the same route that Nintendo is apparently taking, and reduced the price of the Playstation2 simply by removing some of the more expensive features like the ability to play movies, but they didn't. They went the other way. Not only can the Playstation2 play DVD movies, it's a very good DVD player.

Digital Audio Out and AV Port It features the ability to play any DVD movie, and it supports both Dolby Digital and DTS sound. Picture quality should be fantastic, as the Emotion Engine (the central processor) in the Playstation2 is much faster than any of the MPEG2 decompression chips currently included in stand-alone DVD players. It should be able to decompress a film with incredible picture quality, and run upstairs to get you a coffee while you watch.

Even with all this, though, that doesn't tap into the Playstation2's exciting potential.

Those of us who have been following DVD for the past few years know full well that it's here to stay. Sony has realized this as well, and has built the PS2 for longevity.

You see, one of the things the Playstation2 features is untapped expandability through standard port types. On the side of the Playstation2 is a PC Card (aka PCMCIA) type III interface, which should allow for network cards, hard drives, and all sorts of other peripherals. In the front are two USB ports (the same type provided on all new Macs and PCs), and a FireWire (AKA iLink) interface.

In fact, the only interface on the unit which is proprietary is the video connector interface, but I'll get to that in a bit.
USB and Firewire

Now all these expansion ports may not mean a lot at the time of launch for the system, they do give it an incredibly long life-span. For example, one of the common complaints I've heard is that the inclusion of only two controller ports means four player gaming is not possible without a multi-tap. The thing the complainers are forgetting are the two USB ports. Using device chaining, each of those ports can hold up to 127 controllers. Should be more than enough to play multiplayer Quake III.

Also, all these expansion ports can be used for other things as well. There are several PC Card hard drives out there for notebooks, and they could easily be adapted to the Playstation2. The Firewire or USB ports could be used for high speed Internet access, and the FireWire port is the same type used on the new Digital Video (DV) and Digital8 camcorders. This means if you have a storage device and the right software, you can edit your home movies on your Playstation.

Not only that, but the Playstation2 could very easily represent the future in home movie viewing. With a decent amount of storage, or a very fast broadband Internet connection, the Playstation2 is capable of delivering DVD quality movies to your home on demand, and Sony has thought of this. In time, you should be able to plug your PS2 into your cable or satellite feed, download Pay Per View movies, and watch them at your leisure. If Divx wasn't already dead, it certainly would be now.

Of course longevity also means that the Playstation2 has to keep future video standards in mind, and Sony has. The Playstation2 is compatible with HDTV out of the box. This means that if you're lucky enough to own a high definition television at this point in the game, you can play Gran Turismo 2000 at incredible resolutions. Also, it should do a nice job of outputting a high quality anamorphic signal to your television when you're playing your DVDs (no word on line-doubling yet, but I wouldn't hold my breath).

Now, the obvious question is why would Sony offer so much power in such an affordable package? After all, isn't the Playstation2 going to hurt Sony's DVD player sales?

The quick and obvious answer is yes. But of course it helps Sony in other ways.

To understand Sony's reasoning, you have to look at their balance sheets for the past few years. Playstation revenues have accounted for 40% of Sony's revenues for the past few years running, and Sony has had record revenues. The Playstation is important to Sony's continued success, and Sony intends to keep it that way.

In the past, the video game company which has been at the top of the heap (Atari, Nintendo, Sega) has lost their grip on the marketplace with the next iteration of their hardware. The reason this has happened is because the company in question has invariably waited too long to release their next system.

Atari started the modern video gaming trend way back when with the Atari 2600. They release the 5200 as a successor, but it never really took off. Then when they released the true "son of 2600", the 7800, Nintendo had already arrived with the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Nintendo rode the NES wave to billions of dollars in cash surplus, so they were in no rush to break that streak, and held back the Super Nintendo for several years. In the meantime Sega, who had a huge failure with the Sega Master System, released the Sega Genesis (MegaDrive in Europe and Japan) and found success. Then Sega screwed up the launch of the Saturn, and Sony took over with the Playstation.

Sony has studied the past failures of its competitors, and is capitalizing on them. It's no coincidence that this announcement comes less than a week after Sega's North American launch of the Dreamcast (and the original Playstation2 announcement was made shortly after Sega's Japanese Dreamcast launch). Sony is very deliberately trying to hurt their most dangerous competitor by undermining their launch. Couple these tactics with the fact that Sega is more than a billion dollars in debt and is considered a very risky investment on the Tokyo stock exchange, and you realize what a precarious position Sega is in.

Nintendo, on the other hand, is in a better position. The Nintendo 64 is still doing well in North America (although not in Japan), and Nintendo has announced the Dolphin, the N64's successor, which they claim will be out by Christmas of 2000.

Playstation2 DVD

Now, the thing to realize about Nintendo is that they're notorious for announcing and then delaying products. They have yet to release a product on time. The Nintendo 64, as an example, was two years late. The Dolphin is not going to make its release date, and Sony knows it. That's why they're focusing on Sega at this point. Once they're done with Sonic, they'll move on to Mario.

History has proven time and time again that the video game market is only big enough for two competitors. In the next generation of video gaming, those competitors will be Nintendo and Sony. Sony knows this, and that's what their tactics thus far are showing. Sega is scared, and that shows as well (i.e. the day after the PS2 was announced as having DVD, Sega claimed the Dreamcast would have DVD as a future iteration. Yeah, right).

Of course, the fact that Playstation2 plays DVD movies is very deliberate as well. It not only offers a way to compete directly with Nintendo (they've announced the Dolphin will not play movies) on more than just games, but it also establishes the Playstation2 as the heart of a home entertainment console.

Imagine having one box for watching DVD movies, downloading pay-per-view, browsing the Internet and playing games. It sounds like a dream come true, and it is.

The "all-in-one set-top-box" has been attempted before, but all the companies who have tried it have failed. The reason why is that the hardware simply didn't do enough. The Phillips CDi, Commodore CDTV and 3D0 Multiplayer were all ahead of their time and too expensive. They lacked the muscle to really impress people. The WebTV suffers from the lack of a CD or DVD-ROM drive, and cable-boxes are just too limited in their functionality. Even Panasonic realized that the market was a tough nut to crack, so killed the 3D0 M2 before it ever hit the market. The less said about the Pippin, the better.

The Playstation2 represents the first time that an electronics giant has thrown all their R&D muscle behind this concept and shown what can truly be done. Sony has spent a billion dollars developing this thing, and it shows. The design has everything that anyone could want, and it offers features people have been asking for for years: scalability and compatibility. People can still play their old Playstation games, but the machine has room to grow in the future.

The Playstation2 also represents revenue growth for other areas of Sony as well. Keep in mind that Sony owns Columbia Tristar, who are responsible for some of the best produced DVDs on the planet. Combine that with the fact that DVD hasn't been doing very well in Japan and Europe, and you get a nice kickstart for the DVD format in other regions.

To see what a boost this could mean for DVD, you only have to see that the original Playstation has now sold over 60 million units worldwide. That's a staggering number for ANY piece of electronics, and the Playstation2 should only see that grow.

Sony has stated that they expect the Playstation2 to be a viable entertainment platform for ten years. I suspect that they're right. It's the first time I've seen a company hit the nail right on the head. Sony asked consumers what they wanted in a home entertainment unit, and then went to the trouble to give them what they asked for.

By the way, Sony expects to sell a million Playstation2 units in the first 48 hours after launch. To put that into perspective, at the current exchange rate that equals about $370 million in revenue over two days. If all the people who purchase them don't buy any games. If each unit purchased goes out with one game (far from unrealistic), add another $50 million to the pot. Stunning if it's achieved.

Last week's quote of the week was answered correctly by Troy Smith. He correctly identified the quote as coming from October Sky.

This week's quote is video game related, but is still from a movie. As usual, if you know where it's from, email me at

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"


Redeeming Shawshank, Burning The Blair Witch and Sinking The Titanic

Why do good movies sometimes die a horrible death at the box office?

Industry analysts would have you believe that there are any number of reasons, but typically there's only one. Poor marketing. For example, The Shawshank Redemption is number 4 on the Internet Movie Database's ( top 250 movies of all time list. The movie did less than stellar business at the box office, though. It pulled in only $28 million.

To dissect why this incredibly great film (if you haven't seen it, that's a hint to get off your ass and do it!) did such poor business, let's look at the situation surrounding its release.

First, the film was released into the movie dead-zone which is known as September. September is a time when small films with ultra-low budgets are typically released. The Shawshank Redemption is not a September film. It's a November or December film. A film which is out there to show all of its flash and glory for the Academy and people interested in seeing critically lauded films. In other words, real moviegoers. September is a time when the studios simply hope to cash in on the summer movie junkies who haven't had enough yet. The Shawshank Redemption doesn't fit in with this crowd.

Next, is the film's title. The Shawshank Redemption is a title which makes perfect sense to those who've seen the film. Unfortunately, it didn't do much for those who hadn't seen it. The title is actually the primary reason I didn't see the film in theaters. I ignored all the great reviews, and simply avoided it because the title didn't tell me anything about the film. I know it's wrong, and it's shallow and all that, but since it only did $28 million at the box office, the majority of you are guilty of the same thing. A better title would've told us something about the story, like (and this is just off the top of my head, so no flames) "Time" or even "Andy's Story" (it worked for Forest Gump the same year). These are not really workable titles, either, of course, but the fact of the matter is that the title couldn't have been much worse (until after you've seen the film, then it's perfect).

Another fatal flaw was the film's marketing. Everything from the poster to the trailer told us nothing about the film again. In the case of a slow-paced, cerebral movie like this one, where the characterizations are key, the idea is to get the performances across in a very short space of time. I probably would've selected a complete scene from the movie and used it as the trailer. Maybe the scene where Andy first comes to Shawshank. About the only thing right in the trailer was the scene with Andy standing in the rain, his arms outstretched, having just gained his freedom. The trailer didn't compel me to go see the film. Also, pushing it as "based on a story by Stephen King" wouldn't have hurt, either. After all, once you get asses in the seats, word of mouth can take over (look at The Sixth Sense and Titanic for great examples of that).

The final fatal flaw was not having tons and tons of preview screenings. Let people see the movie for free with another film. This way, you get people to see the film and then word of mouth can help you out. The only time you shouldn't use this technique is when the film sucks. This technique is one of the many things The Blair Witch Project did this summer, and look at the results there. And the fact of the matter is, I've only met two people who actually liked The Blair Witch. Personally, I hated it...but more on that later.

If you think that the studios don't screw up the marketing of their films that often, then you need look no further than this summer's animated flop, The Iron Giant. Several people had been telling me to go see this film, and the reviews have been fantastic. I finally went and saw it this past weekend on a matinee (because that's the only time it was playing), and the movie is great. It's well structured, emotionally moving, and beautifully animated. Why, in a summer where good films have reigned supreme and the crap (i.e. Wild, Wild West) has fallen by the wayside, has this movie failed so miserably? One word: marketing.

The Iron Giant was released too late in the summer (it should've come out just prior to Tarzan), and the trailers were horrible. When I was watching the trailer, the only thing that caught my eye was the unique style of the animation. Ironically enough, the animation shown in the trailer is some of the clunkiest stuff in the movie. The other problem is that there just wasn't enough marketing. I was seeing trailers in front of various films, but I saw no television promotional push, there was no McDonald's/Burger King/Taco Bell/Sizzler toy tie-ins. Frankly, Warner Bros. dumped this film on the market and has allowed it to wallow in a sea of obscurity.

Now, there are other factors in The Iron Giant's failure as well. Sadly, the film probably was released in August in an attempt to get out of the way of other studios (Disney) animated fare. They felt going to head to head against Tarzan would be suicide, and waiting until the fall would be deadly because of the impending release of Toy Story 2 and Fantasia 2000. While going head to head against the films on opening weekend would probably be suicide, it would've been a great idea to get this film out just prior to the release of one of Disney's giants. Pepsi became the number two cola product in the world based on going head to head with Coke. Just like Disney now, Coke was really the only serious game in town before "the cola wars". Now it appears that Warner Bros. wants to get out of feature animation altogether because it's not making any money for them. Well, with crap like The King And I, it's not hard to see why. Of course, you spent a ton marketing that thing. Ironically, Warner Bros. doesn't even seem to know when they've got a good thing.

I think I've said all I can say on that subject. So on to the next thing.

Sometimes I'm baffled by "the public's" taste in movies. Several films which have hit it big in terms of popular success have been films that I've either found to be average (There's Something About Mary) or downright bad (Dumb and Dumber). I suppose everyone feels like this sometimes, but I'm occasionally stunned by the crap which passes for great entertainment these days. Hell, even Star Wars: Episode I is pretty piss-poor when compared to the other three films in the series. I mentioned earlier that I hated the Blair Witch Project, and now I'll go into a little further detail.

To understand where I'm coming from, you have to know how much attention I paid to this thing for a long time. I first stumbled on the (still fantastic) trailer last winter. I downloaded it, and emailed it to Jay so he could put it up on the web site. It had been a long time since a truly scary horror film had come out (because of Scream, most of the stuff being released was trying to be self-referential, and of course failing miserably). I was looking forward to a genuinely terrifying horror film, and I knew from past experience that the truly scary horror flicks were the ones where the producers had no money. The motivations were monetary, but the results were extraordinary. Truly frightening horror films require the audience to rely more on their imaginations and their own brains than special effects.

Also, I'm aware of the films which can be made for no money. I've seen some great ones over the years (most notably Clerks), and I always love to see struggling filmmakers hit it big. The Blair Witch Project had all the elements it needed to be a film I loved. So, why did I hate it?

First off, the film is supposed to tell the story of what happened to three documentary filmmakers. If these three people (who are of course actors) are supposed to be filmmakers, then why don't they know how to hold a camera? I can forgive the herky-jerkiness when running through the woods in the middle of the night, but why does the stuff they supposedly were shooting for the documentary suck so bad? The lighting is terrible, camera placements are crooked and off-center, it's just generally bad.

Second, Heather Donahue. Is it just me, or is her voice (and especially her scream) the most annoying thing in the world? I can honestly say I'd rather spend a weekend with Freddy Krueger in a room full of blackboards than hear that damned scream again.

Lastly, the pacing. This movie is sloooooow. It's only eighty minutes long, but it feels like about three hours. It feels like the movie has been padded out to get to it's eighty minute runtime, and comments from early screenings seem to support this. Most early screen reports put the movie at a very short sixty-five minutes. I suspect that The Blair Witch Project could've been compelling at under an hour, but at eighty minutes it's too long. And in feature film terms, this is very bad news, indeed.

Ironically, The Blair Witch Project has gone on to do great business because of one thing. Great marketing. I love this movie for its business side, but hate it for it's artistic side. That's gotta be the first time that's ever happened.

One last bit before we get to the quote of the week.

I was reading Jeffrey Wells' column over at, and couldn't help but notice that he makes mention of the Titanic DVD. Or more appropriately, his disappointment in the lack of extras on the DVD.

The nice thing about reading Wells' column is that he has all the inside contacts, and can call all the right people for asking questions. When he quizzed Paramount Home Video on the lack of extras, the response he got was (quoted verbatim from his article): "'What planet are you from?' said Paramount Home Video's Garrett Smith when I asked why no plans exist for the issuing of a special edition Titanic DVD. 'I'm not in any position to make suggestions to Mr. Cameron,' he added. 'This is a Lightstorm issue.'"

"Cameron's associates at Lightstorm 'have mentioned there was always that possibility, but they said he wouldn't get to it for another couple of years,' he says. 'Typically what he likes to do is put it aside for awhile and then go back to it later. It's not on his mind now. He's been writing a lot .…'"

Later on in the article, Wells goes on to say, "Cameron has put out some excellent special editions of his films. He's one of the few directors who seems to really put his heart into making laser disc and DVD transfers of his films into special home video events. So why is he slacking off on Titanic? "

Being me, I have to interject my two cents here (and I'll be forwarding this week's issue to Mr. Wells just in case he doesn't read this site), and say that I think he's missed the boat on this one.

At three hours and fourteen minutes (or two hours, seventy-four minutes as the studio liked to say), having a good picture and great sound means there's not a lot of room left on the disc for anything else. I suspect we will see a Titanic: Special Edition DVD at some point down the road, when mass production of a dual-sided, dual-layered disc is easy and inexpensive. For now, that just isn't the case.

Also, Cameron worked on Titanic for several years, and if you think you're burned out on the big boat, imagine how he feels about it. Regardless of the popularity of the film, it is Cameron's baby, and when he feels he's ready to revisit the material for a special edition DVD, I'm sure he will (just as he did with most of his films prior to this one). Besides, Cameron had final cut on Titanic, and he's said repeatedly that the version which is on the screen is his version. Previous reissues of his films have been different edits that the studio wouldn't release because of time constraints. Any special edition won't be a "director's cut", but will be the standard cut with a ton of supplements.

At this point, the only major faux pas on Paramount's part with the new Titanic release is not enhancing it for widescreen televisions. After all, we're all expected to upgrade our television sets over the next few years, so why the hell wouldn't they want to take full advantage of all the benefits DVD offers?

Titanic is the highest grossing film of all time. It's release on DVD is a milestone for the format, and very important. It also shows us that James Cameron is one of the few "A-list" directors who is concerned more with how his films are viewed than how much money he can make from a format. He hasn't blocked any of his films from release on the format, and any delays have been caused by the studios in question, and not the director himself. Spielberg and Lucas can't say the same. Once The Abyss is released (which has been terminally delayed by Fox), all of Cameron's films will be available on DVD. Well, except Piranha II, but we can't have all the crown jewels, I guess.

One last thing, the transfer used on the DVD of Titanic is not the same as the earlier laserdisc issue. The DVD was made from the new high-definition master which was made for broadcast on HBO's hi-def channel. This makes the lack of anamorphic enhancement that much worse (since hi-def masters are anamorphic by nature). If you go back and compare the two transfers on a properly calibrated television set, you'll see the difference.

Last week's quote of the week was answered correctly by Matt Duncan as being from Disney's Mulan. The line was spoken by the little dragon (Mushu) voiced by Eddie Murphy.

This week's quote is from another great film this year which has been overlooked by audiences.

"Let them have outer space. We got rock 'n roll"

As usual, if you know the quote's source, email me at


The Differences Between Black and White

A few months back, just prior to the release of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, I wrote an article on the MPAA and how it was forcing American filmmakers to bastardize their own art in the name of commerce. This week, there's a new chapter in the ongoing war with the MPAA and filmmakers.

James Toback, the director responsible for Two Girls and A Guy, has had a new run-in with Jack Valenti's gang of moral hoodlums. His new film, Black and White, has come under fire for a particular scene which involves a menage-et-trois in the forest. What makes this particular battle with the MPAA unique, however, is the fact that Toback has made both edits of the scene in question available for viewing via the Internet (I'll give you the link in a minute).

I've always found it intriguing how slight the differences are between NC-17 and R rated films with the MPAA, so this particular case study offered an opportunity to see the exact differences between the two ratings. Especially since the only edit made in this case was because the MPAA was offended.

To see the two versions of the scene in question, go to

I will warn you, these scenes are definitely adult in nature, and are not intended for a family audience, but they're nothing more shocking than you would've seen in a thousand movies before it (or in a lot of television shows).

Now, if you've just come back from watching the scenes, you may have noticed that there's pretty much no difference between the scenes besides the ending of the scene. It seems that in this case, a few frames of a moving hand are the difference between NC-17 and R. Are these frames absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of the scene? Probably not, but then again, we're seeing the scene out of context, so it's impossible to say. Even if the frames are, ultimately, unnecessary, isn't that the decision of the director and editor, not the MPAA?

Of course, this is far from the first time the MPAA has reared its ugly head. Earlier this summer, several films were blasted by the MPAA. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone found an interesting way around the problem. Every time they sent South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut to the MPAA, they'd receive a letter back stating what the objectionable scenes were. They'd then proceed to add more violence, more language and more risqué foul play and then resubmit the film. Stone and Parker have publicly stated that the version of the film which ended up on the screen is easily the "worst" in terms of adult content. Even MPAA head Jack Valenti went on record saying that South Park should've received an NC-17. If Valenti can't figure out the ratings system, how are filmmakers supposed to do it?

Another example of a film which was needlessly cut because of the MPAA is Universal's comedy American Pie. This film was sent back to the MPAA four times for various edits before receiving an R rating, and I had the opportunity to view an earlier cut of the film recently. The earlier cut had a little bit of different language, and the infamous "pie" scene had the character in question on top of the pie, rather than the (slightly) more unassuming edit in the final film. Having seen both versions, I can honestly say that there's absolutely no way one version is less adult than the other. Both of these edits are intended for an adult audience, period.

Quite frankly, the MPAA as it stands has got to go. They wield too much power for a ratings board which is supposedly "voluntary". It's time for them to be replaced by something more informative to parents. Something simple, which tells parents not only what the appropriate age range for a film is, but why that range is appropriate. I've covered this in the past, but let me reiterate. The system should be replaced by a ratings system which says very simply what the issues with the film are. i.e. 18VSS, for a film which has some violence and a moderate amount of sex. Save the NC-17 rating for adult films. Roger Ebert's solution of inserting an "A" rating between the "R" and "NC-17" would probably work as well. We have a rating like that in Canada, and it seems to work very well.

To move onto a different topic, the big buzz on the net seems to be about the price INCREASE on the feature-devoid Disney animated DVDs coming this Fall. I was originally planning to purchase a number of these titles, in fact, pretty much all except The Lion King II. Now that Disney has decided to up the price, I'm only going to purchase those titles I really want. Maybe two or three of the total. I've had enough, and I'm not going to allow Disney to screw me again. I'll be buying the DVDs because of the movie on the disc, not as any kind of support for Disney itself. I'd like to not purchase any, but I plan on having kids at some point down the road, and I'd like to have some DVDs which would be appropriate for them to watch. The fact of the matter is, Disney's animation is the high water mark for family entertainment, so I'm forced to purchase some (but not all) of these DVDs. Oh, and Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt is on the top of my list, even before Disney. Moratorium or no moratorium, I'm going to support those companies which REALLY support DVD first.

Speaking of supporting DVD, there are rumblings that Dreamworks is getting ready to announce a Saving Private Ryan DVD. I'm hoping these rumors are true, as this film really does deserve the DVD treatment. I will fully understand if it can't be out until sometime in early 2000, but I'd love to see it before the end of the year.

Heck, the rumors have started me thinking about how if nothing else, two of Spielberg's films should be released on DVD. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are the films I'm thinking about. These films shouldn't be held back because of "market size" or any other commercial factor. These films transcend commercialism. They're above the "dollars and sense" computations of Hollywood, and should be released because they are incredibly moving pieces of art. Spielberg is, and should be, proud of these two works, and if he wants to truly show his pride, he should allow home viewers to watch them in the best possible way, DVD.

Wow...OK. I've rambled on a few topics this week (at least a few of them were DVD related, eh?). I'll start to wrap things up now. Last week's quote of the week went unanswered, and was from Go. If you haven't seen this movie, you should stop reading and run out to get a copy of it. Or better yet, order it from one of our on-line sponsors. That way we'll be able to keep bringing you news and reviews.

This week's quote is from one of Disney's animated titles. That's the biggest hint I'll give you... well, OK. It's from one of Disney's good animated titles (did that narrow it down for you?).

"My little baby, off to destroy people."

If you know which film the line is from, email it to me at


Hamsters, Frontiers and Legacies

Since the advent of laserdisc, the documentary and/or featurette have been a mainstay of the video disc industry. With the introduction of DVD a few years ago, the market for those featurettes opened up immensely.

Still, not all the studios know how to do them properly. This is evidenced by sub-par offerings from studios like Buena Vista (two incredibly sub-par featurettes on the Enemy of The State disc), Fox (The X-Files), and even Columbia Tristar (the Go featurette is a blemish on an otherwise stellar disc).

Of course, taste is a personal thing, but I think everyone agrees that the little three to five minute extended trailers do nothing for the DVD audience. These were usually created as press kit materials, and sent out to television shows like Entertainment Tonight or E Now. The biggest problem with these featurettes is that they focus entirely on promoting the movie ("this movie is interesting because it features Brendan Fraser in a loincloth - again!"), and not on telling the story of how the film was made.

The best featurettes are not usually featurettes at all, but full-on documentaries, which get right into the production of the film. These are films produced solely for the purpose of telling how another film was produced. They wouldn’t seem out of place on a show like Movie Magic or a channel like E, and rather than simply retelling the story in brief clips with a few actor interviews inserted, they show real behind the scenes footage (rather than canned promotional footage).

I’m not going to spend any time pointing out the numerous garbage "featurettes" out there. Suffice it to say there are too many great examples to pick on but a few.

Sadly, most of the newer films released to DVD are not afforded the treatment they deserve. Most of the time the studio doesn’t want to go to the trouble of producing an expensive documentary feature for a film which has a high profile. They’d rather save those production costs for down the road, when the "Ten Year Special Anniversary Edition" is released. After all, why sell a movie once when you can sell it twice and make twice as much money?

Classic films, on the other hand, are quite often afforded great treatment by the studios. Probably the best recent examples are The Thing and The Last Starfighter from Universal Studios, and Alien from 20th Century Fox.

A common feature among all these special editions is anything but a coincidence, they all feature documentaries produced by Sharpline Arts ( These guys know their special editions, and it really shows in these documentaries.

Rather than focusing on selling us a movie we already own, all three of the documentaries mentioned tell the story of how the films in question were made. They use interviews, behind the scenes footage, test footage and story board illustrations to demonstrate the process by which these classic works were created.

A great example is The Last Starfighter documentary, Crossing The Frontier: Making The Last Starfighter. The documentary tells the whole story of how the film was made, and spends a great deal of time on the quantum leap the film represented in special effects technology. The Sharpline Arts people even managed to dig up computer animated X-Wing footage that Digital Productions created for ILM as a test demonstration.

To further show their dedication to their craft, one only needs to look at The Alien Legacy, the infamous "fifth disc" for the Alien four pack of DVDs released earlier this year. The documentary not only does a great job of telling how the film was made, from the first taps of typewriter keys to the last notes of the score, but also managed to dig up some stuff that people had been unable to find in years. Just take a look at the original model of the Nostromo in the background during one of the interview scenes. James Cameron was unable to locate this model when shooting Aliens, but the Sharpline Arts people managed to find it. Amazing.

On a digressive Sharpline Arts note, I received (along with just about every DVD web site out there now) an email from Catherine S. Pierce (no relation, as far as I know) at Sharpline Arts asking me to get our readers to email her with comments and suggestions in regard to the features they’ve produced for DVD. If you’re interested in contacting her, you can email her at She’s especially looking for comments in regard to The Alien Legacy DVD which should be arriving in mailboxes across the US and Canada as I write this (and it’s not their fault the disc was a mail-in supplement…blame Fox for that). If you do decide to email her, tell her Ken sent you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the work that goes into these documentaries, I’d highly recommend visiting the Sharpline Arts website ( They have some great behind-the-scenes stories about their behind-the-scenes documentaries. How long until we have a behind-the-behind-the-scenes documentary?

Lest you think this week’s column is a love-fest for Sharpline Arts (even though I love their work, and wish more of it were out there), let’s take a look at another great documentary feature, even more rare in that it’s from a recent film.

The documentary included on the 12 Monkeys DVD, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys features an incredible behind-the-scenes tale of how the film was made. It not only shows the stuff you’d expect the studio to want us to see, but shows us that the set was anything but a love-in. We see Terry Gilliam fighting with studio producers, we see Bruce Willis unsure of Gilliam’s direction, and we even get a hint of Gilliam doubting himself. Absolutely amazing, and especially when taken in context with the film it’s attached to.

Now, I’m not saying that every single DVD released has to have a forty-five minute documentary attached to it. Far from it. I believe that only those films that have an interesting enough story behind them to maintain the viewer’s interest for that length of time should have the documentaries. Still, there are a lot of films out there now which have no documentaries attached and which we all KNOW have great stories behind them (Titanic, anyone?).

Fortunately, my hopes remain high. The fact that a company like Sharpline Arts can exist solely to produce excellent content for studios releasing movies on DVD is a bright shining light in the marketplace. After all, if there were no market for this stuff, they wouldn’t be around, would they?

If all you faithful readers out there have any interesting comments on DVD documentaries and/or good suggestions for must-see documentaries on DVD, feel free to email me at

Last week’s quote of the week went unanswered. Let’s just say I’m hardly surprised given the obscurity of the quote, and the rarity of the DVD. The quote came from Peter Jackson’s bizarre comedy, Meet The Feebles. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about a troupe of muppet-like characters who go through a series of very adult mishaps. Don’t rent this one for your kids, but if you like black comedies you might get a kick out of it. I do recommend a rental first, because it’s definitely not for everybody.

This week’s quote is a little easier, and a little more mainstream. It’s from a film currently available on DVD in a special edition. The film I’ve chosen has absolutely nothing to do with documentary features.

Wow, I didn't know we'd become such good friends, because if we had, you'd know that I give head before I give favors and I don't even give my best friends head so your chances of getting a favor are pretty slim.

This one’s a gimme for film freaks and DVD addicts like me. If you know the film, and preferably the director (it’s an easy one), email me at

Until next time...


Di$ney Does The Little Mermaid

It looks like Disney is finally getting off its huge ass and will be releasing their animated films to DVD. The Wall Street Journal scooped everyone, and reported today that Disney is expected to release a series of animated films to DVD this fall, including Mulan, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid and Lady And The Tramp, among others.

This is, of course, great news for DVD owners because it means that the selection of family titles on DVD will suddenly go through the roof. Until this time, the pickings had been slim, with sub-par animated features being the rule, while quality animation (Antz, A Bug's Life) was the exception.

The release pattern is unique, as well, in that the titles will be released for a limited time. Sixty days per title, then put on moratorium for up to ten years. This release window is significantly shorter than Disney's video release windows, and represents a new way of thinking for Disney.

Of course, nobody is going to argue that this is great news, but being the cynical guy that I am, I can't help but question the timing.

Now, I can't blame Disney for waiting for the DVD market to grow before releasing their A-list titles. After all, ever since old Walt died, the bottom line has been more important than anything else to the mouse-house. Releasing A-list animated titles to DVD early on would've definitely helped push the format faster, but we all know that Disney would've taken a bath on those discs in the early days. Especially given their policy of putting titles back on the shelf for seven years after release.

Add to that the fact that Disney was one of the studios hedging their bets in the DVD format by supporting DIVX, and we have further proof that profit, not consumer interest, is the real motivator here. After all, DVD was big last Christmas, and while nine titles may have been excessive, one or two would have done fine. So why wouldn't Disney have taken bigger steps at that point? In a four-letter word: DIVX. Another motivating agent may have been the success of A Bug's Life on DVD. This is easily the best family DVD out there at this point, and it showed Disney that DVD is ready for content the whole family can enjoy. In a big way.

Also, in June of this past year, the whole Disney home video division was shaken up, and a new chief was put in charge of the Indians. The reason this was done was because Disney's home video sales were flagging. A Bug's Life was a major success on DVD, but only did marginally well (as compared to expectations) on VHS. Mulan, as well, was considered a VHS failure. Obviously the new chairman of the motion pictures division, Richard Cook, could see the writing the wall for VHS. The market for Disney titles on VHS is saturated. Even titles which were available on video for the first time were not selling well, because they weren't appealing enough to the market. Consumers effectively said, "I'm not interested in buying this on VHS, because it'll be re-released in seven years on whatever format is popular at that time."

Upon closer examination, this whole announcement seems REactive rather than PROactive. Disney is finally releasing titles to DVD not because the DVD market is finally big enough (it has been for a while) or because they have a newfound moral obligation to give consumers their classics in the best medium possible, but because their VHS revenue stream has finally dried up, and it's time to dig a new well.

I do notice a few odd things about their announcement, though. First, the sixty day purchase window. This is incredibly short, and means that Disney wants everyone to run out and buy these titles immediately. This will re-create the sense of urgency they once had with their VHS titles, but it'll also mean there's not TOO many digital copies of their films floating around out there. After all, if the disc doesn't deteriorate, the moratorium on titles could be a hundred years. If there are too many discs out there, nobody's going to buy them again. That's the other thing that's odd, the moratorium on titles. I notice the wording this time is very vague. Previously, Disney titles were released every seven years on video, like clockwork. Now, the moratorium on titles could be "up to ten years". This is interesting, because it means that the usually inflexible Disney is keeping its options open. If they release the titles this fall and sell, for example, half a million of each title, that would be a very small number of DVDs out there if the market suddenly grew to 50 million players two years later (which is not unreasonable). This means that Disney could do a "very special re-release" on any of these titles without breaking the rules (because the rules are more flexible). This could also help to kill the black market for pirate DVDs.

You'll also notice that these first few titles are not the ones we all want to see. This is by design. Nobody will argue that the list of titles is bad, in fact it's quite good. Out of all nine titles, only one is of real questionable quality (Lion King II: Simba's Pride). The other eight are either Disney "classics", or at the very least, current Disney titles (Mulan, Hercules). Still, you don't see the big ones as launch titles. You don't see The Lion King, you don't see Beauty and the Beast, you don't see Snow White or Cinderella or Bambi. The DVD market still isn't big enough for these ones.

The announcement is also very vague on features and price. I suspect the animated titles will cost significantly more than live action titles (which was the case with the VHS titles, as well), because demand is so high. I also suspect that features will be kept to a minimum. I expect there will be next to no extra features, and while the DVDs are expected to be widescreen, don't expect 16:9 enhancement. After all, we all have 4:3 televisions right now, and if they decide to re-release The Little Mermaid in ten years in an anamorphic version, we will all have to repurchase it.

Still, I have to give Disney credit. They've managed to boost the mass market credibility of DVD multi-fold with one announcement. The only possible announcement I could see eclipsing this one in terms of importance would be if Lucasfilm and Fox got off their huge ass and announced the Star Wars and/or Indiana Jones DVDs. I'm still pissed at Lucasfilm for bringing out a VHS "special edition" of Indy Jones later this year, and not announcing anything in the way of DVD support. I hope they find their revenue stream as dried up as Disney's.

As for these Disney DVDs, I know I'll end up with a batch of them. My life plan includes kids at some point in the future, and it'll be nice to have something they can watch in the collection already (after all, who can afford DVDs when you're struggling to buy diapers and car-seats?). Besides, some of those Disney movies are damned good. Too bad we can't excise the corporate parasite attached to them.

Oh, one last thing to point out about the timing of this release. You'll notice that Dreamworks is releasing The Prince Of Egypt on September 14th. This is a little over a month prior to the release of the Disney titles, and the timing of this announcement seems to have a lot to do with usurping POE once again (Disney used A Bug's Life to steal some of POE's thunder at theaters last Christmas). This is a long time feud, having to do with Jeffrey Katzenberg's (the "K" in Dreamworks SKG) less than amicable departure from Disney a few year's ago. I suspect the announcement will not have the desired effect, though, as the POE disc is a fully loaded special edition, and looks to be a true flagship title for Dreamworks. Besides, dedicated DVD owners know that Dreamworks does amazing DVD...too bad they can't convince Spielberg (the "S" in Dreamworks SKG) to release Saving Private Ryan to the digital format in a reasonable time frame. And if someone from Dreamworks is reading this, can you think of a better way to steal back some of Disney's thunder? Not to mention Warner Brothers (The Matrix), Universal Studios (The Mummy), Paramount (Titanic) and MGM (the James Bond films).

The quote of the week last week was correctly identified by a number of people as coming from John Cusack in the (new) classic comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. In another one of those weird karmic twists of fate, the film is available on DVD from none other than Disney. The person who got it in first was David Akers. I promised him fame (but not fortune), so there's his name. Expect the Hollywood producers to be pounding down your door now, David.

This week's quote is from a film which is a little less mainstream. I'll give y'all a hint, because I think it's a little tough. The film IS available on DVD, and it's a region zero disc (so it can be used worldwide), but you can only buy it in Canada (but it's not a Canadian film). I suspect if you've seen the film it'll stand out in your mind, if you haven't seen it, you'll be hopelessly lost.

Boss: "Do you really think there are people interested in nasal sex?"
Employee: "Sure, boss. It's the next big fad."

This week, email me if you know the film and director at (if you know one, the other one should be easy).

Until Next Time...

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