As seen on Slashdot, the New York Times has an article on dollar DVDs.
Attack of the $1 DVD's
By FRANZ LIDZ
Published: July 3, 2005
The scientist in the 1959 horror film "The Killer Shrews" is not only mad but also cheap. Monstrously cheap. To solve the problem of world hunger, he tries to breed humans down to half their normal size. Rather than increase the food supply, he reasons, he will decrease demand. But his penny-pinching plans go awry, naturally, or unnaturally, creating a pack of giant, munchies-afflicted shrews.
"The shrews were actually hound dogs with fangs stuck to their heads and hairy rugs on their backs," recalled James Best, who portrayed the hero, Thorne Sherman. Mr. Best's love interest was played by Ingrid Goude, a former Miss Universe who was, he said "very well-endowed but not very well-paid; she got about 15 cents." Mr. Best, now 78, reckoned that that was about 35 cents less than the budget of the entire movie.
"The Killer Shrews," the masterwork of Ray Kellogg, is one of hundreds of cheap old films now available as ridiculously cheap new DVD's. Because of lapsed or improperly registered copyrights, even some very watchable movies - among them, Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday," Marlon Brando's "One-Eyed Jacks" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Dementia 13" - are now in the public domain and can be sold by anyone.
While overall DVD sales are robust - last year retailers sold $15.5 billion in discs - the low-end market is positively booming. Recently, 19 of the 50 top sellers on the Nielsen VideoScan national sales charts were budget DVD's. "The prices are irresistible," said Gary Delfiner, whose Global Multimedia Corporation offers 60 film, cartoon and television titles with prices ranging from 99 cents to $1.99.
Global, based in Philadelphia, is one of a half-dozen major players in what's called the dollar DVD industry. Since starting up in September, the company said, it has shipped more than two million discs.
Sheathed in cardboard slipcases, they are distributed to some 15,000 99-cent stores around the country, as well as thousands of supermarkets, drugstore chains and, soon, lingerie shops. "An intimate apparel store is a great place to sell old romances," said Mr. Delfiner, whose catalog includes the 1939 Irene Dunne-Charles Boyer weepie "Love Affair" and the 1954 tearjerker "The Last Time I Saw Paris," with Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson.
How does Mr. Delfiner define his audience? "Anybody who's breathing and owns a DVD player," he said. "Nobody ever walked into a store looking to buy my product. It's the ultimate impulse buy."
Still, he has his standards. "I won't produce any title that's too obscure," Mr. Delfiner said. "Or any title that's not family-friendly." Or any title without sound. "Silent movies are for aficionados," he added. "They don't appeal to the masses, and I'm in a mass business."
The chief attraction of cheap DVD's is that they're, well, cheap. "On average, a family of four spends around $40 to see a movie at the neighborhood multiplex," said Don Rosenberg, publisher of Home Media Retailing magazine. "For that, you could buy 40 budget DVD's."
The very term "budget DVD" makes Mike Omansky bristle. "It brings up the image of schlock, which our product is not," said Mr. Omansky, the chief executive of Digiview Productions, a New Jersey company that supplies Wal-Mart with classics like "Bucket of Blood" and "The Beast of Yucca Flats." "McDonald's puts out a high-quality, low-priced hamburger. Our burgers are high quality, too, without the frills."
Of course, for a buck you don't expect frills. And mostly you don't get any: the vast majority of dollar DVD's start playing the moment they're loaded. Only the best-made low-end discs have cast biographies, on-screen menus and chapter stops. And only Global's have an option for Spanish subtitles.
"We commissioned the translations," Mr. Delfiner said. "There's a huge Hispanic market for this stuff."
In the cutthroat world of cut-rate DVD's, different labels often release the same titles. "Print and sound quality varies according to the source material," said Bill Lee, division manager for Westlake Entertainment in Los Angeles. Mr. Lee stocks 13 early Alfred Hitchcock films, from "Easy Virtue" (1928) to "Jamaica Inn" (1939). "We look for pristine masters," he said.
Global ensures that its masters are pristine by buying them from companies that specialize in film preservation. The digital videotapes are compressed and encoded into digital linear tapes in a manufacturing plant called a replicator. The data are then downloaded into a computer. Dollar DVD's vary according to "the quality of the master and the quality control of the replication house," Mr. Delfiner said.
"Replication house" sounds like something from one of Global's horror flicks, and there are indeed horrors to be found among the replicants. Some reissues of the original "House on Haunted Hill" are haunted by ghost images as well as ghosts. A dollar edition of "Fangs of the Living Dead" - the 1969 picture that hammered the final nail into the cinematic coffin of the bomb-shelter-era bombshell Anita Ekberg - is so murky that the film seems to have been shot through the bottom of an inkwell.
"You see a lot of quick-buck artists," said Brian Austin, president of PC Treasures of Detroit.
With so many companies happily cranking out the same old stuff, Digiview is phasing out of public domain and phasing into public humiliation; it recently licensed some of the mangiest mutts ever to have escaped Hollywood's kennels.
Digiview actually paid for the rights to "American Vampire," a kind of "Beach Blanket Beowulf" starring Carmen Electra of "Baywatch." Whether anyone will pay for the DVD is unclear. "Just because it's a dollar doesn't mean people want it," said Mr. Rosenberg, of Home Media Retailing. Indeed, a nickel might be too much for a DVD of Raymond Burr in "Bride of the Gorilla."
Mr. Rosenberg said the novelty of dollar DVD's would soon fade. "There's a great danger of overdistribution," he said. "This is a business without much room for profit - either in the making or the selling. A year from now, most cheap DVD's will be gone from stores." One "Killer Shrew" alumnus hopes to cash in while the cheapness lasts. "This craze could build an audience for the sequel I'm writing," said Mr. Best, who played the stuttering Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard."
He has nearly finished a first draft of "Killer Shrews II." The plot is fiendishly simple. "I return to Shrew Island to rescue a bunch of teenagers," he reported. "A new mad scientist has turned herself into a human shrew that not only chews, but swims."
So what's the projected budget?
"This one's a little more expensive," Mr. Best said. "I could make it for, say, 75 cents."
Once again, Global is interviewed even though I've only seen their stuff in one local dollar chain. Also, I sure hope I can find a copy of American Vampire soon. Does thsi mean Digiview is branching out to more recent titles? Still no word from genius productions, which at one time was the most prolific.
...and Global's claim of no obscure or non-family friendly flicks? I'll expose that lie soon.
One more thing, is the apostrophe in "DVD's" from the NYT article title correct? I wouldn't think so.