Monday, April 18, 2011

Bastardizing the DVD Market

Over the past weekend I bought a copy of MISS SUSIE SLAGLES from 1946. Veronica Lake gets top billing and she's the main reason why I wanted to see the film. It's one of the few Veronica Lake films I have yet to see. It's never been released on VHS or DVD commercially. The vendor told me that the quality isn't going to be "remastered," but it was definitely good enough to watch with no complaints. A friend of mine, who stood next to me, swore I was going to get ripped off. He was wrong and I enjoyed every minute of the movie. And the eye candy with her peek-a-boo hair style. And was surprised to find the great silent screen actress Lillian Gish in a small role. My purchase, however, and my friend's caution, reminded me of the stuck-up surgeon who annually attends a couple Western Film Festivals and swears that he'll only buy DVDs that have been commercially released because (in his mind) he's ensured that he has the best picture quality and the films (or TV shows) are uncut. Then he spends part of the time insulting the vendors who offer high quality DVDs, because in his opinion the price is not cheap enough. And worse, brags out loud in front of others about how he copies commercial DVDs and how he can make a copy of any DVD better than anyone else. What he doesn't realize is that he (and many others like him) are one of the reasons why the DVD market is dropping.

Last week, I got a copy of the first season of WKRP IN CINCINNATI and was not surprised to discover that more than three-fourths of the rock music was replaced with no-name instrumental rock music. What? Can this be right? They actually replaced the original music for some generic notes? Don't they realize that the music went along with the jokes?

In one unfortunate regard, “WKRP” gets no respect. At one point Johnny Fever cues up Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”; instead, what we hear is a generic rock instrumental. And that is repeated throughout the DVD box. Thanks to the high cost of licensing oldies, the period rock, funk, new wave and soul records spun by Fever and Flytrap have been replaced... and not for the better.

This isn't the first time that's happened. The episode "The Stolen Costume" on THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (starring George Reeves) obviously originated from a grainy 16mm master instead of a 35 archival print. Another episode from the same season box set no longer has the scene where the guy commits suicide by jumping out a window.

This is how they should have packaged it.

When Season Two of HAWAII FIVE-O came out, fans were shocked to learn that the episode, "Bored, She Hung Herself," was not included. Taking a second look at the cover art, the box states "The Second Season" ---- not "The Complete Second Season." In this particular episode, a person was found hung to death and it appeared they performed a stunt of Yoga so complicated, they they strangled themselves to death. In real life, a man who did Yoga wondered if that position would indeed strangle the breath out of himself. He tried it, he died, and the family sued. During the settlement, producer Leonard Freeman agreed not to re-air the episode in re-runs. And it seems CBS preferred not to include it that episode in the Second Season box set. Worse, Danny Williams was credited as "Danno" beginning with the Second Season but the episodes, instead, featured the First-Season Openers. (I'm pleased to announce, however, that with minor nit-picking, Season One and Three through Nine are much better.)

When MGM released THE ADDAMS FAMILY on DVD, the classic TV series with Carolyn Jones and John Astin, in one episode, the scene where Morticia sings at the harpsichord is not included. On the DVD release of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932), while the previously-deleted scenes were replaced, the scenes where Fu Manchu is applying electricity to Genghis Khan's sword are deleted. I was told from an inside source (definitive) that the studio did not want to give the impression that they risked the life of a human being to create those scenes, so they deleted them from the DVD release.

So what the heck is going on? Simple. The studios don't want to pay the extra dollars and offer the fans what they want to watch. Allow me to explain. Back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, there was no such thing as VHS videos and DVDs. When actors and musicians signed contracts, it was standard to include a clause that stipulated that reruns could include the music. This clause was perpetual which means today, tomorrow and fifty years from now they'll remain intact on TV airings. This is why today you can watch an episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI on television with the original music, but not on the DVD. In order for the companies to do this, they must track down the rights holders and acquire a new signed release, granting permission for the music to be included in the DVD release. If the studios cannot track down the license holder (which is extremely rare because I've personally seen studio paperwork on files and they know everything right down to who swept the floor after rehearsals), they are forced to delete the music or musical sequence. In some cases, the rights holders think they should be offered a million dollars -- for DVD sales that, realistically, don't stretch near 50,000.

Surprised? Don't be. When the Walt Disney Company released ZORRO with Guy Williams, Season One and Season Two individually, the tin sets included a certificate stating they were limited to a print run of 30,000. And six months after they were in the stores, companies like Best Buy were liquidating the stock they couldn't sell for as little as $15.95! That means classic TV shows don't sell like they used to. I mean, com'on! You mean the market is so dead that they couldn't even sell 30,000 of a DVD Zorro box set? As Little Beaver would say on Red Ryder, "you betchum'!" So if anyone believes there is a huge market for DVD box sets of classic TV shows, and wonders why shows like 77 SUNSET STRIP have yet to come out on DVD, there's a valid reason.

The movie studios have to pay a graphic designer to do the art work for the box sets. They have to pay for studio lab transfers to be made. They have to pay a studio (not a job in-house) to design the animated menu screens. They have to pay for glass masters for which the DVDs would be made. If they chose to add bonus material, that costs money too. Then they have to pay for advertising. And here's the worst part. Almost every company uses a distributor called Ingram. What doesn't sell in the stores, Ingram charges the movie studios a small fee for each item returned. So what doesn't get sold on store shelves after a few weeks, the studio has to pay... and then they still have stock they cannot sell (or they repackage it sometimes as a solution, or liquidate to warehouses and Wal-Mart). So why spend all that money for something that won't likely sell even 30,000 copies?

So who's fault is this? The studio? The music rights holders? The customers? Actually, all three. (gasp!) Why? Because the music rights holders, greedy for the extra buck, charge too much than the studios can afford. The studios should be ashamed of themselves for not paying the extra money or more importantly, spending time to work out a price that suits both parties. And the customers are at fault for sending a message to the studios when, a DVD set that retails $89.00, is considered too expensive to buy. Remember when the first season of LOST IN SPACE came out? Fans complained that it was too expensive for the entire box set. So the company came upon a solution. For the Second Season, they split it in half. Season Two, Volume One. The price was cut in half and the fans said they could afford that. Other studios followed their lead and began offering partial or half seasons. Of course, studios now like to split seasons in half just to stretch the money... ridiculous for shows that had such a short run that splitting a box set into two is needless.

When CBS put out Season Two and Three of THE FUGITIVE, fans were upset. The original theme music wasn't there. They started a campaign on Facebook and posted negative reviews on As a result, CBS heard their cries and now have a specific address where customers can mail their sets to and receive a replacement set with the original theme music. (Remember the studios have deadlines for this kind of offer so don't delay when you take them up on this offer.)

When Classic Media heard the complaints from fans of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, because Seasons One, Two, Three and Four were released individually, but the Fifth and Final Season was only available if you bought the complete series box set, because fans already bought Seasons One through Four, they agreed to make them happy and just recently released Season Five apart from the Complete Series Box Set. Thank you!

But there are still times when companies have excuse. I was disappointed when I discovered eight episodes from MISTER ED (Season One) were the syndicated edited versions (22 minutes instead of 26). Did I buy Seasons Two and Three? No. Why? The answer is obvious. When Shout Factory released THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, licensed from the Nelson Estate, I thought to myself, "Finally, I'll be able to watch the series uncut and in beautiful quality without having to deal with the horrible dollar-store public domain crap." The quality was beautiful, but the episodes were cut to 22 minutes. And this was the licensed set? (They actually put out a second set and those were also edited.)

I'll stop here. Don't get me started on that episode of the First Season of WISEGUY with the Moody Blues' "Night in White Satin" replaced -- totally destroying the scene with Vinnie and Sonny's final heart-to-heart...

The examples I listed above are just a small sampling of the bastardizing. Have the studios not figured out that they cannot insult the intelligence of the fans? Apparently not. While some people are not versed in the programs they want to see and might not notice a thirty-second scene missing, or music replaced with some generic simulation, it only takes four or five negative reviews on Amazon to hamper a percentage of sales. So if and when the studios are listening... do it right or don't do it at all. I know bootlegs float about on the internet and are sold on vendor tables at horror, science fiction and comic conventions. But sometimes, for my money, I'll support the little fellow knowing what I am getting is far better than what the studios have to offer.

In closing: I have always believed in letter-writing. Tell the studios what you think of their product. It'll make them consider going the right direction. As for WKRP IN CINCINNATI, I'm returning it to the store tomorrow. That'll cost the studio a couple more bucks out of their pocket. And don't think I'm not putting a small note inside the box set for the studios to read when they get it back, "You replaced the original music with generic music. Now I can't trust any DVD released from your company and I'll think twice before considering another purchase." Maybe they'll get the idea...