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The Promise of DVD

By Oliver Chin     -

Reprinted with permission by the author



In 1998, you noticed a slew of Digital Video Disc (DVD) products, ads and offers. Appropriately timed to the new millenium, DVD has been hailed as the perfect format to watch anime. What is it, and should your store should carry it?



Well, the question is about choice and timing. First, as DVD title breadth increases, wise purchasing remains essential. Second, as DVD retailing becomes ubiquitous in 1999, comic retailers have a temporary window to sell their customers these new anime products, before they buy them elsewhere.



Currently, most of DVD's technological and marketing kinks have been ironed out, so joining the bandwagon is relatively risk-free. Yet, compared to best selling movies like Austin Powers, anime still has a targeted audience. But if these are your customers, then your DVD investment will pay off.



Hardware & Software



The size of a compact disc (CD), the DVD is superior to its predecessor the Laser Disc (LD). A consortium of multinational corporations spent millions of dollars in R&D, and compromised on DVD as the new industry standard for home video in 1997. Thus began a rapid conversion of LD production, sales and shelf space to make DVD a household acronym.



Once more viewers sample DVD's features, VHS sales will be cannibalized as well. DVD has better picture clarity (up to 500 lines of horizontal resolution vs 240 of standard VHS), durability, and capacity (133 minutes/4.7 gigabytes of full-motion video per side on a single-layer disc). Dual-layer discs can be used for longer titles.



Driven by interactive menus and abetted by ample storage, DVD can boast extras such as instant scene access (the advantage of non-linear media vs. analog fast-forwarding/rewinding), and even multiple camera angles and aspect ratios (regular, widescreen or letterbox format).



DVD's sound is digital (its hardware can play audio CDs) and compatible with surround sound formats, such as Dolby Surround, Pro Logic and Digital 5.1 channel (5 speakers [3 front, 2 rear] with a subwoofer). DVD can have up to 8 audio tracks, accommodating foreign language translations, running commentary, or alternate soundtracks.



By January 1999, one million players have shipped to retailers, comprising 40 models from 30 companies. Player sales are greater than the VCR (10:1) and the CD (4:1) at the same stage. To ease the pain of format conversion, dual LD/DVD players are available and entry level models have dropped below $400.



As hardware and software prices fall and their quality improves, household penetration will continue to rise. Since a critical mass of titles exists now (over 2,000 available), the next goal for publishers is to get ěday in dateî (simultaneous release) with their video products.



One lingering dispute is over Divx, a version developed by Circuit City for rental sales. This bickering is reminiscent of the VHS and Betamax VCR war. Nevertheless, presently comic retailers should concentrate on regular DVD for sell-through. Despite the tremendous turmoil in the home video market (revenue-sharing, copy-depth, studio and chains vs. independents), all parties agree on one thing: DVD's rapid consumer acceptance makes it a lucrative market for the next decade.



Form Factor



Anime fans are technophiles: eager to exploit the latest technology (consumer electronics, PCs, Internet) to advance their addiction. They were quick to buy LDs and disappointed when all anime titles were not available. Predictably, they are enthusiastic early adopters of DVD.



DVD's virtues are simple. Better sensory experience. Satisfaction of two different customers (English "dub" vs. "sub") with one product. Great bang for your buck. Retailing under $30, DVD's are 30-50% cheaper than VHS counterparts (especially subtitled). And since most anime fans are collectors, DVD's touted longevity (packaging evolving from jewel cases with cardboard sleeves to hard clamshells) makes it a keepsake.



Format alone does not make DVD preferable to VHS. The publisher/producer has to invest time, money, and thought to program special content to enhance the disc's value. I've had first-hand experience developing menus for Viz DVDs, so here are some examples.



Sight: Finer resolution showcases stellar animation that has no artifacting or pixellation. Encoders improve color saturation and balance in the extremes of light and darkness. DVD can utilize optimal aspect ratios such as 16:9 (dimensions of the title's width by height on the TV screen) to maximize viewing pleasure.



Sound: Language options can be plentiful. Choose between listening to English or Japanese, and displaying subtitles ON or OFF. Conceivably you could listen and read in Japanese simultaneously. Enjoy the same show in Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital or English 2.0.



Menu: Navigation can be thematic with appropriate background screens, and visual and audio cues. Leap ahead to chapters, or have repeat scenes instantly. Additional content spices up the disc: English & Japanese credits, trailers (English and Japanese), title specific chapters (ex. menus of fighting scenes), conceptual artwork, and character profiles.



Anime Exemplified



The first anime DVD released in 1997. Now pick among dozens titles of titles with more to come in 1999. Mine the best of the backlist - such as Bubblegum Crisis (AnimEigo), Dragon Ball Z (Pioneer), Ghost in the Shell (Manga), Grave of the Fireflies (CPM), Ranma 1/2 (Viz), - until publishers catch up with recent releases. Renting DVD is becoming prevalent; those of you who have VHS rental programs should consider it.



Expectations should be moderate: DVD sales may be 1:5 to VHS. But this is really about keeping up with the Joneses, as retail competition heats up. Cajoled by everyone from Paramount to Panasonic, many of your customers may own a DVD player. If you donít sell them the discs, they can and will get them at Virgin, Blockbuster, or Best Buy. On the Web, price wars have hit a fever pitch as www.reel.com and www.amazon.com use DVD as a loss leader. Check out the platform (www.dvdvideogroup.com [regular DVD supporters]), retailers (www.dvd.com [Divx supporters]), and anime sites (www.animeondvd.com).



I have a personal example of DVD's immediate functionality. Recently, Professor Thomas Abbott lobbied me to lecture at Cal State University - Monterey Bay. During his visit at our office, he bought the Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge DVD even though he did not own a player. Of course, he was an anime fan. A week later, he called to say he was a believer in DVD.



Next, on the day of my presentation, he bought another player for me to use at the University. After 15 minutes of experimenting, I operated the DVD like a charm. Clicking through the disc's robust video library, I demoed trailers to the crowd's delight. The DVD so effectively maximized product appeal that two boys begged me to buy the disc at the evening's end.



Though other animation is on DVD (Disney, etc.), anime seems uniquely suited for this medium. This new format improves fans' experience on multiple levels (sensory, format, price). Viewers of Batman Adventures or Rugrats couldn't care less about watching their programs on VHS or DVD. Anime fans are more discriminating, demanding, and dedicated than typical customers, and already circulating petitions for new products. If DVD satisfies them, that's enough proof for me.

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