Studios respond when fans push
The Web plays a major role in how Hollywood learns about what people want.
By ELAINE DUTKA
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tyson Craemer, a 22-year-old graphic-design student, is crazy about Jim Henson's "Fraggle Rock" series, a show about three civilizations cohabiting the same universe. It debuted on HBO in 1983 -- the year after Craemer was born. His hopes for a DVD resurrection faltered when the Hallmark Channel canceled reruns a few years ago.
Undeterred, he was one of 30,000 petitioners for a home-video release. Late last year came word that HIT Entertainment, lured by the prospect of a passionate, easy-to-reach audience, would release two DVDs in January and another April 15.
Craemer and his obsession have plenty of company. In recent years, e-mail campaigns and fan demand have triggered DVDs of Universal Studios' "The Big Lebowski," 20th Century Fox's "Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park," Lions Gate's "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Paramount Pictures' "MacGyver" series. Home-video executives peruse Web sites such as dvdtalk.com and dvdfile.com in search of requests -- and complaints.
If it's not exactly democracy in action, it is a lively trend in home-video research: probing the consumer mind-set to determine which DVDs are most in demand, what bonus features would bolster sales and what packaging is most appealing.
The Web is the great equalizer, Craemer said by phone from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. "Hollywood doesn't have to guess what the customers want -- we're telling them."
And they're listening. Home-video executives at 20th Century Fox meet semiannually with a group called Home Theater Forum, whose members fly out at their own expense to weigh in on upcoming product. MGM's "Showgirls" DVD included a feature-length audio commentary, "The Greatest Movie Ever Made," by super-fan David Schmader -- a novel take for a film skewered by critics.
Sony Pictures put alternative packaging concepts for TV's "Party of Five" online, shelving its initial choice when 85 percent of respondents opted for another.
"Interacting with fans becomes a great marketing vehicle, one with a huge payoff," said Don Rosenberg, publisher of the Santa Ana, Calif.-based Home Media Retailing Magazine. "You're letting them know a title is on the way without spending any advertising dollars. It's also a reality check for insulated Hollywood executives and a means of generating goodwill."
Lions Gate found out just how valuable fan input can be with "The Crying Game." Logging on to a Web site, the distributor stumbled onto rumors about an alternate ending, one confirmed by director Neil Jordan. That footage was included on a DVD released in January. On its "T-2 Special Edition," director James Cameron reversed a decision not to record commentary at fans' urging.
Based on information gathered from the Web, focus groups and screenings, Universal Studios scheduled two DVD launches in fall 2003 for Brian De Palma's "Scarface" -- a New York event featuring stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino and a gala in Puerto Rico attended by more than 300 urban disc jockeys -- catering to its hard-core hip-hop audience. In response to public interest, the studio is releasing the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski" on home video later this year.
"We're going to coordinate the launch around one of the 'Lebowski' fests," said Ken Graffeo, executive vice president of marketing for Universal Studios Home Entertainment. "A lot of these movies develop fans afterward ... who would have known?"
Warner Bros.' catalog division has been aggressive in soliciting feedback. Recently, executives participated in an annual online chat, moderated by the Home Theater Forum. During the three-hour session, they fielded questions from the 200 to 300 people logged on. "When will 'Ryan's Daughter' be in video stores?" one asked. "Why has the special edition of 'The Maltese Falcon' been so long in the making?" another wondered.
For the past two years, Warners has conducted cyber-polls asking respondents which five movies they'd like to see on DVD out of 20 screened on Time Warner's Turner Classic Movies channel. After tabulating the 180,000 responses, the studio released "The Letter" (1940), "Ice Station Zebra" (1968) "Ivanhoe" (1952), "King Solomon's Mines" (1950) and "Random Harvest" (1942) in January.