Hollywood rolls out the red carpet for new DVDs

With 100 new releases every week, and more than 1 billion sold, the DVD is Hollywood's new favorite star.

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Camels and belly dancers fill a Hollywood street as muscle-bound warriors in full fighting regalia zip over the heads of awestruck bystanders.

A Hollywood première, right?

Yes, but not for a feature film. All this recent klieg-light activity was staged by Universal for the release of "The Scorpion King" on DVD. The extravaganza culminated at a Virgin Megastore, where the first DVD was handed out.

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"You had 400 people walking down the street in the middle of huge lights and explosions," says Clint Walker, editor of DVD ETC., a new enthusiast magazine dedicated to the format. "It was just amazing."

Hollywood is rolling out the red carpet for new DVD film releases the way it used to for movie premières.

Walker's publication itself is only a few issues old, but it has doubled its circulation since June. He attributes this success to the exploding popularity of the five-year-old DVD format, which he says is sweeping the consumer marketplace.

A hundred new releases come out every week, and more than a billion DVDs have been sold over the past five years. The VHS format took twice as long to sell that many.

"We're feeding off what we call the late adopters," Walker says. "These are people who weren't willing to drop a few thousand dollars on the early versions of the DVD players in 1997.... They were afraid they might be just another Beta- max." Now, people create entire home entertainment theaters around DVD players, he says.

Picture clarity is the first reason DVDs are so popular. "It's twice the picture quality of the VHS," says Amy Jo Donner, director of the DVD Entertainment Group. "Then you wrap in all the extra features and people feel like they're getting close to their favorite stars and getting more entertainment value for their dollar."

Falling prices also have helped push the DVD format into the mainstream. When the 5-inch discs first came out, prices were high – $25 to $40. Observers expect prices to sink to the $10 range by next year.

DVDs were not an overnight hit. When players were first introduced, few DVDs were available. Studios viewed them suspiciously as a source of piracy, and directors didn't want to be bothered with the secondary-use market. That scenario completely reversed as film folks began to see the creative potential in the new format.

These days, almost no director works without the DVD in mind. Interviews, outtakes, commentaries, and minidocment-aries are de rigueur for most new DVDs. Some even allow viewers to update content online.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann packed the "Moulin Rouge," DVD full of fun goodies for fans. They can see Luhrmann talk at length, watch alternative scenes from the film, see giggly outtakes of stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and the audition tape from costar John Leguizamo.

Last month, the release of "Monsters, Inc." broke all DVD and video sales records, selling 11 million copies in its first week of release.

DVD quality was a major reason for the popularity,and the film itself has unprecedented clarity. The DVD was transferred from the digital original instead of being transferred from a film copy, which has been the usual procedure.

The other major draw is the stunning added content. The creative team at Pixar used the DVD to showcase new ideas that emerged during the making of the film, like a fully animated short called "Mike's New Car."

And then, there are the Easter Eggs – quirky little additions that began as insider winks from creative teams who put the DVD together. Thousands have been imbedded in DVDs. For instance, to access the goofy Kidman/McGregor bit in "Moulin Rouge," you must know how to highlight a certain windmill and then click enter.

Easter Eggs are strictly for fun, and there are dozens of websites devoted to cataloging them as people find them.

Now, Hollywood can't find new uses for the DVD fast enough. Vaults of classic films and TV shows are being flung open. Everything from "Lawrence of Arabia," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is being repackaged with such additions as director and star interviews.

"The DVD is exploding so fast ... they're actually running out of content," says Michael Antonoff, technology editor for Sound & Vision magazine. But Walker says this is only the beginning. "The next big step is high-definition DVD."

Walker hopes to see the first prototype of that unit at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. "Once consumers get hold of the high-definition image, they'll never go back," he says.

Top 10 Picks

Here are the Top 10 picks of DVDs, interactive games and hardware for the past month:

DVDs:

Animation:

MONSTERS, INC. (Disney/Pixar) – Dubbed directly from the digital original, this DVD sparkles with sharp, colorful life. But the inventive, charming film is just the beginning of what ought to be considered a DVD "magazine." This two-disc package is jammed with added content: a new animated film, "Mike's New Car," created exclusively for the DVD/video release; "For the Birds," the 2001 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Short Film; a sneak peak of Disney/Pixar's summer 2003 feature film, "Finding Nemo;" and the usual outtakes (it's easy to forget that the so-called "outtakes" are actually fully animated originals - there's no such thing as a "take" in the world of animation).

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Disney) – Another animated gem, this two-disc platinum series release of the Oscar-nominated film includes such worthwhile extras as three full versions of the film (the original theatrical release, a work-in-progress version, and a special edition with the song, "Human Again," which was deleted from the original), games, a music video with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, behind-the-scenes footage, and insights about animating with computers.

Live action feature:

INSOMNIA (Warner Bros) – This moody thriller was a modest hit in theatrical release, but once again, the DVD experience is a good second act. The sense of place (Nightmute, Alaska) is intimate and compelling in the home-theater setting and the extras are good: a documentary on shooting night scenes, conversations with director Christopher Nolan and star Al Pacino, as well as the standard package of stills, outtakes, and foreign-language options.

Documentary:

THE CIVIL WAR (Warner Home Video/PBS) – This five-disc digital reissue of the Ken Burns masterwork is a good example of why the DVD is so compelling. VHS tapes made the sort of selective re-viewing that a historical document requires difficult. A digital format that allows for easy re-viewing makes this set a pleasure.

The 11 hours of content include a behind-the scenes reconstruction of the Civil War, interactive maps, and a civil-war trivia game. The DVD also features commentary from the filmmaker, and interviews with historian Shelby Foote, writers George Will and Stanley Crouch, and musicians Jay Unger and Molly Mason.

Television:

24 (FOX) – This boxed set of the entire first season from last year's hit new series is a nice example of why the DVD format is a win-win for studios and viewers. Fox can "repurpose" the original TV show and fans can catch up on missed episodes. Major retail chains already have begun to offer an entire section just for TV re-releases. This particular show, which offered an entire season based on a single day in the life a CIA agent, is perfect for marathon viewing. Added content includes both endings that were filmed in order to keep the true finale secret.

• For those who are interested in creating the perfect DVD library, start with reviews and lists of "must-have" DVDs of all time at www.dvdjournal.com. Guess what can be found at www.DVDEasterEgg.com?

INTERACTIVE GAMES

Game publishers are listed first, followed by the platforms on which they are available. Hardware platforms designations include: Computer (PC), Nintendo GameCube (GC), Sony Playstation 2 (PS2), Microsoft X-Box, or Game Boy Advance (GBA). The games are rated EC (Early childhood), E (Everyone), or T (Teen). Note from the editor: The Monitor will rarely review games that are rated (M) for mature due to the extremely violent and gory nature of the vast majority of these titles.

NBA 2K3 (SEGA Sports, GC, PS2, and X-Box) – Fun, fast, and full of creative ways to produce your own team, this is as good a sports game as any out there. The game loads quickly and the play is satisfyingly fast-paced. Rated E.

Dragon's Lair: 20th Anniversary Special Edition – (Digital Leisure, PC) - A set of three DVDs that bring back the game that helped the arcade craze two decades ago. Don Bluth's animation is silky smooth and the game play in all three discs ("Dragon's Lair," "Space Age," "Dragon's Lair II") is intuitive and fun. Rated E.

Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 (Infogrammes, PC): Features 25 actual rides from real theme parks and the ability to create your own rides and entire parks. The truly serious can go online to the company's website and trade cool designs with other players. E

A few items in the Cool New Hardware category:

X3D PC VIEWER from nVidia: A great accessory to 3D-ize the games that you already play on your PC. The next step toward full gameplay immersion as you feel what it's like to line up on the racing car startup line or slam in a basketball dunk. A bit complicated to set up, but throw it to the tech-savviest teen in your house and you should have no problem.

iQuest Test Prep handheld from Leapfrog – This is for the student crowd as they head into standardized test season. The SAT & PSAT and ACT software is a genuinely engaging method of slogging through what used to be every high schooler's nightmare: sample tests. Carry it on the bus, or do it at lunch, it helps put the material in your thought in a casual, ongoing way – possibly a better method than the cram method most kids end up using.

PlayStation one, otherwise known as PS one from Sony – this isn't brand new, but the portable unit with its own screen is a perfect device for families as the holiday travel season approaches. It will only play the Playstation games, but with the age groups we tested, 8-12 and 13-15, these were more than adequate libraries to tap. Plus, the smaller screen produces a crystal clear resolution on the visuals.

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