War, What Is It Good For?

Wednesday, October 13 2010
War, What Is It Good For?

The huge success of HBO’s Band Of Brothers and, latterly, Metrodome’s Saints And Soldiers, has shown that the war genre is alive and thriving on DVD.The Raygun assesses how it has shown its longevity…

A Quentin Tarantino film such as, say, Inglorious Basterds is always going to be a winner at theatrical and particularly on DVD, but when a war-themed title such as Metrodome’s Saint And Soldiers sells more than 700,000 units over a four year period, selling at least 1.000 units per week, a feat that’s all the more impressive when one considers its less than $1 million production budget, one senses that war, as a genre, is enjoying something of a purple patch.

You can add that to HBO’s Band Of Brothers, which continues to sell and sell (it is the bestselling TV DVD box set ever), and it’s not surprising that, alongside the usual diet of horror and British gangster thrillers, war is the go-to genre for British distributors at film markets.

Q4 sees a flurry of war-related activity, with Momentum’s brace of wildly differing war features – one a first world war tale from the trenches (Beneath Hill 60), the other a real-life documentary filmed during the recent Iraq war (This Is War) – being joined later by HBO’s The Pacific, the latest epic series from the team behind the blockbuster Band Of Brothers.

So why have war films enjoyed such a resurgence in the DVD sector?

“I certainly think these genre films do follow trends, sometimes spawned off a major release such as Inglorious Basterds  we often see a bit of a resurgence of a genre,” said Momentum’s Adam Eldrett. “Look at how the Asian cinema market exploded following Hero and Flying Daggers, that market is still there today but a fraction of its former glory.”

“I think there has always been a fascination with war being portrayed on film,” said HBO’s Ian Fullerton, who is looking after the November 1 release of The Pacific. “Certainly the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has inspired some really enthralling pieces. From my own view, The Hurt Locker and Generation Kill are two great examples of work that looks at conflict but explores it from a new angle.”

The fact that war is, because of the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, something that is very much at the forefront of people’s minds, has helped the genre gain in stature.

“There always has been a demand for war but the genre has perhaps been overlooked until fairly recently,” said High Fliers’ Jane Lawson. “As a nation we have been affected greatly by war and the combination of our history and the current conflicts brings interest in the genre is brought to each new generation. Recently there has been a wealth of good quality product in the market place which covers many different eras which is both meeting and feeding the consumers interest in the war film.”

For companies such as Momentum, Metrodome and High Fliers, the DTV element is a major factor. As Eldrett said: “I also believe it is a continuing result of an over saturated theatrical market, really good films are not getting their chance at the box office.

“Beneath Hill 60 [Momentum’s first world war drama about a group of unsung heroes], for example, is an amazing true story with great production values and really deserves to be seen. I think we are fairly responsible in releasing DTV because we are able to fully support the release vs a situation where we would have spent aggressively chasing a theatrical target that is unachievable while films such as The Expendables are mopping up that similar target audience.”

“Its one of those genres that struggles theatrically but over-performs on DVD,” added Metrodome’s Jezz Vernon. “The disparity between The Hurt Locker theatrically versus the DVD performance is the most recent demonstration.”

DVD as a genre (and latterly Blu-ray) has helped the genre emerge since its introduction; the quality has made war films seem so much more realistic. Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers, which both boasted the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, were the first of the current crop and both came as DVD was growing.

HBO’s Ian Fullerton: “Saving Private Ryan – in my view – really changed the war movie and how it was presented. My main memory of Ryan is the whizzing of the bullets – I thought the use of sound on the film was amazing.  And Band Of Brothers equally had a great audio track. So yes I would say that they set a new benchmark for the modern war film.”

High Fliers’ Jane Lawson added: “It seems the consumer is happy to watch a good war movie at home – the huge improvement in hardware in the last few years is sure to have made a difference. While the home experience will never match the cinematic one many consumers can now enjoy epic movies at home on fantastic equipment.”

The target market is arguably wider than the average actioner too, meaning a potentially wider audience. There’s the resonance and current feel of films such as This Is War, through to the older flavour of titles such as Beneath Hill 60. And that’s only taking in modern warfare. Epic, historical war films, from Asian swordplay movies through to titles such as High Fliers’ Arn: Knight Templar, have all proved their worth. As well as the traditional 18 to 35-year-olds, war films can pill in an older male audience too.

HBO’s Ian Fullerton breaks it down into who HBO can target with The Pacific.  “The good news about [it] is that it appeals to quite a broad audience because you can hit a younger audience on the action front and then the older audience on the historical ‘this-actually-happened’ front.”

“The modern war is probably the most easy for consumers to identify with,” said High Fliers’ Jane Lawson. “Anniversaries, armistice day, surviving veterans, the recent death of the last Tommy  coupled with the development of technology which means camera crews now literally follow soldiers into battle means that consumers are immediately familiar with the modern wars. Having said that there is still plenty of interest in other eras – Kingdom Of Heaven, Troy, 300 and our own Arn: Knight Templar are proof that the interest in wars spans centuries.”

“There is a small market of older consumers buying into this genre,” concurred Momentum’s Adam Eldrett. “With This Is War for example it is important to make an older History Channel viewer, Guardian reader aware of the film as it is a documentary they will find interesting, but to effectively sell the film to a younger DVD hungry audience it again needs to be aspirational to them.

“We tap into the gaming world and the huge success of Call of Duty, Medal Of Honor, Ghost Recon to name a few and ensure our product looks appealing to that younger consumer.
I think this wave of war games on the game consoles have played a large part in growing this genre over the last 18 months.”

Sleeve design is crucial. As Momentum’s Eldrett noted: “I think it is also fair to say it is a very aspirational genre that is quite easy to sell to an audience based on a  great DVD sleeve, which for many consumers is the first they have seen or heard of many of the releases you are talking about.”

That view is backed up by HBO’s experience with Band Of Brothers and its plans for The Pacific. As Fullerton said: “With The Pacific, the key art is incredible and we have used that throughout the campaign. The artwork shows an image of soldiers in the heat of battle and it perfectly conveys action along with the hell and horror of war.”

But while action and authenticity are important in design and marketing, you can’t go too far into exploitative imagery, especially given current conflicts and other sensitivities.

Fullerton added: “I think the toughest area we have struggled with is keeping the communications authentic. There is a tendency is most campaigns to shout big and push the sales messages at every opportunity.  With The Pacific (and Band Of Brothers) we are talking about real men that fought in horrific circumstances and we at HBO have a duty not to cheapen that. So every part of the campaign, whether it be the TV spots or the PR campaign or the in-store pos, has had to be rigorously discussed and dissected to ensure that we are being respectful.”

So where next for the genre then?

Well, there are a lot of people looking for war stories.

As Metrodome’s Jezz Vernon said: “Like all consistently performing genres its been pounced upon by other distributors to varying degrees of success.

“For us moving forward we are focused on the high quality premium experience, we’ve just seen a good DVD result for Lebanon – very much propelled from a fantastic critical response and we are gearing up now for Age Of Heroes which is a Metrodome co-production. Age Of Heroes distills the key selling points of the genre – it’s a British made feature about Ian Fleming’s formation of the 30 Commando in world war two – the unit that set the original template for the modern SAS. It stars Sean Bean and Danny Dyer and will release in 2011, it also happens to be stunningly good war film.

“We’re also moving into the historic war category with titles focused on some of the  epic Asian tribal wars. There’s real apetite there too for the grandiose scale which we’ve seen work to fantastic effect for The Warlords.”

“Yes there is certainly a great deal of this product emerging at market but the production values have to be right and some form of sales hook has to be there,” concluded Momentum’s Adam Eldrett. “I think with our latest releases the true story element is really crucial to their success, they create an atmosphere and direct response from a viewer that no blockbuster ever could.”

“It is always very competitive and when a genre is particularly strong even more so,” added High Fliers’ Lawson. “We have had some great success in the war genre with Passchendaele, Tobruk, Eichmann and most recently Arn Knight Templar – but it’s so very competitive nothing can be overlooked.”


Band Of Brothers (HBO)

“Band of Brothers has now reached the 2 million units sold mark, so a phenomenal result.  The fascinating sales fact about Band Of Brothers is that even though it was released in 2002 it virtually sells the same every year (which is about 250k units).  Every other title I can think of has drop off over the years, but this is one of those unique titles that consistently sells. This year we have re-packaged Band Of Brothers in tin boxes to complement The Pacific packaging and we will be giving it a big push alongside The Pacific DVD release. [With The Pacific] we are very much aiming to convert BoB purchasers to become Pacific purchasers, so we have intentionally use similar packaging and similar creatives approaches.  However in-store and with retail, we have tried to approach this as a big new theatrical DVD release. ” HBO’s Ian Fullerton

Saints And Soldiers/Days Of Glory (Metrodome)

“Saints And Soldiers has now sold 712,000 copies. It is a phenomenon and although we’ve had considerable success with other war titles its by far our most successful. For two years or so it was an emerging genre and when we saw Days Of Glory,our French war film about Algerian soldiers fighting for France in WWII, cross the 200,000 unit mark (now at 376,000 units sold) we realized there was an appetite.” Metrodome’s Jezz Vernon.

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