How We Launched DVD…

Monday, June 18 2018
How We Launched DVD…

It was, to paraphrase The Beatles, 20 years ago today, or, rather, just over 20 years ago, in April 1998 that the first four titles on the brand spanking new DVD format were issued by Columbia TriStar (now Sony Pictures Home Entertainment).

It took a month or so for others to join the fray, with Warner chief among them – that duo both had electronics giants as partners, Columbia the Japanese parent Sony that now gives its name to the filmed entertainment arm, while Warner has long worked closely with Toshiba.

Delays, problems with packaging, a questioning consumer electronics press (one senior journalist notably said it would never happen)… the soft launch of Digital Versatile Disc, or Digital Video Disc, depending on who you asked was not too auspicious.

But with the backing of companies such as Warner, to became the fastest-selling consumer electronics launch ever.

Warner’s Neil McEwan was one of the chief architects and cheerleaders for the launch; a few months before its launch he was the first person to show The Raygun’s Tim Murray what DVD looked like, on a state of the art system in a corner office at the major’s old offices in Wardour Street, in Soho. (It as The Fugitive. And it looked amazing.)

So as it celebrated its 20th anniversary, we asked the former Warner md for his reminiscences about the launch.

Here are his thoughts on DVD, the early days…

“It’s still surprising to remember that Fox, Paramount, BBC, Universal and Walt Disney all chose not to support the format for the first few years, although at least Universal and Disney got some benefit by later licensing their libraries.

“On the other hand the UK independents jumped on board straight away, notably VCI and PolyGram but quickly Metrodome, Momentum and others were involved in addition to Sony, MGM, Warner Music and Warner Home Video.

“By contrast, the hardware companies were all on board, to such an extent that when the DVD committee was formed to promote the format we had the Philips UK md and marketing directors from Panasonic and Toshiba at most meetings, meaning decision-making was pretty easy and they all readily stumped up cash for trade marketing.

“Unfortunately their dominant customer Dixons made it clear that it thought the format would fail,  so although it would stock players, it took more than two years to persuade them to promote the format in-store.

“By contrast all the then video retailers – both rental and retail – loved the format and backed it from the off and even EUK only made a token effort to renegotiate terms!

“We held a press event at BAFTA fronted by Jonathon Ross where Columbia TriStar’s Marek Antoniak, David Roche from HMV and the guy from Panasonic did presentations. Even though the CE guys were represented by blue chip PR companies like Bell Pottinger, they all failed to get any coverage in the nationals. Fortunately Peter Noble did so by getting an attractive model in a dress made from DVDs photographed outside BAFTA. The red tops loved it, and DVD had its first newspaper splash. 

“The initial releases were all pretty basic offerings; library titles in flipper disc format with no added value content packed in [for Warner] snapper cases. It took a while for the supply chain to get sorted so that new releases were available day and date with VHS rental.

“There was generally a shortage of authoring and encoding capacity but in the UK this was quickly solved by the emergence of entrepreneurs like Julian Day at DGP and Andy Evans and Kristen at Pavement.

“The US had launched in autumn 1997 so had hundreds of titles available by the time of the UK launch; the real film fans bought multi-region players and started buying imported discs.  Play.com emerged as the major enabler of this process and it took a while for them to be persuaded to concentrate on UK releases which they successfully did once they’d discovered the VAT loophole. Clever boys.

“The DVD committee ran a lot of trade promotions as well as TV campaigns and all the CE companies offered free discs with purchase all of which had an effect on consumers, but just as effective was Jeff Young at Prism, who launched his bundles fronted initially by Jeremy Beadle.  Their benefit was a price which severely undercut the majorsby using non-branded Chinese players as well as providing an instant library.  

Packaging was a mess for quite a long time.  Most companies used the Amaray style case whilst Polygram used jewel cases (which always broke) and Warner used their snapper box.  In hindsight it’s incredible how tolerant our customers, retailers, and consumers were. What a nightmare it must have been for in-store merchandising and how ugly film collections at home would have looked.”

•We’ll have more on the launch of DVD in the coming weeks…

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