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Originally published July 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 11, 2005 at 5:03 PM

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The people have spoken, and studios are hustling to bring more titles to the hugely successful format. But for varying reasons, there are some for which you shouldn't hold your breath.

What's up with missing DVDs? Studios hustling to release more titles

The people have spoken, and studios are hustling to bring more titles to the hugely successful format. But for varying reasons, there are some for which you shouldn't hold your breath.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If DVD is such a big, fat deal these days, then where are the "Looney Tunes"? Where's "All That Jazz"? What about the original "Star Wars" trilogy?

Lots of beloved titles are conspicuously absent from the DVD explosion, as demand has outstripped studios' ability to churn them out. And after The Times asked readers to tell us which of their favorites were still MIA, we did a little legwork to find out the score.

But first, just how big is this explosion?

Massive: DVD is the fastest growing consumer technology since approximately the spear. In just its sixth year, DVD player sales are approaching the 50 million mark in America, and dominance in 50 percent of households, according to the Video Software Dealers Association. That's roughly five times faster than videotapes caught on.

That's helped propel us onto our butts — er, propel home video buying and renting (which also includes VHS) to the top form of entertainment in the U.S. at $20.3 billion last year. That's more than twice the $9.3 billion of theatrical movies. (Another milestone came last month, according to the association, as DVD rentals overtook VHS.) To date, more than 24,000 titles (of all varieties, not just films) have made it to DVD.

Fine. So "Where are the Astaire/Rogers musicals?" a reader asks.

AP
Ten Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals are being restored for release at an unspecified time.
The good news is that it appears to be just a matter of time until most films make it to DVD. In fact, in the few weeks since The Times asked for input, several reader favorites have been checked off the missing list. For instance, "The Mission" (1986) and "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" (1959) and "Chinese Roulette" (1976) have turned up from Warner, The Criterion Collection and Wellspring, respectively.

At the highly regarded inside-track DVD Web site, "The Digital Bits" (www.thedigitalbits.com), editor Bill Hunt says, "We were going to have a section in our (upcoming) book, of great movies not on DVD, and the interesting thing is that about 80 percent of those titles are in production now, or on schedule for a year-and-a-half from now."

For that matter, DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter honcho Doug Pratt is surprised at what has been released, not what hasn't.

"I'm amazed at some of the stuff that's come out. Who would expect that 'King Rat' would come out from Columbia TriStar, or 'Cartouche' with Jean-Paul Belmondo?"

Pratt thinks the format's success even took the home video companies by surprise.

But, he says, "That's our society. We want everything immediately."

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The bottom line

He and other experts concur that it's just good business for studios not to dump everything on the marketplace at once. But there are other factors. Transferring the films isn't cheap, and a good portion of the older ones need restoration — sometimes taking two or three years. (Which is why it took Warner so long to release "Citizen Kane," sources there say.)

In some cases, it's a matter of finding out who owns a film's rights or tracking down the basement where a film's hidden. Remakes virtually guarantee discs of the original. And increasingly, studios are waiting until they can make a movie's release on DVD the definitive one — they hear from irate consumers about slipshod editions — with the involvement of as many of the original filmmakers as possible.

Hence, the recent announcement of one of the top most-wanted items: "The Adventures of Indiana Jones," which combines all three of the Steven Spielberg yarns with a fourth disc of extras in a box set, on Nov. 4 from Paramount for around $70. They won't be sold separately, at least not in the near future, the company says. It was always scheduled for this holiday season, as was "Grease" for last year and "The Godfather" set the year before that, says Paramount spokesman Martin Blythe.

AP
Paramount Pictures did film fans a favor and released "The Godfather" trilogy in 2001. Above, Marlon Brando as the film's namesake in the 1972 original.
Also, he says, "It just made sense with some of our bigger titles to wait until DVD had made bigger inroads to the public."

'Vault doors are opening'

Statistic hound Ralph Tribbey of The DVD Release Report and Video Store magazine sees more oldies in DVD's future.

"Studios have placed most of their focus on films of the 1980s and 1990s — indeed, many of the films released thus far on DVD from the 1930s and 1940s are multiple versions of public domain films from independent sources. I mean, how many copies do we need of Shirley Temple's "The Little Princess"?

"It is getting better, especially since the studios have 'caught up' in terms of recent inventory, so they must start looking at the catalog for revenue. Warner is showing some real signs of doing this," Tribbey says.

Warner spokesman George Feltenstein confirms: "The vault doors are opening."

Some vault: With some 6,000 feature films, Warner has the world's biggest. And one underrepresented area has been classics, he says. DVD's ascendance is going to fix that.

"King Kong" is No. 1 on Warner's list for restoration, which has been difficult because the original negative is long gone.
Consumers get to vote on which of their missing favorites make it to DVD in Warner Home Video's "DVD Decision 2003." (AOL keyword: DVD Decision; www.tryaol.com/dvddecision for non-AOL voters.) Voting ends today to pick five out of the 20 titles that include two sequels to "The Thin Man," the 1941 Spencer Tracy version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and director John Huston's 1964 "Night of the Iguana." They'll announce the selections next week.

Seattle's own Amazon.com gives cinephiles another way of voting. Enter a search for an unreleased title on its DVD site, and you'll get an "E-mail me when available" option. Amazon even tracks what people type in for searches. The activity ranks films on the site's "Most Requested DVDs" page. But do the studios pay attention?

"Absolutely," says Amazon DVD editor Doug Thomas. Take Disney's 1992 musical "Newsies." It had a cult following and always sold well on VHS, but Thomas said Disney execs didn't realize how popular it was. When they visited Amazon's Seattle offices, "I said, 'Here's your list, here's some of your great animated classics — and here's "Newsies" above them.' " Disney released it on DVD in April.

There are other ways to influence the process, however imperceptibly. Buying what you like that's already available encourages studios to release more of the same — for instance, if the original 1934 "Thin Man" movie had gone through the roof, the rest might have followed sooner. And insiders say that handwritten letters always gets more attention from studios than e-mail.

What you want

When The Times asked readers for their preferences, here's what you said:

• The original "Star Wars" trilogy. This is tops on most lists now that Indy is on the way. Don't look for it before "Episode 3" of the second trilogy is completed in the summer of 2005, says a LucasFilm rep. Also, even though the official line is that nothing has been determined, there's a very strong likelihood that the only version of "Star Wars" that will exist on DVD will be director George Lucas' revised special edition and not the 1977 theatrical version. Hang onto your VHS copies.

• "THX-1138" (1971). Georgie's first is reportedly on the way in a special edition from Warner, with his full cooperation. No date, though.

• "Song of the South" (1946). "Not a chance in today's PC world," Tribbey says. Disney didn't respond to The Times' inquiry. Bet the stereotypical depiction of happy plantation-era blacks would be guaranteed to spark objections. British PAL tapes (incompatible with VHS players) and Japanese laser discs of the film routinely go for $200 or more when they pop up on eBay.

• "Eraserhead" (1977). Just because it ain't on Amazon doesn't mean it ain't on DVD. But you can only get this one through director David Lynch's own Web site (www.davidlynch.com). At $39.94, it's not cheap, either, but it does include a good documentary.

• "Twin Peaks" season two. Don't hold your breath. Artisan, which did what Agent Cooper would have called a damn good job on the first season of Lynch's series, no longer has the rights — and they don't know who does now.

• "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1966). Cult director déjà vu: Russ Meyer owns the rights to his films, sells them through www.rmfilms.com, and they're $39.95. "Russ kind of likes it that they're hard to find," a spokeswoman told us. "Because 'Faster, Pussycat!' is such a big deal, we're saving it for last." Bottom line: probably some time next year.

• Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. Warner is restoring 10 — including "Top Hat" (1935), "Swing Time" (1936) and "Shall We Dance" (1937) — for release at an unspecified time. They're in Howard Hughes' legendary RKO library, which is, according to a Warner spokesman, in "horrendous" condition after its 1956 sale to a tire-and-rubber company and subsequent parceling-off.

• "Cat People" (1942) and other magnificent "B" chillers from producer Val Lewton. Also in the RKO scrap heap and "in the works," says a spokesman for Warner, which now owns the RKO catalogue.

• "The Haunting" (1963). Coming Aug. 5 from Warner in a horror lot with "The Thing From Another World" (1951), "Wait Until Dark" (1967), "Soylent Green" (1973), "Of Unknown Origin" (1983) and "House of Wax" (1953) — which, by the way, won't be in 3-D, because Warner hasn't come up with a DVD process for it that doesn't give them headaches and nausea.

• "King Kong" (1933). The original negative is long gone. Turner has the rights, and Warner, which owns Turner, is "desperately seeking better film elements." It's No. 1 on their list.

• "Looney Tunes." What's up, Feltenstein? "There will be something happening this year that's going to make everyone really happy. We're restoring each and every one of them from original camera negatives, so they will look and sound like they never have before."

• "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). Warner is searching for the best film elements for a restoration of Orson Welles' famously butchered opus. But "there's absolutely no way the cut footage exists. Everybody always asks that."

• "Ace in the Hole" (1951). The outstanding Billy Wilder noir satire is "under consideration" at Paramount.

• "All That Jazz" (1979). Coming Aug. 19 from Fox.

• "Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter" (1974). Hammer Studios' artful grandpappy to Buffy is coming, probably around Halloween, from Paramount.

• "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1969). Sergio Leone's spaghetti epic is due later this year from Paramount, along with "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985) and "Dragonslayer" (1981).

• "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). In restoration at Fox, with no release date set.

• "Blow Up" (1966). Antonioni's portrait of '60s swinging London is on Turner's schedule for next year.

• "East of Eden" (1955). Warner is sorting through unspecified "legal problems" with it.

• "It Happened at the World's Fair" (1964). More legal problems — this time with music rights — forced Warner to pull it from VHS release. But the Seattle-filmed Elvis flick has been cleared, remastered and planned for DVD in 2004.

• "The Journey" (1959). Sorry, Robert, but the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr adventure is too obscure for MGM. They say that if a film never even made it to VHS, odds are slim that it'll have a DVD incarnation. Except now your e-mails made us want to see the thing. Last resort: program a TiVo for it and cross your fingers that it shows up on the tube some day.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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