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 on April 15.
Craemer and his obsession have plenty of company. In recent years, e-mail campaigns and fan demand have also 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 websites 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 says by phone from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “Hollywood doesn’t have to guess what the customers want -- we’re telling them,” he says.
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, meanwhile, put alternative packaging concepts for TV’s “Party of Five” online, shelving its initial choice when 85% of respondents opted for another.
“Interacting with fans becomes a great marketing vehicle, one with a huge payoff,” says Don Rosenberg, publisher of the Santa Ana-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 website, 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 separate DVD launches in the fall of 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,” says 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 also been aggressive in soliciting feedback. Last week, 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 last two years, Warners has also 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.
“Ever since DVDs broadened beyond the ‘early adapters’ -- young males more interested in ‘Terminator 3' and the like,” says George Feltenstein, senior vice president of the classic catalog for Warner Bros. Home Video, “we’ve tried to satisfy the appetite of older fans while introducing the product to the younger generation whose idea of an old movie is ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Classic movies have a particularly loyal following, says Steve Feldstein, senior vice president for Fox Home Entertainment, because intense “longing,” as he puts it, only comes with time. And TV is also a burgeoning area on the DVD front.
“TV is much more fan-based,” says Marc Rashba, vice president of catalog marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. People “spend four, five, six years of their lives with a program and are very vocal.”
Devotees of “Farscape” took out print and TV ads after the series was canceled in 2004 without a proper conclusion, they maintained. The SciFi Network ultimately aired a four-hour miniseries that was released by Lions Gate’s home video division in January. The website moonlighting21.com lobbied for a reunion show, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, as well as a DVD launch. They got their second wish, at least -- and six members of their group are featured on the Lions Gate DVD, the first two seasons of which come out May 31.
Diana Maiocco, a New York City TV advertising consultant, is media director of Moonlighting Strangers, a publication found on moonlighting21.com and one of the six who flew out to Los Angeles in February to be interviewed for the DVD.
“We were very nervous -- and very honored,” Maiocco says. “Still, it behooves the studios to pay attention to us because who knows the product better? Instead of taking an e-mail approach, we conducted behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, including one with the creator, Glenn Caron. Being part of the commentary ... that’s some sort of victory for us.”