Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bargain Bin Battle

People love a bargain. Everyone knows this. Wal-Mart has made billions utilizing this information about the American consumer. Maximize the goods while minimizing the price, and even if you are pushing stale bread, a good number of people will do some quick math and fill their carts with bread on the verge of being tossed.

Entertainment is rarely the place you find bargains. Video games and game consoles are more complex and expensive. Movie ticket prices keep crawling upwards even in the face of more and more commercials running before the feature. Forget about the cost of going to see a major league ball game of any type; you'll be spending your kid's college fund if you take the family. Look at your cable bills over the last year, and you'll find that unless you drop services, you are paying more. And let's not forget that the price of new DVD releases have been slipping upwards a dollar or so every now and then.

So, do we hang our heads and weep? Is there no hope for a touch of sanity when it comes to entertainment? Can't someone do something to ease the burden?

Oh my, yes, there are voices of sanity out there, so take a moment to breathe deep, blink your eyes clear and look at the potential for cheap thrills in your local video stores. Welcome to the world of bargain-priced DVD sales.

There are many companies out there with an idea to get movies in your hands at prices starting as low as $1.99. On DVD. Think of the possibilities. Think of these companies. BCI Eclipse. Mill Creek Entertainment. Madacy. St. Clair Entertainment. East West DVD Entertainment. Some of these companies package multiple films per disk and/or multiple disks per package. The collections can be as large as 50 films per set for roughly 20 dollars.

"These films must be crap," you may be thinking. "No one can afford to release good movies for prices like that."

You won't be finding Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson starring in the films released at these prices. You can't expect them to make mega-millions by letting their films sell at a couple of bucks per DVD. But we are talking about entertainment. You want something to pop into your player and have some fun for an hour and a half. You will find a stunning array of titles, ranging from horror to crime to comedy to action. You'll see classics and cult nightmares. You can go from Lou Gossett Jr. to Yvonne Michaels. You'll see the spectrum of black and white to stunning color. You'll also see films that will leave you bewildered by their mere existence if you dig deep enough into this niche market.

"We determine themes or genres with broad appeal and attempt to gather the most appealing mix within the available content universe. We utilize a variety of resources for content masters, but focus on suppliers that are renowned in the industry for quality and diversity," says Ian Warfield, president of Mill Creek Entertainment. His company releases a large variety of content, from double feature disks all the way up to 50 movie megapacks. The collections are built around themes. A couple of examples are "Chilling Classics", which showcases enough horror and suspense films to keep you awake for weeks, and "Drive-In Classics", which puts together 50 films that will remind you of family outings to the local drive-in and will give those who never had a chance to go to a drive-in a glimpse of what their parents might have seen in their teenage years.

BCI Eclipse has been releasing collections of various themes for a number of years. The most visually arresting are the four movie sets which usually use a theme for the films, such as "Flesh Feast", which contained films about cannibalism, and "Horror Rises From the Grave", running with the theme of ghouls and zombies. The bulk of their releases lean more specifically toward the exploitation areas of horror, science fiction, action and urban thrillers.

Still, four films, even if they aren't blockbusters, at six dollars? How do they make money? Simple. They make use of public domain films (films that have fallen out of their ownership rights over the years or have had their ownership rights relinquished for various reasons) and special arrangements with various distribution companies.

"We used to release a good deal of public domain or unregistered films. We have begun to move away from this line of product and are now focusing solely on licensed/exclusive content...Our new multi-film sets that are made up of all licensed content come from sources that are willing to license content at a very competitive rate." That is the word from Jeff Hayne, Director of Acquisitions at BCI Eclipse. His company has long made use of direct-to-video films and recently have been re-releasing films from companies like Sub Rosa, known for their catalog of horror and erotic horror films made exclusively for video distribution, as well as Brain Damage Films, which tends to release extreme horror films. "We do have license agreements in place with both of these companies -- both of these companies provide films that are good examples of multi-film collection material."

Recently, Mill Creek joined with Maxim Media Group, a sister company of Brain Damage Films, to form Pendulum Pictures. This company will be releasing six-film sets under themed titles like "Savage Sickos", "Hostile Hauntings" and "Fatal Femmes". The bulk of these films tend to older and hard-to-find direct-to-video films. They will carry a very low price of $9.98 per collection.

The companies offer entertainment in pretty much whatever size you are willing to commit yourself to. They do so at prices that make you feel like there has got to be something wrong with what you are buying. Who cares if you get ten, twenty or fifty movies for less than you'd pay for a couple of mega-sized meals at some happy fast food joint? Well, people may want a bargain, but it isn't much of a bargain if you're getting something useless, no matter how low the price.

The bottom line is: Are they worth your time?

BCI Eclipse, under their Brentwood imprint, has a deep catalog of various collections. The packaging is often inventive to allow them to secure up to ten disks in a specially-designed DVD box. Every disk has at least one movie on each side. The DVDs sport at least a "Play" and "Scene" selection on the main menu, but some have trailers. Special features and audio commentaries are not to be found on any that have been previewed. No close captioning, so unless you are a dedicated lip reader, hearing impaired people won't get much from these collections. The films themselves usually look very good, though they are limited by the source material BCI is presented with. In some of the older films, the quality can be on the level of a VHS tape from a rental store, but it is definitely watchable. The product is occasionally edited, but not by BCI. On average, you are seeing the film uncut on all of their product.

Mill Creek Entertainment utilizes a variety of packaging, depending on what you are buying. The smaller collections are packaged in the usual plastic DVD cases, but when you get to the mega-packs, the films are placed in their own paper sleeves with the disk's contents, along with a description, printed on the outside. These sleeves are boxed in a Velcro-sealed heavy paper stock box. Again, the disks contain at least one (usually two) films on each side of the dual-sided disks. There are "Play" and "Scene" selections for each film as well as an image of the film's title screen. No special features, commentaries or close captioning. The films vary in quality, but never worse than VHS quality of image. In Mill Creek's defense, most of their releases are older films that haven't seen the inside of a remastering suite and never will. A number of these films are lucky to find anyone to give them a new lease on life. The films are occasionally edited versions (not edited by Mill Creek, though), but the bulk are as uncut as you can hope to find.

East West DVD Entertainment releases primarily single disks with two features on one side of the disk. They use slim-line plastic cases. There are "Play" and "Scene" selections for each movie. No extras, commentaries or close captioning. The versions they release are similar to the quality of the previous companies. Very few of their product were previewed, so it could only be assumed the versions they release are not edited anymore than the product from the other companies.

Emson USA releases 50 film sets on five double-sided disks. Packaged in a plastic DVD case designed to hold the multiple disks. The menus are just lists of the films on that side of the disk. No extras, no commentaries and no captioning. The films are packaged five per side on the disks. They use compression technology to do this. The downside is that the compression is so intense that the films become pixelated nightmares when there is any action on the screen. Aside from that, their selections can be had, at much high quality, from almost any other company mentioned in this article.

Product from other companies mentioned in this article were not available for preview.

Low prices. A wealth of films and a variety of genres. Quality of film sources that ranges from okay to excellent. As long as the buyer is aware of what to expect, there are plenty of bargains to be had from many sources. Consider these collections to be launching pads that might introduce you to new films, new filmmakers, old favorites and forgotten classics, as well as inspire you to seek out some of the higher-priced, remastered versions of some of these films that small, niche distributors are making available.

At the very least, you can never claim to be unable to afford to entertain yourself.

Links to some of the companies mentioned:

Emson USA

Mill Creek Entertainment - Changing the Face of Value entertainment

Welcome to Navarre Corporation (BCI Eclipse)

St Clair Entertainment's DVDs

(Many thanks to Ian Warfield from Mill Creek Entertainment and to Jeff Hayne from BCI Eclipse. They took time to respond to my questions about their companies and gave permission to use images from their web sites. There will be future short postings on upcoming releases from both companies.)

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