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Faster, Cheaper with More Control: New Technologies and Non-Theatrical Distribution

By Ted Barron

The famous photo <em>Men at Lunch</em>, from Ric Burns’ <em>New York: A Documentary Film</em>

Technologies such as DVD and the Internet have radically changed the marketplace for non-theatrical distribution of film. For the specialized interests of documentary distributors, these technologies have not only changed how these programs are delivered to their respective audiences, but, in some cases, the presentation of the film itself. Though not all non-theatrical distributors have embraced these young technologies, each have had to consider questions of both their respective benefits and potential perils.

Dan Hanby is vice president of PBS Consumer Products and oversees acquisitions and distribution for PBS Video, one of the largest and best recognized distributors of nonfiction programming in the industry. Hanby has worked with PBS Video since its inception under the banner of Pacific Arts Video. The distribution arm was eventually purchased by Turner Home Entertainment in 1994, which was later acquired by Warner Brothers in 1997. The non-theatrical distribution arm is currently comprised of two divisions: PBS Home Video, which serves home video consumers, and PBS Video, which serves educational markets.

PBS Video currently employs 25 representatives to work in the educational marketplace. These representatives work along with program producers to develop support materials that meet the needs of both teachers and students. Hanby notes, “Material is currently being developed for an upcoming program on Mark Twain (airing in January), which will help to teach it across curriculums. Materials can be used in English classes as well as history classes. We are always looking for an added value to enhance the experience of the program.” Hanby recognizes the label’s potential to extend the brand of the network. “More importantly,” he adds, “it extends the life of the program, so it will have the opportunity to be seen again and have impact beyond the initial broadcast.”

New technologies such as DVD make it possible to organize these supplemental materials in creative ways. Hanby describes the most commonly used tool, indexing, which “functions similarly to timecodes and allows viewers to locate specific pieces of information for further study. The technology of DVD has greatly enhanced these features. With chapter searches, these materials become more accessible.” But despite these benefits, Hanby notes that the educational marketplace is still far behind in the development of DVD technology.

Both the superior quality of DVD projection and the ease of chapter access are encouraging PBS to explore more opportunities with the format. The DVD format of Ken Burns’ Jazz performed very well both at universities and public libraries. The program was released on a gold-enhanced disc set, which ensures greater durability and quality. Among the programs in development for DVD is Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film. Hanby is excited at the prospects. “We are free to add all sorts of material that wouldn't have been accessible otherwise. The seemingly limitless capacity appeals to both consumers, as a collectible, and educators.”

PBS Video is also benefiting from the strength of the PBS website ( and its recently developed educational tool, The American History Database. Hanby counts it among his greatest successes. “Materials can be downloaded directly from the website. Teachers can pick and choose which materials would most benefit their students.” Future plans include a science database, which would offer similar functions for science educators.

Although many of these developments are specifically designed to enhance the distribution of programs beyond the initial broadcast, PBS Video remains an ancillary piece of the PBS pipeline. While PBS Video is occasionally consulted regarding programming decisions for television, the primary decision remains in the hands of the broadcast programmers. Hanby recognizes the success of the PBS brand strategy and supports the pipeline of national programming. “With revisioning rights (which are cleared through program producers), we will continue to adapt programs for video and accommodate the needs of the consumer,” he maintains.

While the marketplace has grown as a result of newer technologies, space in the marketplace remains finite. Hanby notes that PBS Video has not attempted to develop programs for the home video rental market. “With shelf space becoming harder to access, we hope to establish an ongoing niche by positioning programs for the sell-through marketplace,” he says. “Our Internet business at is healthy and growing; we find more people looking for DVD products.” Among the most requested programs is Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which is currently being developed for DVD release in conjunction with a television rebroadcast.

Amidst these changes in the industry, Winstar Home Video has also emerged as one of the leaders of specialty products in the home video marketplace. The label developed from what was initially Fox Lorber Entertainment, a highly regarded distributor specializing in international and American independent films. Winstar Communications purchased Fox Lorber in 1996 and eventually developed Winstar Home Entertainment, which emerged with three divisions: international films (released under the Fox Lorber banner); performance and fine arts video (released under the Centre Stage banner and largely comprised of documentaries on performers); and holistic lifestyle videos (released under the Wellspring Media banner).

Dan Gurlitz, vice president and general manager of Winstar Home Video, has witnessed many changes in light of recent technologies, which have provided a boon for specialty markets. Although the international film market has clearly benefited from the DVD’s place as a collectible in the marketplace, Gurlitz sees even greater opportunities in the instructional video market. “The information that can be included on DVDs, as well as DVD-ROMs, greatly enhances the experience of the viewer,” Gurlitz notes. “We are currently working with Mystic Fire Video to develop the DVD release of Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth (a popular six-volume VHS set featuring interviews by Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell). The consumer will have a more broad experience with such features as an on-screen image gallery. We can include interviews with George Lucas, who cites Campbell as a great influence on Star Wars. The VHS tapes also included a booklet that can now be presented in the special features section of the DVD…In many ways, DVD makes documentary more alive.”

With 60% of its sales coming from DVD, the market for the new format is at the forefront of Winstar's minds during the acquisitions process. Winstar currently has an inventory of 425 titles available on DVD, the majority of which are international films, and looks to expand across categories. “We look at a production and try to consider what we can add to what can be a very linear program,” notes Gurlitz. For the upcoming DVD release of Margaret Cho's performance film I'm The One That I Want, producers have developed a 45-minute featurette on the making of the show which was specifically designed for the DVD release.

While Winstar supports websites designed both for industry wholesalers ( and direct sales to consumers (, the company has enjoyed incredible growth through more popular Internet retailers such as and Gurlitz notes that these retailers provide a great boon for specialty films because “they have virtually unlimited space. Not only can you find films of select interest, but you can get what you want in a reasonable turnaround time.”

Despite the boon that these technologies provide for distributors working primarily with home video markets, many educational distributors have been reluctant to convert products to the new formats. Like PBS Video, Fanlight Productions, a Boston-area distributor that specializes in health care and mental health videos, lists educational institutions among its most frequent clients. These markets, as well as those of health care professionals, are slower to embrace the development of these new technologies simply because it is not cost efficient. Ben Achtenberg has owned and operated Fanlight Productions for the past 20 years, in addition to producing programs for distribution. As a producer, he notes that, although many in the industry are not producing for the format because the demand has not yet surfaced, he recognizes the potential benefits of the DVD format. “We recently took on a film about cross-cultural issues in health care, which would be great for DVD because it is broken down into chapters,” he says. Fanlight recently took on its first CD-ROM on fetal alcohol syndrome (which includes two separate tracks for both Ob-gyn and perinatal specialists), which has had some success.

Cost will dictate whether more specialized markets will further embrace these technologies. “The cost to make conversions is uncertain,” Achtenberg notes. “To go to DVD with some of the older technologies may be more difficult. Our first step would be to look to future acquisitions, rather than try to update our catalog.”

Achtenberg has seen some benefits as a result of Web traffic. While Fanlight has not experienced an overall qualitative impact, he does notice more people ordering via Fanlight's website ( Fanlight will also soon be making all of its study guides available in PDF format through the website. “At our end, it enables us to fill a customer need,” notes Achtenberg. The demands of these customers will ultimately determine whether it becomes cost efficient for specialty distributors to take on the technologies of DVD and the Internet with the same gusto as their larger, more commercial colleagues.