The specialty DVD market has thrived in recent years. But with the market under pressure Denis Seguin looks at how niche distributors are making their product stand out.

Consider the sophisticated bachelor pad circa 2003, art-dressed to impress a visitor: on the coffee table, an issue of The New Yorker magazine, a book of architectural photographs and a DVD jewel case of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows from The Criterion Collection's five-disc box set.

Now consider the bachelor pad of the near future: the magazine is available on the web, the photographs are stored on a memory stick in a wall-mounted viewscreen and The 400 Blows is on a hard-drive. The sex appeal, from a consumer's point of view at least, is gone.

This is but one challenge confronting the specialty DVD market, a niche business born in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the laser disc and the concept of 'home cinema'. The market, overwhelmingly male, encompasses cineastes who once supported the now vanishing repertory cinemas and collectors seeking the definitive version of a film - and both cohorts are willing to pay for the privilege.

Unlike the analogue video cassette, the digital format - and its vast storage capacity - allowed for subtitles in multiple languages, still images from behind the scenes, pages from the screenplay, extra layers of audio to accommodate commentaries, and stand-alone extra features.

The business grew rapidly with the development of the DVD and the widespread uptake of the technology. If only one in 100 DVD buyers bought a specialty disc, it still represented an established base to support several businesses.

Specialty DVD: film school in a box
First among these was New York-based The Criterion Collection. Established in 1984 through a joint venture between specialty film distributor Janus Films and multimedia CD-ROM developer The Voyager Company, Criterion is credited with establishing the letter-box format. Rather than the butchery of cropping or pan-and-scan, Criterion titles are presented on a television screen in its original aspect ratio.

Criterion established a reputation as an arbiter of cinema - its imprimatur instantly legitimised a film as art. As a business model it defied intuition; not only did the company license rights from copyright holders, it released films already in the video maket and sold them for a premium.

Titles ranging from Citizen Kane to Blade Runner were restored and repackaged and found a place in the hearts of purists seeking what Criterion president Peter Becker refers to as 'a film school in a box'.

Although hard sales figures are difficult to come by - Dennis Doros of New Jersey-based Milestone Film and Video says that art films can sell 'anywhere from 500 DVDs to 50,000' - it is clear the sector is under pressure.

The shift to digital is an obvious threat to the future of luxuriously mounted DVD packages, but in the short term the contraction of the mainstream DVD market is also having an effect. The glut of DVD product on shelves has driven up the cost of doing business - and driven down the cost of units.

Sam Dunn, deputy managing director of Tartan Video UK, says a price war that started in UK supermarkets is pushing retailers to favour 'campaign pricing' - a studio release will typically move into a 'three for $40 (£20)' campaign within eight weeks of release - and inexpensive populist titles over new-to-market specialty releases at full price. The situation is similar in the US.

With so much mainstream product fighting for shelf space, online outlets such as Play and Amazon are vital 'to the future of the business at this end of the market', says Dunn.

One knock-on effect, says Milestone's Doros, is that 'the lavishness of the bonus features and packaging has expanded' to make product stand out. The production and marketing of one of Milestone's 'ultimate' releases - such as I Am Cuba - costs $50,000-$100,000. This is for mastering films to high definition, subtitling, making-of documentaries, commentaries, an additional feature, authoring, compression, replication, packaging, marketing and mailing.

'You can't just grab a bunch of movies and put them out there'
Despite the pressures, new players are making in-roads into the high-end DVD sector, particularly with box-set packages.

George Ayoub runs Toronto-based Bogeydom Licensing, a two-person sales agency specialising in Japanese anime as well as Asian genre titles. Ayoub recently packaged a series of box sets showcasing Japanese exploitation legend Sonny Chiba for UK distributor Optimum Releasing. The two sets, Sonny Chiba Collection Volume 1 and 2 feature two groups of four films, each presenting Chiba's James Bond-influenced titles from the early 1970s. Each title is restored from original 35mm prints and features interviews with Chiba and the film-makers.

Ayoub is tapping into the John Travolta-like reanimation of Chiba's career via Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. 'You have to have an idea of what a good property is,' he says. 'You need a theme. You can't just grab a bunch of movies and put them out there. Criterion's theme is the label. In ours, we're not selling a company but a product.'

Ayoub's next project is packaging the works of Japanese actress Reiko Ike in the Pinky Violence Collection, a series of quasi-pornographic films made in the early 1970s by Toei featuring Ike in such titles as Sex And Fury, Terrifying Girls High School: Lynch Law Classroom and Girl Boss Guerilla.

Again, these original Asian grindhouse titles were inspirational to Tarantino, whose enthusiasms are quoted on the box set. Ayoub tracked down interviews with Ike and her various directors and struck new prints.

Says Ayoub: 'They're no longer exploitation films selling at $5.99. They're exploitation films selling at $18.99. They may end up selling only 20,000 units. At $5.99 you might not break even but $18.99 you'll do well.'

Doros says multi-disc collections are driving his business. Of his customers, he adds: 'They want value for money and they want something special.'

Nothing but repeats
That search for something special makes the specialised market a natural fit with the next generation of HD-DVD players. But this could cause a problem for niche players, as more licensers charge a second fee for HD rights. Both Tartan's Dunn and Milestone's Doros say their companies are tracking HD to see which system - HD DVD or BluRay - gains traction. But Doros does not see it as anything more than another bonus feature. Just in case, though, most of Milestone's titles have already been transferred to HD.

For Doros, the big question mark is digital downloading. 'Once the quality and speed of the technology improves, downloading might win out over everything else, especially since the studios seem to desire this most.'

That future bachelor in his future bachelor pad may look back on our era as the consumers' golden age of bonus features and elaborate packaging.

Ayoub makes a similar point: how will downloads affect the cornerstone of the industry - the repeat buyer' Film X may be released on DVD five times in different packages: the standard release, the deluxe release with commentary, the anniversary release with deleted scenes, the box-set release with similarly themed pictures, and the aluminum box-set release with the director's other titles - and all the while Film X, as a viewing experience, remains the same. And yet there are people who will buy all five packages. In a download environment, this completist ethos will presumably evaporate.

'It's just another file to download,' says Ayoub. 'Files on a computer are just not sexy.'