The Secrets of Success: New Line's Platinum Series
by Robert Mandel
New Line Home Video may not be the largest studio, but it has taken DVD from the place Criterion has been credited for beginning on laserdisc into the stratoshpere with special edition treatments not soon forgotten. Action titles such as Blade and The Corruptor got the treatment. Space adventures like Lost In Space got the treatment. Atom Egoyan's critically acclaimed The Sweet Hereafter was not overlooked, and it got the treatment. Heck, even the urban comedy Next Friday got the treatment. So, what gives? We asked New Line's V.P. of DVD Content Development, Mike Mulvihill, how the heck they decide which film gets to put on the fancy new dress for Easter.
dOc: What was New Line's first DVD release?
Mike: With the launch in March of 1997 we had 3 releases: The Mask, Mortal Kombat and Se7en.
dOc: That's what I thought. Obviously, there was a rather quick evolution for New Line from those Plain Jane first releases to the advent of the Platinum Series, which raised expectations for DVD and helped define the standards for nearly all subsequent special edition releases. How does that process begin?
Mike: Well, we try to see the films as early as possible, and then take it from there. We have a group that brainstorms—where we discuss what opportunities may exist for a film as it relates to DVD. We take that wishlist to the talent, which generally will occur at a time called ³picture lock,² which is a milestone date in the post-production process of a movie. That's the point where everything is settled on what is going to be in the film, and that is the point where we can identify if there are any deleted scenes available. The deleted scenes will be prepped on 35mm and readied for telecine (pronounced te-le-sin-ee) with the feature film. At that point is when we begin a dialogue with the director about opportunities we've come up with (in the Home Video department), and determine what their prerogatives they may have in terms of participating.
dOc: Does New Line try to get the approval of the filmmakers on the final DVD product? Who takes the most active role in supplemental content creation—the director or the DVD producer?
Mike: That depends on each title. Some filmmakers take a very active role, and they will lead the producer through the process. At other points the producer will lead the director through the process. For the most part we generally don't have a lot of back and forth across the board with directors, but there are directors that we do go through approval of the very final product. Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed Magnolia and Boogie Nights is someone who is very actively involved in every stage of his motion pictures, their progress and process.
dOc: Does that make things easier or more difficultŠ
Mike: One of our major goals is to bridge the gap between the viewers and the filmmaker, and that makes it easier to do. Another example of a director who is very involved is David Fincher. We think the discs benefit from their involvement. We find it exciting, to be engaged with them on the discs.
dOc: What are the criteria for deciding which titles are made into "Platinum Editions," and how are these editions budgeted?
Mike: We collectively look at the film for what it has to offer for the DVD ³space,² and what opportunities DVD has to offer that this film can tap into: deleted scenes, audio commentary, ROM content—those are some of the things we look at, and address the film on that level. Then, depending on what's available, we determine whether it will be a Platinum Series release or not.
As for budget, it depends on what the opportunities are, because those pretty much dictate what kind of budget we are going to attach to the release. We had a film called Besieged by Bernardo Bertolucci, and what we identified with that title was that it would have a pretty strong core audience, but it probably wasn't going to be as broad as Next Friday. So, we thought about what we could do for the core audience, and it was determined we can do an audio commentary with Bernardo Bertolucci, and his wife, who happened to do the adaptation of that particular film. Through the course of that it was discovered that there was a small making-of that was done for Italian television that gave some further insight into Bertolucci's filmmaking process. So, that was licensed for the disc. That disc was not a Platinum Series release, but we feel we did a very solid job there of bridging the gap between the filmmaker and the viewer.
dOc: You spoke of determining ³the possibilities.² Are you doing market research or is it that core group that looks at the film deciding?
Mike: We try to do determine potential based solely on the merits of the film. Obviously, we want to know what our audience is across the board, but we want to make discs that are unique from title to title. We don't want to be remaking the same disc again and again. We try to look at the individual personality of the film and look for ways we can creatively transpose that for DVD.
dOc: I'm holding the original Se7en in my hand, which announces as one of its features, ²Interactive menus!². (Mike laughs) I know you are planning a 2-disc special edition of Se7en right now. So, how did that all start?
Mike: With Se7en, obviously that's one of the crown jewels of the studio. When it came to launching the DVD format we wanted to be there with our crown jewel, and that's how it made it to the initial release. That was early in the market, and we were waiting to see what was going to happen with DVD. We wanted to come out with a real strong first effort—you know, our strongest titles—and there really wasn't that much opportunity at that time to stake the effort and energy into creating a special edition to make The Launch.
It was very important to our President, Steve Einhorn, with The Launch of the new format, that New Line create an identity for itself. One of the things that worked in our favor is that we don't have a tremendously deep catalogue—we have 400 movies—compared to some of the other major studios that have upward of 4,000 movies. That played into the hand of handcrafting titles, and that was the position that Steve Einhorn insisted upon very early. With that in mind, we created our first special edition title with The Player. That was the first in-house production of special material for DVD. We basically started from there and went forward, and haven't looked back since. A goal of ours with our Platinum Series is to define what the opportunities are for the format, and as you've seen over the years the opportunities have been growing and growing and growing. At the time of Launch, the whole idea of having ROM content on a disc wasn't an option, but once it did become an option we were sure to jump on it with Lost In Space. Now ROM content has become a major component of all our new release titles.
dOc: Do you know when ROM content will be available to Mac users?
Mike: Interactual Technologies, the company that has created the product PC Friendly, the software we use to support our ROM content, it is a goal of theirs to be Mac compliant. It is an ongoing discussion—it's something we are pushing for, and they are trying to achieve with future iterations of their software. They haven't made it there yet, but it is a priority and a goal.
dOc: Are all of your films given ³the treatment² as far as having their images cleaned up for transfer, or 5.1 audio mixes. What accounts for the obvious difference in quality between a New Line release and some of the other studios? How does New Line end up with such a great looking image, while some other studios, who are doing anamorphic transfers, but their transfers don't look nearly as rich and vibrant or free of artifacts?
Mike: Well, we have to give credit to our post-production department, run by a gentleman named Evan Ettleman. He takes it upon himself to be very up and in tune with what the options are for creating state-of-the-art video masters. He is very good at working with the talent to make sure that they are able to get what they want out of the telecine process. It is a policy for New Line Home Video that all of our DVDs going forward are remastered in anamorphic widescreen—and in many cases anamorphic widescreen and 4:3 full screen—and that we start with the best source available and build outward from there. If you look at our catalogue titles, Poison Ivy, Loaded Weapon—you're looking at titles specifically remastered for DVD. I think that is the most important reason why our discs maybe stand out above others, as far as quality is concerned.
dOc: Are you creating a High Definition master first?
Mike: That's the start. You start off with the High Definition source and then you downconvert to NTSC. Starting with the ³best source possible² is really, really important, because you have to compress this movie to put it onto a disc, and that can be pretty hard on your picture quality if you start off with a substandard source. Another key component to providing the best source material possible is that our video post-production department has been engaging in ³near field² mixes of the audio for our titles. The audio—which comes to them mixed for big theaters or auditoriums—is then taken to a recording studio and re-EQ-ed for the home theater environment, so what you'll have is a fuller surround experience designed specifically for the home theater.
dOc: Yeah, I remember on The Corruptor disc the sound was quite prevalent in the experience. Do you have any plans of including DTS mixes in the near future?
Mike: We have no announced plans for DTS, but audio is a huge component for DVD—and a big priority for us at New Line Home Video—but we haven't reconciled the DTS issue at this point. (Editor's Note: VSDA news by Peter Bracke of DVD File points to an unannounced upcoming title in DTS.)
dOc: How do you decide which titles have widescreen only? Is it just a matter of space? It seems that you favor supplemental content in lieu of full frame transfers on your discs.
Mike: Our goal is if there is room we will accommodate both. The Bachelor was a film this year that came out with both full screen and widescreen transfers that didn't have a lot of supplemental material on it, so we had the ability to put both aspect ratios on that disc. That's what we'll do if we have the room for it, but if we don't we will default to widescreen.
dOc: Is there a reason you have chosen widescreen? Is that from user input?
Mike: Yes, that is from user input.
dOc: So do you keep track of public opinion on the internet in order to get constructive criticism to improve their discs?
Mike: It is VERY important. You may see on some of the DVDs you own a prompt for our users to email us at email@example.com. It is very important to get consumer feedback, and we pay very close attention to it. It plays a big role in terms of what catalogue titles are released from New Line.
dOc: Do you have an example of a title that was influenced by feedback?
Mike: A Nightmare On Elm Street. The amount of attention that title got from fans on the internet played a key role on our execution of that release.
dOc: Speaking of Nightmare, a fan, Scott Hoppel, asks: ²Why are there no deleted scenes on the Nightmare on Elm Street series?²
Mike: There is on the eighth disc the opportunity to see two alternate endings for the first film. We did look at the alternate material that was available for Nightmare 5 on the laserdisc, and we opted to stick with the film as it appeared in theaters. What we found with that additional footage on Nightmare 5 was that there wasn't a significant quantity of it, and we felt that we weren't going to be able to present it at the same level of technical picture and sound quality that we were able to present the feature film itself.
dOc: Let's talk a little about licensing. Tell us about the pains you have to go through to obtain licensing for disc materials, for example: music.
Mike: Obviously, music is a costly thing to license, so you have to be very careful where you choose to license music. You have to be very clear on what the impact is financially on the project, and judge it on the merits of the given title. That goes for the licensing of anything.
dOc: I don't know the numbers. How cost prohibitive are we talking?
Mike: Well, it can really throw a budget out of control. Put bluntly, that's really it. When you're creating your own content you have the ability—depending on who you're working with and the availability of talent—to do things surprisingly affordably. When your dealing with licensing material that's popular from another source that can become expensive or more expensive than creating your own material.
dOc: How do you see DVD impacting the production process itself? Is New Line taking the forward-looking approach of Detroit Rock City, where you're creating supplemental content from the beginning of the filmmaking process?
Mike: Our goal is to evangelize the format as much as we can with our filmmakers. For Lord Of The Rings, for instance, our goal has been to make the opportunities that are available on DVD very clear to the people producing that film—and all of our films in general—and then they will be able to make it their own, and hopefully, on a title for title basis, deliver unique material that is reflective of their personality.
dOc: But going back to what you said earlier—about usually starting with a film once it's in the can, and then seeing what possibilities there are—to Lord Of The Rings or Detroit Rock City where it was almost ingrained from the beginning as part of the process.
Mike: There are certain titles that are identified from the get-go that are big corporate initiatives. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is an example of that. Lord Of The Rings, Lost In Space are examples of that. These are titles—franchises—that ALL aspects of the corporation are geared up to maximizing the potential for. So, there ARE titles where you DO start right away. You don't do that on every title, but you handpick which ones you're going to give that kind of attention to.
dOc: Are there any supplements you had to leave out strictly due to licensing issues?
Mike: There was the title, Hurlyburly, where there was a film adaptation of a David Rabe play called Sticks and Bones, that we were hoping to license for the disc as added-value. We were VERY enthusiastic about it, but we could not clear the licensing hurdles with the music on that title. We are still very proud of the disc we put out, but that one extra piece would have made a big impact.
dOc: How do you go about setting up the commentaries? Are they done in one take? Several takes? I think people have the impression that a filmmaker sits down, rolls tape and talks about their film for a couple of hours. So, when they hear about a director who isn't able to do a commentary track because he's too busy on another project it's like ³What's the big deal?².
Mike: It really depends. It varies from producer to producer. We have a few producers who do a very meticulous job of editing together comments to create a level of thematic narrative with the tracks, and we've had another set of producers who have been very good at getting a group of talent involved and getting a chemistry going with them, and therefore building a track that requires very few edits. I'd say that it goes both ways with us.
dOc: What about interviews? I think I read somewhere that if a featurette goes over 15 minutes in duration, as part of the union contract, you have to renegotiate the contract with the talent for more money....
Mike: What we have found more and more is that talent contracts are unique. I'm not familiar with any global rule on that level, but I would say it is very likely that a given actor or director would have that stipulation in their contract. But it has not been our experience.
dOc: You have put out rated and unrated versions of a film on the same title, right?
Mike: Yes. We've done that on several titles: Crash, Damage, Embrace the Vampire and our Poison Ivy trilogy. We have 5 titles on the market that take advantage of that feature. Again, that's one of those things that is unique to DVD, and that's something we are very interested in—publishing titles that take advantage of those unique advantages of DVD. Doing things that you can't do with any other format.
dOc: Right. So, what exactly is your relationship with Warner Bros.?
Mike: Our product is distributed by Warner Home Video, and New Line Cinema is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Time Warner.
dOc: Then why is it that New Line has a wholly different policy about putting unrated versions on DVD than Warner Bros.?
Mike: We do operate on our own sort-of balance sheet within the Time Warner family. That does give us a degree of accountability AND a degree of autonomy that we have chosen to take advantage of. Our approach to DVD is that we try to make it as New Line-specific as possible.
dOc: Well, given that relationship, you probably won't want to answer this next question: Some people have it in for snapper cases. There isn't much of a chance you guys are likely to switch cases, is there?
Mike: (chuckling) We are actually happy with the snapper. You probably have a few of our titles with the fold out sleeve?
Mike: We really like that configuration. When you're printing on board you have the opportunity to do different things, say with varnish. If you look at The Sweet Hereafter or A Nightmare On Elm Street box set; we're really proud of what our creative services department has done with the artwork. It's not just with the color and the design, it's the varnishing, the embossing, foil-stamping—all of these classic options that are available in the print world that can make really eye-popping packaging that makes the product compelling in itself to own. We think that the snapper really weighs into that.
dOc: I think I saw on Home Theater Forum chat you did that you were doing something special with the Boogie Nights special edition coming soon?
Mike: Yes, Boogie Nights will be reissued as a 2-disc set. That was something that came up with director Paul Anderson at the time he was finishing up Magnolia. What he wanted to do was revisit the telecine of the film, and take a look at what element was used to create the master that was on the current Boogie Nights, and apply some of the knowledge he had gathered since he made that film. What we've done is create a new video master using a different element than was used for the first video master. We're using a different telecine system. That was the starting point of the reissue of Boogie Nights. There's an additional deleted scene. There's some additional outtakes with John Reilly. There is an additional commentary track that will be on the disc. There are a few other things that haven't been confirmed yet. We have new packaging as well. The artwork has been revised along some lines that Paul had thought over the last couple of years. Once he looked at the packaging he thought there was room for improvement, so even the packaging was tweaked.
dOc: Regarding menus and packaging design: Are the same designers involved in both processes in an attempt to create a cohesive "look and feel?"
Mike: For the new Boogie Nights and Magnolia the same designer for the menu is responsible for the packaging. So you'll see that the same creative team is at work on the total title.
dOc: Do you do all of the production in-house?
Mike: We have partnerships with 3rd party vendors for basically all of the components on our discs. Our creative services department in-house does have a good deal of designers who are responsible for the majority of our packaging, and a significant amount of our ad materials, so there are in-house solutions to that side of it, but as it relates to compression and authoring, to menus design and creation, to supplemental material creation, that is done through our pool of 3rd party developers.
dOc: Whose job is it to create the blurbs and text that go on the packaging?
Mike: Our creative services department here. They handle all of our creative advertising, our packaging. They are responsible, with our marketing team, for creating the look and the feel of the packaging, and the text and the messages that appear on the back that describe what materials are contained within the package.
dOc: That reminds me. I found the marketing piece on The Corruptor very interesting.
Mike: The piece on the trailer? Great! That's what we're trying to do. We don't want to just create making-ofs on every single title. We want you to see what is unique about each movie, and try to tell that story.
dOc: I also like when you get the writers involved.
Mike: We've had writers involved since The Player with Michael Tolkin opposite Robert Altman. Sweet Hereafter has a commentary with the novelist, Russell Banks, and Atom Egoyan (who adapted the novel into the screenplay and then directed the film).
dOc: The other extra I REALLY enjoy is the musical director's commentary and the isolated musical score track. I think that people take for granted the incidental music, and have little idea how much thought and effort goes into the writing process. Carter Burwell's track on The Corruptor was fascinating.
Mike: We think that's another great way of peeling back another layer, giving insight into the making of the film. That's something we're excited about, and look forward to doing on an ongoing basis. Also, another thing we'll be doing on an ongoing forward basis, is creating 6-channel scores, so that you'll have a significant amount of original music on the disc that you can listen to in your home theater environment.
dOc: Have there been any "surprise² bestsellers in New Line's DVD lineup?
Mike: Surprise? The Nightmare box set did extremely well. We were prepared for it to do well, but it expanded beyond our expectations.
dOc: What is your best seller?
Mike: I believe it is Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
dOc: Is the day coming when more of a film's revenue may be derived from the DVD than the box office?
Mike: That is to be determined. I'm sure you know how impactful the home video revenue is to a feature film's success. The question of DVD versus VHS has yet to be determined, but at this point no, but VHS has been very healthy and DVD has been healthy as well. We have not noticed much cannibalization as this point. Home video has been a significant portion of every studio's success for some time now.
dOc: How does marketing DVD differ from other formats?
Mike: That's a good question. Currently, we seem to focus on sell-through, and so the marketing has been addressing a sell-through audience. We will start to see that expand into the rental side of the business, and we've already started to see that, but for the most part the marketing of DVD up to this point has had a sell-through rather than a rental spin to it. The difference is that you are marketing more the consumer than you are to the ³rentailer.²
dOc: I read that New Line would begin releasing more catalogue titles. When can we expect to see that begin?
Mike: You'll see Se7en and David Lynch's Fire, Walk With Me and Mother Night will come out this year. The Nightmare box set will be available for stand alone purchase maybe this year. Then we'll look to include more of our catalogue. Again, we don't have a large catalogue of titles—only 4-500. We want to take our time. What we found with the Nightmare box set is that catalogue titles generally do better when you create events for them. Create new content that makes it a compelling experience on DVD.
dOc: How many people at New Line work on DVD?
Mike: We ALL work on DVD here! Our department is about 50 people.
dOc: Any of the early John Waters œuvre coming to DVD soon? With commentary, we hope?
Mike: We'll be revisiting John Waters for 2001. We own 6 John Waters' titles in our catalogue. It's very important for us to do justice to those titles for DVD. So, if it takes longer to see them on DVD it's because we are working hard, putting a lot of effort forward to make sure they are top notch.
dOc: Will it be a box set?
Mike: That something that's being worked out at this point. What we're going to do is review each title, creating as much compelling material for each title, then see how they relate to each other. (Editor's note: Peter's VSDA info also points to a box set with Waters' commentaries in early 2001.)
dOc: Well, I think that's itŠunless you want to give up any startling revelations?!
Mike: (chuckling) No, not at this time.
dOc: [3 seconds later] What about now...? No? Darn.
The tradition continues, as Mike was kind enough [hahaha, laughs the editor maniacally!] to let down his hair and answer our stupid questions that invade his private life.
Nickname: Some people in the office like to call me "Mickey"
Residence: Santa Monica
Marital Status: DVD (I mean single)
Favorite Movies: Magnolia, The Sweet Hereafter, Boogie Nights, SE7EN
Favorite DVDs: Same as above.
Do you own a DVD player? Yes.
Most treasured possession: My job.
I secretly dream I am: "King of the World"
What no one knows about me is that... I really don't want to be "King of the World."
Which family would you want to live with, the Partridges or the Bradys? Partridge family
What was you first job? VHS Rental Clerk
Favorite candy? Snickers®
Favorite childhood toy or manufactured game? Matchbox® cars
Which product did you buy from an infomercial? (Come on! They ain't making all of their money off of my grandma!) Seduce and Destroy
Mac or PC? I use a PC but Macs make the world go 'round.
In Nightmare on Elm Street, which character do you identify with the most? Why? The exploding parakeet in number 2—I can't shake my case of "bird rabies."
What recurring dream do you have/used to have? HD-DVD
Janet Wood, Chrissy Snow, or Jack Tripper? Jack Tripper
If you were forced to eat another human being to survive, what part would you eat first? Fingernails.