by Robert Mandel
Ron and Parker. Parker and Ron. Two sides of the same coin; one without the other and you don't have currency. Two down-to-earth guys next door who just happen to have quietly built the classiest, most respected DVD and home theater related forum on the web, Home Theater Forum. How easy is it to arrange time to sit down with two guys who have day jobs and still run an 11,000 member board at night? Not too. But not only are Ron and Parker the James Browns of web forum administration, they are simply nice guys. Just don't talk to them about politics, religion or bootleg DVDs—because these nice guys won't take any guff from you if you do.
dOc: How did you two meet?
Ron: Parker and I actually met I would say almost 7 years ago. The earliest form of logging in somewhere, exchanging ideas with other people on the computer, was online services, and Prodigy was one of the first, if not the first. And there was a movie forum on Prodigy, and there was a small group of laserdisc collectors in this movies forum that exchanged ideas every day. That's where Parker and I met, and we formed a friendship from there.
dOc: So when was the first time you guys ever met in person?
Parker: We met a couple of years ago. We had talked to each other forever, talking on the phone, conversing and setting up our own forum and doing all that, but had never met each other in person. Then Mike Knapp (former moderator at HTF) had a group meet in Orlando, Florida, and that's when we met for the first time.
Ron: Actually, it was Tampa.
dOc: When did you decide to create the HTF?
Parker: Ron and I had been on Prodigy, and then they started billing for your online time. So then we went to Delphi, and then a couple other places on the net. I turned to Ron one day and said, łYou know, Ron, I think I can do this script stuff.˛ I'd never done it before, so I was just guessing, but Ron says, łOh, really?˛ I played around with a couple of servers, playing around with the script, then we found the Ultimate Bulletin Board script, decided that was the one we wanted to go with. After a couple of servers we grew so big we needed to get a dedicated server. Tim Flavin, who runs an ISP out of St. Louis, Internet First, came to us and offered his support without ever asking for anything in return. That's the kind of people we meet everyday. But officially the Home Theater Forum started in July,1997.
dOc: So one of you is definitely the techie, the other the suit?
Ron: Yes! Parker is definitely the techie. And let me pat the guy on the back, because I think Parker's creative talents have blossomed over the years since I first met him. The work that he has done for our website—just the look, and that we stand out with the features that we have, and the design of the forum—that's all Parker there. And me, yeah, I guess I'm the suit. I do all the administrating, member complaints, member suggestions, customer relations—they all come through me. So it's the perfect marriage of tech and administration.
Parker: Ron's talent is dealing with people, and the administrative side of the board. Dealing with the companies we deal with, talking with the studios and getting stuff lined up with them. He just got finished arranging a wonderful event for 80 HTF people out in California, where he set up all these studio tours, and back lot tours, and stuff the public doesn't get to see. So I gladly give all that stuff up to him.
I've had to learn as we go along. I've had some people helping me out, lending me insight into what I should do, but mostly I've been playing around with it. So, I'm the technical and financial side of it. I negotiate all of our advertising contracts.
dOc: And you enjoy that?
Ron: That's the thing. We both enjoy what we do. Parker likes to do what he does and I don't like that side of it.
Parker:Yeah, Ron doesn't like the financial part, it bothers him, so I do it because I like it. Ron likes to deal with people. I'd go nuts if I had to do that part of it! So we do what we like to do and get to have fun at the same time!
dOc: Most of us still have day jobs to support our passions. When you're not masquerading as the moderators of the unjust, the unwieldy, the flame-throwers, what do you do to pay the rent?
Ron: I'm a postal worker. I work for the post office, but I'm a safe postal worker!
dOc: (laughing) And you still like coming home and dealing with more people, huh?!
Parker: Same with me. I'm a registered nurse, and have been for about 20 years, working with cardiovascular patients. Then I come home and deal with the board.
dOc: How would you describe your clientele, the environment in which you've created?
Ron: What we have done, and where our forum succeeds where a lot of others don't, is that we are more strict than other forums. We expect a lot more out of our membership. We aren't looking for the newsgroup crowd. We are looking for people who are VERY serious about home theater and DVD, who can come into a forum and express their ideas freely and professionally, and in return can expect to be treated in a respectful manner. Because we have done this, we have earned the respect of the industry. At this point I would say that our forum is read probably by every single studio, by most of the manufacturers (DVD and home theater hardware). We have the studios participating in not only live chats on a regular basis, but they also participate in the forum! And up until now this hasn't been done, as the studios have shied away from doing this, because if you take a look at the other forums and the newsgroups—it's a jungle out there—people don't treat each other with respect. What we have mandated of our membership—and what our membership has come to respect—is that everybody gets treated fairly, that everybody gets treated professionally, and because of that now, for the first time, the studios are not afraid to go into an open forum and participate. A forum where questions are asked of them and they have to respond to them on the spot. We are very proud that we have been able to accomplish something that hasn't been done before.
Parker: On the demographic side of this we have an age group of early 20's up to 70 years of age, male and female, and an income range of $20,000 to six-figures-plus a year. So the people that we reach is all sides of the spectrum, it's not just a particular group of people, it's everybody who is interested in home theater—and what home theater is is their own definition.
dOc: What is your ratio of male to female?
Parker: (laughing) Oh, I'd say it's 98% male to 2% female. We have a few female posters who come on the board actively, but we have a lot more women who lurk on the board but don't participate. I'm surprised by the amount of females we DO have post actively on the board, because it seems women shy way from the type of environment where all that testosterone is thrown around so much!
Ron: It's really amazing to see that women are beginning to appreciate home theater either on their own or thanks to their spouses, who obviously have these setupsŠthey see the difference between watching a VHS tape and putting a DVD into the player and listening to it in an environment that replicates the movie theater, so I think slowly we are bringing more women in and it's becoming a recognized hobby for women as well.
Parker: Yeah, women are just as involved in it as any guy is, they just have to test the water on the boards they get on and find out, hey, this is safe place that we can go in and talk about our hobby without getting into genderŠand that's something we go out of our way to do—to make sure gender doesn't enter into it, that race doesn't enter into it, politics and religion don't enter into the conversation. That what is discussed is home theater and equipment and so forth.
dOc: How do you think the internet has affected the ways that the studios do business, particularly in relation to DVD? How much of a role do you think sites like HTF contribute to that?
Ron: I think that the internet has changed everything. There was never this much closeness from the consumer to the manufacturer or distributor like now. The internet has become a direct lineŠand I often say that Home Theater Forum is a direct line to the studios, because we know the studios are reading the forum, and they send us letters. We see people requesting movies on our forum to be released, and then a couple of weeks later miraculously these titles are being released! Now I'm talking about offbeat titles, such as recently somebody suggested a Woody Allen collection, and, who would of thought, but a couple weeks later MGM announces they intend to release a Woody Allen collection. Whether it's always credited to us I can't say, but we do know now through the letters we receive from the studios, from the people who are participatingŠand when we went out to California we visited almost every major studio out there, and talk with their people and they knew of us...and confirmed that they DO read our forum and DO listen to what our members have to say.
Parker: I'm not going to mention any studios, but we have had direct letters from manufacturers back to us that have said don't say anything but we are going to release titles we hadn't thought about releasing because of what your members are saying. We've also had people have an influence on what's being manufactured. You know, whether a product is defective, and then we bring it to the attention of the manufacturer and now there's going to be a firmware upgrade. Or we have a member come along and they have a receiver or a DVD player and these are the features they'd like to seeŠand wow, six months later these are now available features.
dOc: What is your relationship with the other DVD sites?
Parker: I think we have a very good relationship with the DigitalBits, with DVD Resources, Digital Theater, DVD Talk, Home Theater Talk—all those boards. I think we have good relationships because we've had an open environment; that we say let's support each other like in our own little ring. Alert each other about problems we've had with members, and just kind of watch each other's backs. We've kind of taken a Sam Walton approach to that, where if you can't find it on our place then let us someplace that you can. That's been our philosophy from the beginning—to support other sites as well as our own so that they come back full circle.
dOc: Like a community.
dOc: What event do you think occurred last year that had the biggest impact on DVD and home theater?
Ron: Last year? I would have to say the death of DiVX. I think a lot of consumers were on the fence whether or not to invest into the format [DVD], and DiVX was the reason why. Once the format [DiVX] died, DVD came through as the clear winner and people had confidence in the format. Now look at where it is.
Parker: I agree with that. I also think we've had an impact on some studios that were reluctant to put products out on the market, who have turned around now and are introducing products outŠand they're saying, łHey, there really is something to this [DVD]!˛ There were a lot of studios that were really reluctant to have any of their films out on DVD, and you would never have guessed they would have, and now they're actively pursuing putting their product out on DVD.
dOc: What do you predict it will be this year that will have the biggest impact?
Ron: Hmmm. Tough question.
Parker: Well, I have something off the top of my head. More products being released by Disney. More product being released by Spielberg, not just from Dreamworks but his films, I see those coming out.
Ron: Absolutely. They ARE coming out. I'd say you're going to get some heavy hitters this year and by Christmas. I don't think people will be complaining there aren't enough blockbuster movies on DVD.
Parker: I also think we'll see more content on DVD, like laserdisc. I think The Abyss set the standard for that. The work that Van Ling did on the The Abyss, and the post-production work, including a lot of the features that were on the disc, and the banding of putting a full frame and original aspect ratio on the same side of the disc. According to Technicolor they'll be coming out with a DVD24 or DVD30, something like that. So, you'll be able to have even more content. Then I predict in the next two years the advent of the blue laser will be in fruition, you're talking about a huge amount of data being able to be put on one disc.
dOc: Which brings me to the next question. How do you think HD will affect the current incarnation of DVD?
Parker: First of all you'll need a new machine. Then second I think everybody who's on our forum will go and get one (laughing). Well, as soon as it's economically feasible. Any of us who have seen High Definition knows that's the way it's going to be, because there is nothing that compares to a high definition picture. When they start putting High Definition films out at the theater, then everyone's going to want to have High Definition stuff at home. It's like I was reading in an article the other day, if you've got a High Definition transfer, and you've got Showtime® that has Dolby Digital or DTS surround, they're watching it and they say why even leave your house? You know? I don't know if you've ever seen a High Definition picture on, but we saw one in Tampa when we were out there on a 10-foot diagonal screen that was off of Zenith High Definition monitor that looked like you were looking into the neighbor's yard. I think the audio side has come up so well in the last several years, that we're at a de facto standard with that. What we have to work on is front projection, or rear projection, and getting the image quality up to the audio side of it, and that's where I think they're headed with High Definition.
dOc: What do you think you guys have learned in the past 3 years running Home Theater Forum?
Ron: The secret to running a successful home theater forum is by creating an environment that stands out above the others. If a person can come to our forum and post his ideas freely without the next guy coming along and flaming him for doing so I think that is a major plus. We require everybody to register with a first name—NO ifs, ands or buts. Everybody is on a first name relationship on the forum. We don't want anybody hiding behind a nickname, and posting any piece of garbage that they want. That's meaningless, because they're hiding behind a name. We strictly monitor the board. We don't tolerate nonsense. But we see that our efforts have paid off , because we are the largest home theater forum on the net, and we got to be that way because of the environment that we created.
Parker: First of all, we learned that we didn't want to have a newsgroupŠthat's the first thing that we said. We didn't want to have a newsgroup mentality, because that's what a lot of people want to escape from is the newsgroups. Then we learned that we would have a set of rules that we would enforce no matter what. That the rules are flexible to a point—they can bend—but they can't break. We set the rules so that our members can feel safe that they can come to our board and not get flamed, or spammed, or whatever. And we aggressively pursue those people who go out of their way to do something against that. We set up a rule to require a real name; that you can't discuss politics or religion; that you have to treat each other with respect.
We don't tolerate behavior outside of that. That gets us into a lot of flack with a lot of other people who want to come to our board and start trouble, or because they have someone telling them they can't do something, but at the same time we get a lot of respect from the industry and our membership because of the fact that we do that. We had a policy not too long ago—I put my foot down—that we would not have any discussion about bootlegging of any kind. I don't want to get into saying it's legal, it's illegal—I don't want to discuss it. Then we got letters back from lawyers who read our forum that said we're glad you guys went after that because we actively pursue those people who advertise that they have a bootleg product of something that's out there. So, we're not only being watched by the industry but by lawyers who get on the news boards and see what people are doing illegal activity. So we distance ourselves from that as much as we possibly can.
I think just by doing all that it takes a tremendous amount of moderation on our part, but it also gives our members a great deal of comfort to know that it's going to be consistent. But we couldn't possibly do it on our own. We would not be where we are today without the great moderators that we have: Robert George, Chris Maynard, Chris Dugger, Cees Alons, Trenton McNeil, Mike Voight, Burke Strickland, Rob Gillespie, Adam Barrett, Jay Mitchosky and Phil Hamm. These guys are watching our backs all the time; we couldn't do it without them.
dOc: What do you see in the future of the HTF?
Parker: Well, I think not only will we expand, but it will be totally unpredictable what happens to the Home Theater Forum in the next year. If you asked Ron and I a year ago if we thought we'd be at a 11,000 members, we would have said no way. April of last year I got married, and we were at under 4,000 membersŠ
dOc: And SHE's regretting it now?
Parker: (laughing) Yes. And I am, too. NO, just kidding! We're having a baby here in a couple of days! Anyway, it constantly surprises Ron and I what it is we're doing. We keep having people come up to us and saying that we don't know what we have, and we're like, well, what do we have? (laughing) You know? It's a HUGE surprise. We get between 65,000 to 80,000 page views a day—not a month—a day! Like I got on the board this morning and we had 250 people just sitting there reading the board at the same time.
dOc: OK, last question. What is your dream home theater?
Ron: Oh, boy! I've though about this a lot. I want to own a house, where I convert the basement into a theaterŠI want to have a large screen that is covered by a curtain that opens and closes electronically. I want to have a projection system and actual theater seats. I want a lobby with a concession stand and popcorn maker. (Parker laughs.) I met a local New Jersey forum member, his I.D. is Scooter, and I've visited his house, and he's done exactly that. You walk into his house and it's exactly like walking into a movie theater. That's what I want—that's my dream.
dOc: What about you Parker, What is your dream home theater?
Parker: Well, do you want specifics? (laughing) My dream theater is a 20 by 32 room with a vaulted ceiling of 16 feet, and a 9-foot tall by a 12-foot wide screen that has a High Definition front projection system, going out over a 7-speaker Dolby Digital surround system with a 500 watt mono amp on each speaker. Oh, and multiple DVD racks, like a 300-disc player, but a series of them together. For the seating I'd have leather couches and chairs so people would be comfortable. And then a bathroom, a small refrigerator, a kitchen—and all that stuff down there so you wouldn't have to leave the room all day if you didn't want to! You could even have a little couch in the back you could take a nap on. That's what I want. I know some people say that the vaulted ceiling is good acoustically, but I've seen it done correctly, and it makes the screen look that much bigger. It blows you away. And besides, it's the perfect aspect ratio for my favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia. That would be the dedicated home theater room, but I'd have another dedicated audio room, too.
Ron: I wouldn't mind having Parker's home theater either!
Parker: Actually, I've had a theater in the basement, and it was a pain to go up and down the stairs. Mine would be a dedicated building, separate from the main house.
dOc: So, what you're looking for is an in-law theater?
Parker: Exactly. It can be like a separate place like a garage, with a loft build above that you can sleep in. It's an experience. You want people to come over to your house and give them the experience of going to the movie theater without actually going to the theater. That's what it's all about.
dOc: On that note, I thank you gentleman.
Ron: Our pleasure.
Parker: Thanks for having us.
We thought you might want to get to know Ron and Parker a little better, so we asked them some inanely unimportant questions for our first dOc Profiles.
Name: Ronald Epstein
Vocation: Post Office FSM Clerk
Hobby: Co-founder of the Home Theater Forum
Residence: Ocean, NJ
Marital Status: Single
Favorite Movies: Braveheart, All That Jazz, Glory, 1776
Favorite DVDs: Glory, The Matrix, Saving Private Ryan
Favorite Books: Lord Of the Rings trilogy
Personal Heros: Bill Gates, Leonardo DaVinci
Most treasured possession: Home Theater Forum
I secretly dream I am: Every bad phony-voiced radio DJ out there. But, seriously, I always had a radio voice. I can do all the ranges from phony to deep-voiced announcer. Wish I was in radio.
What no one knows about me is that... I always wanted to be a movie actor.
Which family would you want to live with, the Partridges or the Bradys? I'd love to share a room with Marcia.
Do you sleep on your back, stomach, left or right side, standing or hanging like a bat? Fetal, with thumb in mouth.
What was you first job? I was a paperboy in my neighborhood. Destined for success!
Favorite ice cream flavor? Ben and Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup
What time of day do you shower and why? 5am. This is when I am getting up to go to work.
Favorite childhood toy or manufactured game? Mousetrap. Thought it was the coolest game. You had to piece it all together and then start the chain reaction to trap the mouse.
Did you want to be the cowboy or indian? Cowboy
Mac or PC? PC
Ginger, Mary Ann, or Mrs. Howell? Mary Ann
If you were forced to eat another human being to survive, what part would you eat first? Pass the Pinky!
Name: Parker Clack
Vocation: Registered Nurse
Hobby: Co-founder of the Home Theater Forum
Residence: Kansas City, Missouri
Marital Status: Married
Favorite Movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Music Man
Favorite DVDs: Fleetwood Mac—The Dance, The 5th Element, Contact, Patton
Favorite Books: Richard Bach's Illusions. The Misadventures of a Reluctant Messiah. The Bible.
Personal Heros: Bill Gates, Leonardo DaVinci
Most treasured possession: My own home theater and the Home Theater Forum.
I secretly dream I am: The Silver Surfer. I always wanted to have his power and like him I am more of a person that likes to stay in the background instead of at the front of the pack.
What no one knows about me is that I......have always wanted to be a conductor of a large orchestra.
Which family would you want to live with, the Partridges or the Bradys? The Partridges, because they are a more musical family.
Do you sleep on your back, stomach, left or right side, standing or hanging like a bat? Most of the time, on my right side.
What was you first job? Working at an Arby's Roast Beef restaurant.
Favorite ice cream flavor? Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
What time of day do you shower and why? 5pm. This is when I am getting up to go to work.
Favorite childhood toy or manufactured game? Big Lou. He was a 5 foot tall robot.
Did you want to be the cowboy or indian? Indian.
Mac or PC? PC
Ginger, Mary Ann, or Mrs. Howell? Ginger.
If you were forced to eat another human being to survive, what part would you eat first? The leg. It has the most meat. :-)