All your brother wants for Christmas is "The Matrix" on DVD. No prob. You type the words "The Matrix" into Amazon.com's search box . . . and all home-entertainment hell breaks loose.
Sure, you can buy "The Matrix." But there's also "The Matrix Revisited" and "The Matrix: Platinum Limited Edition Collector's Set." Or does your bro deserve "The Ultimate Matrix Collection"? But wait, scroll down and you discover DVD decadence: "The Ultimate Matrix Collection Limited Edition Collector's Set," a 10-disc compilation that comes with an 80-page book and a miniature bust -- yes, a miniature bust -- of Keanu Reeves. The list price is $129.92.
A special edition of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" hits stores this week, just months after another release of the same film. Below, a "Matrix" DVD "collector's set" includes a Keanu Reeves bust.
(New Line Home Entertainment)
You tried to buy "The Matrix." Instead you entered the Matrix.
That's because, like many shoppers this year, you've stumbled into the world of DVD "double-dipping," an industry term for releasing multiple versions of the same movie on disc. Though the trend isn't brand-new, it has picked up steam in recent years as American consumers spend more on DVDs ($6.6 billion in the first half of 2004) and studios seek new ways to capitalize on the medium's popularity.
Take the two-disc special edition of "Hellboy," which arrived on DVD last July. It was followed three months later by the three-disc "Hellboy" director's cut. Last year's two- disc "Pirates of the Caribbean" made room a few weeks ago for a three-disc special edition of the same blockbuster. A 40th- anniversary edition of "Mary Poppins," the third DVD rendition of the Walt Disney classic, will help the medicine go down yet again when it's released this Tuesday -- with never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage. And that same day, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Platinum Series Special Extended Edition" arrives in stores; it follows the release in May of the "regular" DVD version of the same film.
The DVD business isn't the only industry re-releasing and repackaging its products. Record companies often put out multiple versions of a CD, including some that come packaged with music DVDs. The publishing industry does the same thing, unveiling, say, a special illustrated edition of the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" just in time for the holiday season. Even that long-forgotten relic, the VHS tape, often yielded multiple incarnations of the same film.
Studios point to some practical reasons for DVD duplication: Sometimes the bonus features for certain films -- such as directors' commentaries or "making of" documentaries -- aren't completed in time to make the initial DVD release date. But the biggest motivator is, of course, money.
The studios describe it more diplomatically: "We are giving people something that's new and better and, at the same time, creating a business opportunity for us," says Lori MacPherson, vice president of brand marketing and product management for Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which distributes Walt Disney, Touchstone and Miramax releases.
Some examples of DVD duplication are less egregious than others. For example, New Line, the studio behind the Academy Award-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, publicly announced its double-dipping plans before any of those films appeared on DVD. That way you could buy the two-disc version (essentially a DVD of what you saw in the theater with some bonus features) or wait a few months and spend about $10 more for the four- disc extended edition (a longer version of the movie with a whole new set of extras).
"We would have followed that plan regardless of whether we thought people would buy one, the other or both," says Matt Lasorsa, executive vice president of marketing for New Line Home Entertainment. "We're highly sensitive to being criticized for trying to double- dip the consumer."
Most studios collect more revenue from initial DVD releases of recent films rather than extended versions or director's cuts, says Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of DVD Exclusive magazine, a sister publication of Variety. Hettrick says the initial version of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" sold about 11.7 million units, and the extended edition about 4.3 million. Lasorsa says it's usually a 70-30 split.
"A majority of people just want to get the movie and get it as fast as they can," says Hettrick. "After that you're just appealing to the real hard-core fans, and that's a smaller percentage of the original base that already bought the first DVD."
Those hard-core fans include Mike Carter, a 33-year-old freelance writer who lives in Arlington and bought both the theatrical and extended editions of all of the "Lord of the Rings" films on the day each DVD was released.
"Since the company and the filmmakers were upfront about the two different versions before either was released, I had no problem with paying twice," he said in a recent e-mail. But Carter stopped short of the gift set editions, which come with such supposedly enticing toys as a statuette of the creepy Gollum.
"Did I really need to spend an extra 20 or 30 bucks so a gnarled, treacherous little creature -- eating a raw fish, moreover -- could glare at me indefinitely from my bookshelves? I don't think so," Carter wrote.
Still, he says he might go the gift set route with "The Return of the King" because he likes the miniature sculpture of Minas Tirith, Middle-earth's White City, which he calls "discreet enough to display without geek alarms flashing and whirling anytime I have friends and/or new people over."
So the buying and re-buying continues. And it's never too soon to start wooing future DVD collectors with new editions. In March, Disney will debut its "Bambi: Platinum Edition," a DVD that will likely spawn other "Bambi" box sets in future. No word on if it includes a miniature mounted head of Bambi's mother.