Glass Houses: Should Your Replicator Do Your Authoring?
Posted Jun 1, 2002

Nobody can be all things to all people. A cliché to be sure, but most clichés have a ring of truth; that's how they become clichés. Nowhere is this one truer than in DVD authoring. For content providers looking to outsource authoring, the choices can be overwhelming. Some replicators now offer complete packages from authoring and encoding to manufacturing through disc packaging and distribution. It may sound tempting to go this route, and it may suit you fine, but you should also be aware of the services provided by boutique studios as well. Every project's needs are different, and every authoring facility has different specialties.

While content providers have benefited from lower disc manufacturing costs, lower profit margins are consolidating the market and driving replicators out of business. Thus, offering DVD authoring as an added service sounds like a good idea, and several of them have jumped in feet first. AIX Entertainment president and EMedia columnist Mark Waldrep admits this is one of the main reasons his business is smaller today than it was a few years ago. "A number of companies stopped working with us when one area replicator came into the picture and said ‘we'll author the discs for free.'"

Boutiques like AIX, however, can offer more specialized services than their replicator counterparts. For example, Waldrep often focuses on music product—DVD-Audio in particular—and has a well-situated 5.1 mixing digital suite and everything that goes along with music. While vanilla may satisfy some, Waldrep says, boutiques offer the creative flair many projects require. As one industry observer commented to me, authoring plays second fiddle to manufacturing at a big replication plant: "The studio's going to be last in line to get upgraded equipment and tools. It takes a lot of money to get the best talent and keep them trained. Something's changing everyday," he says.

Going the boutique route may benefit first-time DVD publishers because they can offer more hand-holding here than replicators, whose main focus is getting the disc out the door, according to Angela Smith, managing director at authoring house Crush Digital. Pierre Loubet, vice president, advanced media sales at WEA Advanced Media Operations, does not deny that replicators are more factory-like in their authoring services. "Replicators may not be as creative and dynamic as authoring houses. They may not push the envelope," he says. But besides price there is another important reason to choose replicators for authoring, he hastens to note. If any playability issues arise in the client's own QA testing, such as audio dropout, those issues are easy to solve when there is one contact person connected with the project.

Crest National is perhaps in the most interesting of positions when it comes to authoring and replication. First and foremost, they were doing DVD authoring before they began doing DVD replication. According to John Walker, executive vice president, sales and marketing, they have worked with every major studio. Clients, particularly studio clients, seem to like to be very close to the authoring facility because of the give and take involved in the process. Crest is located in the middle of Hollywood, which is perfect for that clientele and even for the software industry. However, how price-competitive are they? Walker says, Crest saw that as an issue and, as a result, acquired Digital Studios Group, now a Crest subsidiary, whose business is aimed at the lower-budget projects. Still, can they beat the replicator offering free authoring?

Not all manufacturers, of course, do authoring for free. Richard Diercks, president of The Richard Diercks Co., a Minneapolis-based DVD authoring pioneer, says it's important for content providers to ask their authoring house or replicator to define "authoring." What is included in the quoted price? Pricing looks different because sometimes an authoring house or a replicator wants its prices to look more reasonable than its competitors. "Make sure you know what the prices include, such as navigation design, authoring, encoding, graphics. If everything but authoring is offered à la carte, it may be just as expensive going to the replicator as it is going to a boutique. It may be a bit like getting a Plymouth for a great price with an extra charge for an optional engine," he laughs.

Diercks suggests a few other points to keep in mind when choosing an authoring services provider. "If authoring and manufacturing services are separate," he says, "make sure there is a direct link between the authoring house and the replicator. The replicator needs to know who to call if there is a problem." He continues, "Do not assume that whatever you've seen on a DVD can be done by your authoring company. Be specific. For example, there are many authoring companies that can't encode 5.1 Surround Sound. The same goes for DVD-ROM features—not everyone can handle them. This is an especially important question if the authoring house has done mostly movies."

At present, it appears that some replicators will always offer authoring packages, but the trend is shifting back to the boutique. Large replicators, such as Cinram, have pulled out of the authoring business. Other likely candidates, such as JVC Disc America, say they haven't considered getting into that side of the business because the boutiques do good work and manufacturing remains their core business.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that you should always make sure you know what you are getting. Don't overkill and overpay, but if your needs are complex, make sure you know your authoring house's work before you commit. In the meantime, happy shopping!