Originally created 02/28/97

No movies to watch, but some people are buying new video player



NEW YORK - Richard Trask is elated to be the first customer in his hometown electronics store to order a DVD player. The movie fan dreams of viewing super-crisp flicks on a machine hyped as the replacement for the video cassette recorder.

"When I saw it I was just astounded and had to buy one right away," said Trask, the first of 12 people ordering Panasonic players after a demonstration last week at a Dow Stereo/Video superstore in San Diego. The new video players don't even go on sale until Saturday.

But there's just one small problem: Movies won't be available for DVD players for at least another three weeks, timed with the March 24 Academy Awards. And even after that pickings are slim, with only about 100 movies scheduled by yearend for rent or purchase at prices ranging from $20 to $25 each. Several major studios haven't even announced their DVD movies - Disney, Fox, Paramount and Universal.

That doesn't seem to bother the people ordering DVD players before they arrive on U.S. store shelves. Several retailers said early reaction is promising to the cutting-edge product, a potential antidote to a yearlong sales malaise in consumer electronics gear.

But as makers of DVD players try to expand sales beyond "early adopters" - consumers like Trask who just have to buy the latest cool stuff - a lack of titles toughens the marketing challenge. The last similar product to catch fire - CD players in the 1983 - was launched from the outset with more than a dozen music titles.

"It's an interesting exercise in my personal opinion," said Marc Finer, a Pittsburgh-based consultant to the consumer electronics industry.

"The whole premise of making the vision or concept interesting and exciting is somewhat diminished," he said.

The Circuit City electronics chain, for example, is waiting until March 24 to put players on its shelves, and then only in stores in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C. - cities where movies are expected to be available.

"We are a little concerned about the limited supply of software," said Morgan Stewart, a spokesman for the Richmond, Va.-based chain of more than 430 stores.

The software shortage is the latest fallout of a two-year struggle over format and copyright concerns that made DVDs one of history's most hyped technologies - never making it to store shelves last year despite industry promises. At prices ranging from $500 to $1,500, a player costs well more than a VCR and isn't able to record programs.

Worsening matters for marketers is the awkward acronym for the digital video disc - DVDs sound more like men's underwear than electronics gear.

Despite the obstacles, industry forecasts of sales range from 500,000 to 1 million this year, with 10 million worldwide sales by the year 2000. Makers of the players hope to get some help from in-store demonstrations at kiosks in Blockbuster video rental outlets and in electronics stores.

Sony, which has the advantage of owning movie studios, plans to release its $900 model in April including four free software titles: Clint Eastwood's "In the Line of Fire," the kid-targeted movie "Fly Away Home," a Tony Bennett concert and a Sesame Street special.

The hope is the futuristic discs, which look like CDs but hold enough data to play a full-length movie, will sell themselves. Images appear crisper and more vibrant than on videotape. Flipping around is as easy as with a CD. Press a button and the dialogue can be switched from English to Spanish to Chinese to other languages. Another button can cut out offensive material from the preprogrammed discs, making films suitable for viewing by the whole family.

Panasonic is the first into stores on March 1, selling two DVD players - one priced under $600 and one under $1,000. And early sales appear to be getting some help from the fact that people have been talking about DVD players for so long.

"What shocked us, not surprised us, was the number of people who forked out the cash and the credit card to buy the hardware with the full knowledge there will be no software," said Tom Campbell, a spokesman for the Dow Stereo/Video chain of nine West Coast superstores.