The Ins and Outs of DVD Duplication
Posted Sep 1, 1999

As DVD media and equipment prices continue to fall, producing larger and larger runs of discs is becoming increasingly viable for event videographers. This allows them to look beyond wedding-type projects where you can usually count the required number of copies on one hand. Videographers whose sole business may have been weddings and bar mitzvahs may now find themselves shooting stage events or corporate video. If this is happening to you, you may soon find yourself in the business of disc production as well as video production—whether you like it or not.

A number of factors are contributing to this shift. While in many cases, corporate content is still done in PowerPoint, the way that content is distributed is changing. More and more, corporations are making video productions of corporate presentations and distributing them to clients, partners, salespeople in the field, or geographically disparate parts of their own business. As DVD media prices get closer to CD and the installed base of DVD drives, players, and duplicators gets larger, DVD delivery is becoming an increasingly cost-efficient way of publishing content, according to Jeff Starfield of CD\Works, a Boston, Massachusetts-based duplication service bureau. And with growing frequency, the videographers who shoot that content but don't necessarily want to mess around with its duplication (beyond authoring the master disc) are entering his client pool, he says, as they farm out the duplication end of their projects.

"Videographers are being commissioned to shoot things like an executive giving a quarterly report," says John Gormley of Data Reproductions, a duplicator based in Dawsonville, Georgia, with the presumed next step of distributing that report to all the relevant parties who couldn't be there to catch the presentation live. Ironically, while DVD used to be the bleeding-edge technology that corporations wanted to keep at arm's length (compared to better-understood VHS), now it's familiar, with economics that fit better in a corporation's comfort zone than streaming-based delivery. "Video conferencing is still pretty pricey," says Gormley. "Sending out a DVD is not."

With that "shoot one, copy many" model—foisted on videographers by their corporate and stage clients— often comes the need for revving up duplication runs beyond the 5, 10, or even 25 copies that videographers may be equipped to handle on their own.

Of course, the flip side of that trend is that all those price drops and cost efficiencies, and the simple fact that DVD recording and production are becoming common parts of everyday life, mean that even as videographers' duplication needs become more demanding, they may be increasingly inclined to shoulder the burden themselves and bring all that capability in-house. One great advantage of this approach is that not only do you get to take control of the duplication side of your video production jobs, you also might be able to add DVD duplication as a sideline service for your videography business. So even as videographers' need for professional-quality duplication may grow, their interest in the traditional duplication avenues may diminish.

Bernhard Kirschner, director of Sydney, Australia-based duplication outfit YesVideo, says there is a synergy between DVD-Video production and disc duplication, but videographer response to the notion of outsourcing jobs to professional duplication services has been "mixed." He explains, "Many prefer to do it themselves, although even just a few copies can often be done by a professional duplicator at a much lower cost and much faster."

The Pros and Cons of In and Out

The basic questions of in-house vs. outsourcing are as follows: "Is it necessary to buy duplication equipment, or is it better to use an outside duplicator? And if I do decide to outsource, how do I find a duplicator that best fits my needs?" It's not as simple as it sounds; see sidebar, "The Outsource Vs. In-house Decision Tree," for a list of questions any videographer should ask himself or herself before deciding which route to take.

Mike Weiss of Rockville, Maryland-based duplication house Video Labs offers his best advice. "Duplication is not magic," he says. "It's that we are professional and expert at what we do. If somebody came to us looking for footage, I wouldn't shoot it, I'd partner with a videographer."

Videographer Peter Frechette, co-owner of Fields of Vision in Newton, Massachusetts, looks at the issue from the videographer's side and agrees with Weiss. "Anything we duplicate is going to be on my computer, therefore tying it up," he says. "We haven't made an investment in buying a mass duplication system. At this point, it's not worth it for us. It's not what we do. It's not time well spent."

Echoing Weiss and Frechette, Roswell, Georgia-based video and multimedia producer Tony Westerfield of Into FX, says, "Duplication is simply another business. As a small production house, I focus on providing a specific range of services," specifically related to the content he creates. "That requires an investment in specific equipment and then marketing to clients is based on that business model. Adding duplication would radically change that model and require that I spend thousands of dollars on new hardware and the time investment to muster the clientele."

In-House Duplication: Cheaper? More Profitable? More Inconvenient?

Breaking down how much a duplicator actually can charge for each service is tough. "Some duplication companies put pricing on their Web sites, but most play it close to the vest," says Data Reproductions' Gormley. "We don't publish ours because we deal with so many different types of projects, it would be impossible to create a price list that would cover every different spec we quote on." Another duplicator admits if a client comes to them with a quote from someone else and asks, "Can you beat that price?" there's a good chance they are going to do it.

The prices that duplicators charge also tend to vary from region to region, which is an issue worth considering for both videographers considering outsourcing duplication chores and those willing to recoup their equipment investments by taking in duplication work on the side. "Someone looking to add services should probably develop their own cost spreadsheet, compare that to what they are being charged by outside vendors for duping services, and then develop a price matrix they are comfortable with from there," Gormley says.

Warehousing and fulfillment also can be cost factors for videographers as their duplication business grows—particularly when you bring the requirement of professional-level surface printing and disc packaging into the picture. For example, says CD\Works' Starfield, "You may have to stock different types of media—thermal or silver or white inkjet," depending on what printing options the client prefers, or what may work best with a particular print design. Preparing for those possibilities takes storage space and plain old know-how.

It is just that kind of expertise that makes outsourcing to a duplication professional a more effective option, Starfield argues. "Media and equipment change very regularly. People may overestimate the useful life of equipment they get. Besides, they're pretty limited if they are getting one piece of equipment," he continues. "For example, you may only have one printing choice—inkjet or thermal—but no option for silkscreen or high-resolution digital prints." These are the types of options that can be valuable for meeting the demands of a few elite clients, but aren't really feasible for studios whose primary focus is producing video, not DVDs.

Time also is a key issue for videographers taking on larger projects. For example, Darren Purcell of Alta Loma, California-based Purcell Productions describes a recent project where he needed to duplicate 2,000 copies of a marketing program. "I mastered, encoded, and duplicated two three-hour discs. It took a long time. The client wasn't in a rush, so I fed the copies to them a little at a time. I'd probably need a month to finish 5,000 copies," he says.

But duplicating hundreds of copies rather than thousands of copies of independently produced or corporate video projects is a growing trend, professional houses say. Tom O'Reilly of College Sports Media, a division of mediamethods in Pittsford, New York, asserts that duplication service bureaus can add more value than simply handling volume. They also know how to save their clients money. "I just met with somebody last week that was looking to distribute a DVD and was going to put other information in with it," says O'Reilly. "I showed them how they could put a slit in the folder and put a disc in that way instead of putting money into packaging they don't need."

Video Labs' Weiss agrees. "The fact that we're in the industry, we know the tricks and ins and outs," he says. "We can get goods for wholesale market price." This principle applies as much to those distributing on old-school VHS as with DVD. For example, to buy VHS shells, one might have to buy 100,000 or more to get the cheap price of 20 to 25 cents. Also, tape pancake, depending on the grade, costs in the range of $10 per pancake. Duplication houses are likely to pass some of those savings on to their customers; but if you're doing only a few jobs where you're duplicating in quantity, you'll never get that kind of pricing without investing in much more packaging than you need.

The Other Side of The Coin

There, in a nutshell, is the case for outsourcing duplication. But clearly there are those who prefer the DIY model, even studios like Darren Purcell's, which may end up doing four-digit disc runs on a single product. Why would a video producer like Purcell subject himself to the added stress of large duplication projects?

"I feel better doing the duplication myself because I have the control," Purcell says. "Each one of these DVDs is touched by me—checked by the owner. I've only had a few problems with playback, and those were mostly with earlier DVD player models." Recently, Purcell completed a 2,000-unit order which prompted his purchase of a second duplicator. "It paid for itself with this one job," he says.

And there's certainly no shortage of equipment for video producers looking to bring duplication chores in house. For those who like to keep disc duping and disc printing separate, there are tower duplicators such as Microboards' Editor's Choice-winning DSR DVD line, Alera Technologies' Copy Towers, Condre's Tracer series, Vinpower Digital's Shark Copier systems, and DiscMakers' Reader's Choice-winning Reflex Pro line. These tower duplication products start around $400 for single-disc "1:1" units and range up to $3,000 for 11-drive towers.

Standalone printers are available from Epson (the Reader's Choice-winning Stylus Photo R200-960 models), Primera (Signature Pro, Z1, and Inscripta), Microboards (DiscFactory), and others. Prices range from under $100 to $5,000 or more.

For greater efficiency when doing volume runs, a number of companies including Primera (the Editor's and Reader's Choice-winning Bravo II and BravoPro), Rimage (2000i, 360i, and Protege), Microboards (DX-2), MF Digital (Director EC), and All Pro Solutions (Apollo, Zeus, Hera) offer complete solutions that combine duplication and printing and automate the process using robotic arms for loading and output. These systems vary widely in size and price; some can automate the duplication of as many as 600 discs. There are of course many variations within each group; DVD printing in particular uses a variety of different technologies and involves numerous consumables.

Printing is one area that proves challenging and costly for videographers pursuing the DIY duplication route, in Purcell's experience. "You don't always know when the ink runs out," he says. "I can get about 100-150 prints per set of ink cartridges. Each black cartridge is about $40. So, technically it costs approximately $80 for 150 units. However, I don't often use 100% of the ink because then the disc is saturated. Therefore, I'm typically below 50%. Sometimes I'm as low as 20%-25% and it still looks good and the disc is not saturated. Then, I can get 200 units or more. That lowers the $80 cost for the ink."

But Purcell still maintains that it's advantageous—and cheaper—for videographers to keep disc production in-house, in spite of the complications and costs that disc printing introduces. "If I sent this project out to a duplicator, I'd still have to give him the artwork. The duplicator has to charge a film fee. A setup charge is also given. Then, there is the cost of the DVDs."

In the end, Purcell says he feels certain his hard work paid off on that demanding 2,000-disc job. He's already looking to upgrade his duplication machines further.

Picking a Duplication Service

If Purcell's DIY route sounds too labor-intensive to you, what criteria should you use when you select a duplication outfit? Videographer Joe Beckerle of Garnerville, New York-based Beckerle Productions says that when choosing a duplication house he looks for someone that can take the most off his plate. "I don't want to hold their hands," he says. "I want to send my client to the duplicator and know they are going to handle it all. Service is the main criterion for me. I don't mind paying a little extra for good service."

Price, of course, is also a key factor. With the slew of duplication services being offered on the Web, Dave Shapiro of Alpharetta, Georgia-based Shapiro Enterprises says it's tempting to do your shopping online and choose solely on the basis of price. "The only drawback is the anonymity of it," he says. "Otherwise there is very little reason not to go to one of them to run off 1,000 copies."

Field of Vision's Frechette says he stays away from online services. Local providers make sense for him. "I want the ability to go see somebody and say, ‘Why isn't this working?' Or, ‘Can you walk me through this?' Price is important, but the relationship is important too. I want to learn. Explain to me why something works or it doesn't. If something is wrong and it is my fault, I want to know why it is my fault. Who knew that there were four types of DVDs?" he jokes.

Mistakes, or the fixing of them, may be another reason to go outside your own company for help. Video Labs' Weiss says the duplicator is liable to make mistakes. "While everyone hopes they don't happen, they do," he says, "and for the videographer to have to redo ten copies can be a problem when you're running to another shoot. For us, it takes no time to redo something."

What about special services? How important are they? Some duplicators can do VHS and CD duplication in addition to DVD. Some offer replication (pressing larger runs of disc with the same technology used to mass-produce Hollywood DVDs). Some companies, like Disc Makers, offer both duplication services and duplication products, and will work with a customer to determine which approach will work better for them.

What about authoring? Options are abundant. Someone might be wonderful at shooting video, but what about chapter creation and menus? YesVideo's Kirschner says that as a professional duplicator, he can almost automatically convert tape to DVD. "The process gives 54 chapter points chosen through patented scene-detection technology."

What may seem obvious is not always. It's also important to question whether a duplicator can handle the format the event was shot in. "A lot of people shoot on Digital Betacam," for example, says Weiss. "While those decks may be available, what about the more high-end, like Sony's high-definition HDCAM or DVC ProHD from Panasonic? These decks can run in the neighborhood of $100,000 and may not be something all duplicators have invested in as yet."

Bucking the DIY Trend

Will professional duplicators be doing more DVD copying runs for videographers in the future? YesVideo's Kirschner says, "The answer is most certainly ‘yes.' The best comparison is how the number of copy shops have grown, even though photocopiers and printers have become common, cheaper, and faster. The expert learns that it is better to concentrate on his expertise, not the mundane."

The Outsource vs. In-house Decision Tree

Here are 14 questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether to purchase duplication equipment to meet your clients' multi-copy needs or farm out that work to duplication service bureaus.

1. Do I want duplication to be an important part of my business, or would I rather concentrate on the creative side alone?

2. On average, how many copies will I be making per order? How many 25-plus runs do I expect to make per year?

3. How many of my clients will want extra services, such as warehousing or distribution? How much are they willing to pay?

4. How much will a tower cost? Do I need other types of equipment, such as a printer? Or an automated duplication/ printing system? Waveform monitors? Distribution amps?

5. How many different types of media will I need (e.g., shiny silver, white inkjet, silver inkjet, thermal, hub-printable, or specific brands that some duplicators require)? Will I need both DVD+R and DVD-R? How much media will I have to order, and how much does it cost? Will I need name-brand media? (To save you the suspense, the answer to that one is yes.)

6. For my printer or print technology of choice, how much do ink consumables cost, and how often do they need to be changed?

7. Will I always want one kind of printing, or will I want to offer options?

8. What are my packaging options, and what are my clients' packaging expectations?

9. Do I have enough room in my studio to house the machine and warehouse the media? Or do I have to get a bigger space? How much will that cost?

10. If something goes wrong during duplication, do I have the expertise to fix the machine, or do I have a professional duplicator backup?

11. How much of a premium will my clients pay to get the extra services?

12. How much time will I or my employee have to spend working on a duplication project? Do my time and his/her hourly fee come out cheaper than farming out an order? Will we be taken away from another project to do this?

13. How fast of a turnaround will I be able to muster?

14. Can I really make as much money duplicating it myself as I could farming it out and moving on to other projects?

In the Spotlight

CD\Works, www.cdworks.com
Data Reproductions, www.datarepinc.com
Fields of Vision, www.fieldsofvision.net
Into FX, www.intofx.com
Purcell Productions, www.purcellproductions.com
Shapiro Enterprises, www.daveshapiro.com
Video Labs, www.videolabs.net
YesVideo, www.yesvideo.com.au

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Alera Technologies, www.aleratec.com
Condre, www.condre.com
Disc Makers, www.discmakers.com
MF Digital, www.mfdigital.com
Microboards Technology, www.microboards.com
Primera Technology, www.primera.com
Rimage, www.rimage.com
Vinpower Digital, www.vinpowerdigital.biz