Q&A with Torch Films: Greenlighting New, Low Impact DVDs

discs

DVDs vaulted into existence in 1997, a box office year dominated by the likes of Titanic, Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential. Since then, more than 10 billion of the movie discs and their bulky plastic packages have shipped to North American retailers alone, according to sales data compiled by the Second Spin (which we wrote about in August of this year). While Netflix, iTunes and Hulu reduce consumer demand for piles of the silver plastic, as long as DVDs remain profitable, studios will continue to make and sell them.

Thankfully, one startup, Torch Films in New York, is lowering their waste output and raising the bar for the manufacture and distribution of new discs by using a lightweight format called Flex DVD. It’s manufactured by CD Digital Card, a subsidiary of Zoba International in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

The studio’s first feature, Marina of the Zabbaleen, a documentary by Engi Waseff, is now sold as a “Flex disc” following a Tribeca Film Festival debut in September 2009. Using 50% less polycarbonate material than other DVDs, the Marina”¦ DVD and sleeve package are 100% recyclable and are made of 95% recycled materials.

Chief executive Tim Hobbs and finance chief Ori Dov Gratch, who co-founded Torch Films and gave this new format a chance in the market, spoke to EcoSalon about what it takes to greenlight efficiency in an industry known for excess.

Tim Hobbs and Ori Dov Gratch holding a Flex DVD
Tim Hobbs and Ori Dov Gratch holding a Flex DVD

From the start was Torch Films intention to be a “green” studio?

Tim: I’m not going to lie about it. When we first started this business, our goal was just to support and release high quality, if low budget films from talented, responsible people who otherwise might not get a chance. We didn’t have a focus on green operations, a particular genre or anything besides bringing a systematic approach to our projects.

So what inspired your efforts to release a lower-impact DVD?

Tim: Marina of the Zabbaleen is what inspired us to take environmental initiative here. The film itself, as you may know, is a cinematic documentary about seven-year-old Marina, who lives in a garbage-recycling village outside of Cairo. It’s a portrait of her family and childhood, and about this community. They are entrepreneurial people, not activists but people who are recycling for survival. They have built a system we could learn from here in the U.S. At their peak levels, they recycle 90% of everything. They collect and manage Cairo’s garbage, and have one of the highest rates of recycling in the world. I have to credit the Zabbaleen and Engi Waseff, the director of this film, for giving us motivation.

Did it cost your business a great deal to produce more ecologically sensible DVDs vs. traditional?

Tim: The disc is not any more expensive to make than the older types of DVDs. The tough questions from a business perspective were about finding the more efficient technology, understanding if it worked, and how well it has been tested. There’s always a risk adopting the new. Other film studios might be wary to make a massive release on this 50% lower-impact, flexible new type of disc. [He holds a disc sample up and bends it.] But we liked the manufacturer’s reputation, and their comprehensive playability studies.

Ori: Let’s get nerdy for a minute. We had a feeling this was meant to be after we learned that Flex DVD in lab testing was compatible with 99% of players out there, including game-consoles that play DVDs. After we did our own share of bland research about things like disc drive technology, packaging, inks and how well different types of DVD cases sell at retail, and even tested the discs ourselves, we were ready to go. We kind of brag about this on our website and in our marketing materials. The 5% of material that is not from-recycled is a non-toxic, biodegradable clay coating that makes the disc and case printable. It’s a very, very thin layer of clay. All the ink we’ve used is soy-based, even on the DVD itself. We’re a first to use this format, and take it this far, and we love that.

Do you have hope Hollywood will catch onto this notion?

Ori: We’re not the first to control our waste output in general, though we are doing more than others have before. Disney released Wall-E in fairly green packaging. We view that as a leading step. We hope they and others keep shifting to more environmentally and socially responsible methods. But for large studios we realize it may take time. We’re a lean, new organization so we can do these things, and make it part of our company in the first place.

Tim: We’re not green experts, but we’re in touch with them. We have sent this DVD out to industry people for review. We just qualified for Academy consideration in 2010. So people have seen it. If they want to follow our example, great, but we’ll never tell other studios how to run their business.

Has there been resistance from anyone about your selling this film on a new format and in a non-standard case?

Ori: The film industry being full of characters, we’ve encountered some disbelief and resistance. But this DVD is about mankind leaving a smaller footprint. The more we tell people about what we want to do, the more people seem to want to help us.

Tim: Our package is not the smallest possible, to be fair. As a studio and distributor, we have an obligation to directors, and investors in our business to market our films, get them to audiences, and make money while inspiring people. The DVD we offer has to be able to stand in a wall slot at a store. In that way, we encounter resistance. Shoppers, when we tested out the notion of just using a small square package, thought the DVDs were promotional materials, and would just take them for free. Or they wouldn’t notice them at all. So, here we are, making something that holds its own at retail and begins to change expectations, with a 50% lower impact than any other DVD we’ve seen in a store.

What’s next for this film or for Torch Studios?

Tim: During the making of this film, the Zabbaleen community was hit hard by swine flu the H1N1 virus. The government in Cairo required them to slaughter their pigs, which had been instrumental in processing food-waste. We’re looking for ways to help the Zabbaleen become more profitable, and to make up for the loss of their resources. We donate 10% of retail sales of this film. But we’re looking to do more through our network, which includes a lot of social entrepreneurs. We’re also working on our next two releases, which aren’t documentaries or green. But their packaging will be.

Has greening your business changed your lives? How?

Ori: We have both become fanatical about recycling personally and at the office. I’m more aware when I’m looking at ingredients in grooming products what my own impact is, and slowly shifting my purchasing habits.

Tim: I’m semi-vegetarian, and as a New Yorker tend not to collect a lot of possessions or drive a car. So I feel like my footprint was already lower than your average American. But we found this out through research for the DVD-release – the U.S. Postal Service is greener than other shipping services – so I now go to the post office as my default. And switching to cups and bottles that are reusable, not disposable, was big for me.

Image: The Artifex