Last week, Lance Berry brought word of a death in the DVD rental market. Today, I write of a renaissance in the sales market, at least for “catalog” buyers like me.
Since its introduction in 1997, the major studios have used the DVD format to shore up their bottom lines. The cash cow, which mooed to the tune of $14.4 billion in sales in 2007, is yielding thinner milk these days; revenues are expected to fall to $12.8 billion this year, according to statistics published in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. What’s responsible for the drop?
Me. Back in the day, I couldn’t buy the damn things fast enough. I had three cabinets custom-built to hold them all and have filled them, and I’ve pretty much filled all the nooks and crannies within the cabinets too. (A man needs a special place to house The Bloody Pit of Horror and Dracula vs. Frankenstein.) But my buying has tapered off. I’m meh on Blu-Ray; I’ve seen it, it’s pretty, it pretty much offers the same hits I’ve purchased and repurchased (and repurchased again) in every prior format, and I’m pretty sure it’s the end of the line before everything goes online, which means I can dismantle the cabinets and sell their contents as movie-themed coasters to pay for our baby’s college education. Oh, yes, our little girl — she’s another big-ticket item to outgo our income on.
Leave it to Warner Bros. to figure out a way to welcome me back into the fold. It was the first studio to really capitalize on the format — the first five titles I bought were all WB — and anyone who enjoys movies older than about 2004 owes a tip of the hat to its senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing, George Feltenstein. Under his direction the studio has done a fantastic job putting out full-to-bursting collections focused on stars (Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, etc.), themes (its “Cult Camp Classics” line), and even playwrights (a Tennessee Williams box set, from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire to 1964’s The Night of the Iguana, is a favorite). I’m eager to dip into its third “pre-Code” set, which concentrates on the envelope-pushing career of director William Wellman before content standards were imposed (1933’s Wild Boys of the Road is an unsung Depression-era classic). But over the past year, even WB, whose trailblazing inspired other studios to open their doors, seemed sluggish and unresponsive. I can understand their beating the marketing drum for new and improved 70th anniversary editions of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz this year, but there is more to movie life than Scarlett and Dorothy. “Frankly, my dear …”
My skepticism was misplaced. Turns out that the Warner Bros. has been busy — and not just with a few new boxsets, or supplements-laden revisits to Bonnie and Clyde and other popular titles from the vaults. On Monday, it took its first step to open its entire library to buyers — that’s approximately 6,800 titles, drawn from the parent studio and its acquisitions, which include MGM (all films pre-1986), United Artists, RKO, Allied Artists, and more. The Warner Archive is a DVD-on-demand service, available exclusively through WBshop.com, that has opened with 150 titles from across the Warners spectrum, and will be replenished with 20-30 new films per month (plus, in time, episodes of TV shows from yesteryear). USA Today had the details, which an online chat with the Home Theater Forum (WB is nothing if not communicative to the DVD community) clarified and expanded upon.
I haven’t taken the plunge yet, but the water looks fine. There’s definitely some surface chop: For $19.95 a pop (which is to say, about half of what one of WB’s fully supplemented, five- or six-film boxes retail for) you’re buying a DVD-R of the film of your choice. A high-quality DVD-R, but computers and older DVD players are known to barf them out. That’s pretty pricey, given that all you’re getting is the movie (anamorphically encoded, where applicable, and in its original aspect ratio, but no extras) on questionable media. (Cheaper downloads are available, but though I know that’s where the market is going I’m not quite there yet.) Netflix isn’t on the cards for the moment, and there’s no rent-to-buy option.
But these are movies, dammit, not sofas. The New York Times headlined them as “oddball” in a brief squib; I prefer Feltenstein’s description, “niche vintage films.” There’s nothing eccentric about Robert Altman’s moon-landing saga Countdown (1968, pictured) or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), both featuring a pre-Godfather James Caan and Robert Duvall. John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (1962) was eclipsed by that same year’s Manchurian Candidate, but the family drama has fine performances by Warren Beatty, Angela Lansbury, Eva Marie Saint, and Brandon De Wilde. There are Oscar nominees like 1938’s The Citadel and 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, just in time for Honest Abe’s anniversary year, with an imposing Raymond Massey in the lead. WB has paid close attention to movies that have trafficked well as bootlegs, so the Hammer horror Crescendo (1972) and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975) are in the mix. Most gratifyingly, the long-under-the-radar junkie lifestyle picture Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971) has been exhumed, a harbinger of things to come on the cult front.
Granted, a lot of these are the kinds of movies that you see scheduled on Turner Classic Movies and think about recording but never do, no matter how many times they turn up. (And there’s a reason that some, like Steve McQueen’s truly oddball take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, are never in rotation.) But one man’s Dream Lover is another man’s Dream Wife, or something. There’s a wistful undercurrent to this: WB is saying that there isn’t enough of a market to support a Cary Grant box set that could be cobbled together from some of the titles here, or a Katharine Hepburn, or a Spencer Tracy, or a Joan Crawford (or a Kristy McNichol). Warner is, however, commended for facing up to reality: No, not everything is going to thrive on the overstuffed retail market, but there are homes eager to accept the many interesting pictures orphaned by commerce. Even mine. More and more, my DVD cabinets are as symbolic as the statues on Easter Island, signifying more exciting times in the market that I thought had ended. The time has come to make a clean sweep of what’s in there and prepare for new arrivals.