Home Video – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 3-D Television and the Stereoscopic Archive http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/11/05/3dtv-stereoscopic-archive/ Thu, 05 Nov 2015 12:00:29 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28717 Post by Nick Camfield, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Nick Camfield, completed his PhD in the department in 2014.

In perhaps the most striking sequence in Bill Morrison’s Decasia: The State of Decay (2002), a boxer launches heavy cross-blows at a punching bag obscured by decomposing film stock. As the nitrate warps and bubbles, the boxer’s punches seem defiant. As Morrison recounted, “I wasn’t just looking for instances of decayed film, [but] instances where the image [was] fighting off the inexorability of its demise.”[1]

Still from Decasia.

Still from Decasia.

Rocky Marciano featured in 3-D Rarities.

Rocky Marciano featured in 3-D Rarities.

Nitrate film was highly combustible and subject to serious chemical deterioration, and Morrison did have opportunities to adulterate his decaying elements further. Decasia nevertheless serves as an anti-Bazinian statement on mortality and a powerful call for film preservation—an unending process of curatorship, working with nitrate and triacetate bases, and with analog and digital formats. As R. M. Hayes notes, 3-D filmmaking dates almost to cinema’s inception.[2] While preservation of the 2D cinematic archive is considered a valuable endeavor, the stereoscopic archive has received comparatively little attention. The mass production of 3-D televisions and home video players has opened spaces for 3-D film spectatorship and restoration, however, and for appropriations of older stereoscopic texts through expressions of nostalgia and subcultural capital.

As I argue in my PhD thesis, 3-D television emerged as a mass-produced technology as part of a cycle that crossed media platforms and bolstered development trends in each.[3] At the same time, discourses on safety and convenience and accusations of gimmickry informed 3-D television’s situation in the media marketplace.[4] Such complaints were rooted in longstanding claims about the unviability of 3-D media. If, as Keith Johnston maintains, 3-D has reached a “final moment,” in which historical discourses have arrested the technology’s potential,[5] one might observe that 3-D television’s fate was determined long before its introduction. Assertions that 3-D television has failed absolutely are widespread. Television reviewers stress that 3-D functionality is of little interest, yet they are obliged to discuss this aspect of performance. Satellite broadcasters have abandoned 3-D production, due to negligible viewing figures and to make room for ultra-high definition (UHD) platforms. A technology that manufacturers heralded as “revolutionary” has quickly become a sideshow attraction.

Gog-22BRejections of stereoscopic technology have emboldened 3-D media fans, however, and current aesthetic practices have further encouraged devotees. According to Barbara Klinger, 21st-century 3-D filmmakers have eschewed “pop-out” effects to preserve Hollywood’s invisible styling.[6] Keith Johnston likewise suggests that conservative aesthetic choices limited 3-D television’s appeal.[7] Filmmakers such as James Cameron have worked to distinguish 21st-century 3-D filmmaking from that of earlier periods. In breaking the fourth wall, the argument goes, 3-D “pop-out” disrupts narrative continuity. To address this difficulty, it is claimed, “pop-out” should be minimized and depth of field accentuated. Such assertions offer fans of older 3-D films something to rail against: namely, alleged corporate behemoths steamrolling their visceral pleasures. For aficionados, current aesthetic practices stand in contradistinction to a “golden age” of stereoscopic filmmaking slowly being revived on home video.

Dragonfly SquadronThough recent Hollywood blockbusters are well represented on 3-D Blu-ray, older titles have until very recently been neglected. Over the past two years, both conglomerate and independent Blu-ray distributors have issued dual-frame–format releases of older 3-D movies. Since none of these titles were re-released theatrically, home-video reissue represents the only opportunity to view them in anything approximating their cinematic form.[8] Moreover, without the advent of 3-D television, such restorations would not have been undertaken, likely abandoning many of these cultural artifacts to decay. In order of 3-D Blu-ray release, one can now (or shortly) access The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954), Amityville 3-D (1983), House of Wax (1953), The Bubble (1966), Dragonfly Squadron (1954), Inferno 3-D (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Comin’ at Ya! (1981, forthcoming), The Mask (1961, forthcoming), and Gog (1954, forthcoming). Nonetheless, this list represents a small fraction of historical 3-D productions with still retrievable negatives.

3-D RaritiesPerhaps the most diligently restored stereoscopic release to date is 3-D Rarities, a collection of 22 shorts and novelties held by the 3-D Film Archive and distributed on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley. The films date from 1922 to 1962 and include documentary footage of New York City, anti–nuclear testing film Doom Town (1953), a Pennsylvania Railroad promotion, animated short The Adventures of Sam Space (1953), Casper the Friendly Ghost short Boo Moon (1954), and a Francis Ford Coppola–directed burlesque sequence from 1962.[9] Flicker Alley’s release prompted subcultural expression among enthusiasts, who dismiss recent Hollywood 3-D filmmaking in favor of a lost and unapologetically in-your-face aesthetic. Claims that Hollywood has domesticated 3-D allow fans of historical stereoscopic texts to position themselves in opposition to “mainstream” sensibilities and production techniques, as evidenced by user reviews of Flicker Alley’s release.

Fans derive clear pleasures from an older stereoscopic aesthetic, while decrying 21st- century Hollywood practices. As one reviewer enthused, “This is the first real example of what 3-D was to me when I grew up. Short and to the pointy!” Others remarked that “Unlike modern 3-D films, vintage 3-D is incredibly strong and will push your 3-D television to its full potential”; “Don’t expect today’s Hollywood films to come close to the level of dimensional enjoyment you will experience here”; and “Contemporary 3-D movies just don’t take advantage of the medium the way these classics did.” Such observations pervade commentary on 3-D Rarities, along with calls for access to a wider catalog of historical 3-D texts. In the absence of such representation, there is comfort in the knowledge that a limited archive of stereoscopic titles is currently both rejuvenated and enjoyed.Boo Moon


[1] Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray 3-D Rarities includes similar training footage of Rocky Marciano, who, through use of negative parallax, seems to hit a punching bag through the screen plane. This footage has been carefully stored and digitally restored, unlike the heavily degraded stock Morrison sought out for Decasia. Links to trailers including excerpts from both sequences are included above.

[2] R. M. Hayes, 3-D Movies: A History and Filmography of Stereoscopic Cinema (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989), p. 3.

[3] Nicholas Camfield, 3DTV Year One: Force, Resistance, and Media Technology (PhD Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2014), pp. 47-94.

[4] Ibid., pp. 95-220.

[5] Keith Johnston, “Pop-out Footballers, Pop Concerts and Popular Films: The Past, Present, and Future of 3D Television,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.4 (February 2013): 438-455.

[6] Barbara Klinger, “Three-Dimensional Cinema: The New Normal,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.4 (February 2013): 423-431.

[7] Johnston, op cit.

[8] Not every production listed was originally exhibited using Polaroid (dual-frame) 3-D, with some presented in anaglyph (red/green) formats. All 3-D Blu-ray titles referenced above are presented in superior dual-frame formats, however.

[9] Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray release was preceded by a special screening of 3-D Rarities at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).


Revisiting Region Codes http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/09/10/revisiting-region-codes/ Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:57:49 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24404 TV_wrong_region_codeThis post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

There is, and always has been, a fundamental disconnect between digital media’s supposedly democratizing effects and the disconnections, delays, and prohibitions that actually characterize the global media environment. For instance, many around the world still feel the “digital distance” that comes with an inability to access films, songs, television programs, games, or other entertainment media experiences that remain out of reach. The DVD region code, developed and implemented in the mid-1990s, was instrumental in maintaining this distance.

Born out of complex, years-long standard-setting debates among film studios, consumer electronics manufacturers, and the computing industry, the region code gave the lie to the idea that digital technologies would necessarily ease global connectivity. By carving up the world into six geographic “regions,” with DVDs from one region unable to play on the DVD players of another, region codes actually attempted to retain global media’s disjunctive flows.

To this end, region codes represented a way for home video industries (and particularly the Hollywood studios) to segment and regionalize their distribution markets. And, of course, they did so in ways that privileged certain territories and markets over others—a logic most obviously apparent in the numerical ranking of the regions. Even a cursory glance at the region code map indicates that territories were grouped through their possible exploitation as markets as much as (or more than) geographic or cultural proximity. Of course, the relative prominence of region-free DVDs and the ease of burning and circulating unauthorized copies meant that region codes worked only partially to maintain these borders of distribution. Region codes could be particularly frustrating to diasporic viewers and cinephiles, who for various, obvious reasons would want access to DVDs from across borders. So, region-free players became quite common.

So, why is the DVD still an important element of media culture–and media studies–in 2014? Well, in spite of pronouncements of the DVD’s death, it’s very much alive. A recent poll showed that DVD and Blu-ray players are still the most commonly owned media devices in American households. Even if, for some, these players are collecting dust, they have not merely disappeared. Furthermore, in many territories around the world, the technology is still key to formal and informal film distribution networks. The fact is, any media technology has a far more complicated lifespan than we might imagine if we simply follow industry logic. As Paul Benzon has recently argued, rather than taking the DVD as obsolete, we might behold its “complex and conflicted timeline of technological change shaped by interdependence among innovation, obsolescence, residuality, reproduction, and reuse.” The suggestion that the DVD will be (or has been) wholly replaced by Blu-ray and streaming video is one that comes with classist and Western-focused assumptions.dvd_region_map

But even for those who have already consigned the DVD to the scrap heap, regional lockout is still a common user experience. Streaming music platforms like Spotify and Pandora are only available in some regions. Likewise, VOD platforms like Netflix and the BBC iPlayer are geoblocked, and users take various measures to get past these hurdles. Although other forms of regional incompatibility existed before the DVD (like the PAL/NTSC/SECAM color television standards), the DVD region code represented a pioneering moment in the intentional, conscious installation of regional control mechanisms through DRM. Through geoblocking and IP address detection systems, this logic is present in today’s global media cultures.

For more on the DVD region code’s development, and its implications for global home video distribution and technological standardization, I invite you to read my new International Journal of Cultural Studies piece on the subject, entitled “The DVD Region Code System: Standardizing Home Video’s Disjunctive Global Flows.” To correspond with this post, the journal has agreed to make the article open access for three months.


Pre-Prime: HBO’s Off-Channel Revenue Legacy http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/04/23/pre-prime-hbos-off-channel-revenue-legacy/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/04/23/pre-prime-hbos-off-channel-revenue-legacy/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:50:07 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23975 TheWire_Complete_intIt makes sense we would focus on the future. HBO’s streaming deal with Amazon Prime is clearly an effort to prepare for a streaming future, enabling HBO to have both a branding presence and a revenue stream tied to an increasing amount of viewers who stream their television instead of subscribing to cable or satellite services.

There is plenty to talk about regarding that future. Will audiences who currently subscribe to HBO be more likely to cut the cord if they could access (only select) HBO programming three years later than if they subscribed to the service? Probably not. Will existing—particularly young—cordcutters become more likely to subscribe to HBO in the future when they’re in a financial position to do so if they’re more engaged with the channel’s library? Maybe. Will HBO ever make current flagship series Game of Thrones available on Amazon Prime while it’s still airing? Doubtful.

As interesting as those questions are, I want to consider how this deal reflects the history of HBO embracing new forms of distribution in the interest of connecting with audiences unable to afford or unwilling to pay for HBO subscriptions. Although often marginalized within these conversations in the contemporary moment, both syndication and home video were once similar points of outreach for HBO and other cable channels, and they are implicitly a significant factor in HBO’s current streaming strategy even if they go unnamed in official press releases.

HBO’s decision may be primarily focused on the streaming future, but it is predicated on the home video past. In an age before streaming, DVD sets were how you caught up with a show like The Wire, and even in the wake of HBO GO it was how you caught up with The Wire without having to subscribe to cable (at least if you weren’t borrowing someone else’s HBO GO password). With premium price tags and elaborate packaging, sets for series like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Rome, and Deadwood were a key space where HBO could package their prestige programming for a different audience.

If that DVD market were still healthy, one imagines HBO might have been more resistant to signing streaming deals that will further limit the appeal of those library titles: although DVD/Blu-Rays of current series will retain value (both for collectors and those unwilling to wait three years for them to arrive to Amazon), I would be interested to see if the company’s print runs on legacy DVD sets begin to shrink even further. Without knowing the financial details behind the Amazon deal, it seems safe to say that HBO ran the numbers of how this might affect their DVD business, and that their decision to embrace off-channel streaming is a tacit acknowledgement that the TV on DVD bubble burst some time ago.

image11-350x205If the Amazon deal signals HBO moving past its legacy DVD business, however, it simultaneously signals their inability to completely move past its limited foray into syndication. Notably absent from the deal are three comedy series that were sold into both basic cable and broadcast syndication: Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Sex and the City. Although the first two were quickly pulled from broadcast syndication after heavy editing gutted their appeal, edited episodes of Sex and the City had a stronger run on broadcast, a banner run on TBS, and currently air on E!, while both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage retain cable syndication deals on TV Land and Comedy Central, respectively.

Although all three are offered as part of HBO GO, they are absent from the Amazon announcement, implying that the nature of HBO’s contracts prohibits their sale of that content to streaming services while existing syndication deals are in place. In the case of Sex and the City, which entered into syndication before streaming was even a thing that existed, its most recent deals have been explicit about the role of streaming: reporting about its current deal with E! suggests online rights were included in the deal. While streaming deals and syndication deals may function somewhat differently, more recent syndication deals would appear to have offered streaming as part of the package, which seemingly makes it impossible for HBO to re-license that content to a third party in any capacity while existing deals are in place.

Premium cable’s relationship with streaming has always been complicated: Showtime and Starz each ended content deals with Netflix in order to build greater value into their own subscription streaming services, with Showtime only recently returning to Netflix with Dexter following the series’ conclusion. None have jumped in head first because they run on business models that require careful cultivation of value centered on subscriptions but relying on these sources of ancillary revenue (and exposure). The delay in HBO’s case is tied to both their efforts to translate their library into a subscription incentive through HBO GO—which were clearly not so successful that HBO could refuse Amazon’s likely rich financial offer—and the fact that they remain linked to previous equivalents to streaming’s ability to extend their content beyond the premium cable paywall.

HBO’s deal with Amazon signals their willingness to move past one of those models, and their inability to move past another, at least until the current syndication deals run out. When that happens, though, we will gain greater insight into how these two forms of value compare. If cable channels remain willing to pay a premium for edited versions of Sex and the City, are Amazon’s terms lucrative enough to compete? While our focus on the future makes the choice of streaming seem like common sense, HBO’s focus on the bottom line could make a different decision with streaming than it did with its legacy DVD business when the time comes.


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Analog Video and Derisive Laughter http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/11/12/analog-video-and-derisive-laughter/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/11/12/analog-video-and-derisive-laughter/#comments Fri, 12 Nov 2010 15:08:40 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=7280 Recently, The A.V. Club began hosting a series of short web videos by the curators of the Found Footage Festival, a “one-of-a-kind event that showcases footage from videos that were found at garage sales and thrift stores and in warehouses and dumpsters across the country.” These videos have become regular viewing for me, complementing my occasional perusal of the website Everything is Terrible! (which “take[s] forgotten VHS tapes of all kinds and edit[s] them down into easily digestible viral videos”). By purveying the best/worst in bargain-basement VHS excess, these websites trade in the simultaneous ridicule of absurd performance and obsolete media technology. The rubric for inclusion into the Found Footage Festival gets to the heart of the matter: “1) Footage must be found on physical format. No YouTube. 2) It has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever it’s trying to do, it has to fail miserably at that.” I often laugh at these videos, but why?

On a basic level, much of the material is damn funny. The pleasures that await include dating service videos; Kathie Lee Gifford rapping; and Club Mario, a particularly egregious offender in the wasteland of canned 1990s “extreme” youth culture. The cult fascination of these texts carries affinities with paracinematic appreciation, and it also follows familiar lines of camp, kitsch, and/or irony. But there is also an element of earnest nostalgic pleasure. As Lucas Hilderbrand writes about workout videos, revisiting these tapes might bring about “a double-edge affect of shame and affection.” And just like the workout tapes, many of these found videos carry the battle-scars of worn-out videotape and overuse. For the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible!, the various signifiers of “imperfect” older technology figure as another part of the joke.

Makin’ Tracks to Branson! from Everything Is Terrible! on Vimeo.

On the other hand, my laughter tends to catch when I consider its dimensions of mockery. This is made explicit, of course, in the Found Footage Festival’s description of its exhibits as miserable failures. Moreover, the Found Footage Festival is hosted by two droll hipsters and, well, the title of Everything is Terrible! says it all. But like any good student of cultural studies, I worry when the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible! focus their mockery on people, genres, and practices existent at the bottom of any number of cultural hierarchies. Moreover, the ridicule of videotape as a technological form suggests a masculinist, Western logic that privileges advanced technology and the mastery of that technology in the production of knowledge.

It follows that these videos become purportedly funnier as our contemporary media technology gets “better.” From there, it’s not hard to extend the idea of “clarity” beyond aesthetic and technological descriptions of high-definition visual media into a metaphorical judgment of contemporary cultural practices counterposed against those of the embarrassing 80s and 90s. We can see more clearly now; just look at the sharper images on our screens as proof! Charles Acland has recently raised some provocative questions about the increased academic focus on new media forms, suggesting that an intensified attention to new media technologies follows the capitalist logic of consumer electronics industries. I wonder if the deployment of analog technologies for comic purposes carries a similar logic. Tellingly, I watch these videos through my laptop screen, which provides safe historical, technological, and ontological distance from the “bad” object.

Ultimately, the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible! afford me an opportunity to interrogate both my own responses to “unintentional” humor and the logic that newer technologies equate to a necessarily “better” engagement with visual media. Of course, this negotiation may also just be a way for me to have my cake and eat it too. I can take issue with the presumption that analog technology and its various users are deserving of scorn, but that does not mean that I am going to stop laughing at Danny Bonaduce’s Mortal Kombat.


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What Are You Missing? Sept 26-Oct 9 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/10/10/what-are-you-missing-sept-26-oct-9/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/10/10/what-are-you-missing-sept-26-oct-9/#comments Sun, 10 Oct 2010 13:31:39 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=6691 Ten (or more) media industry stories you might have missed recently:

1. While others were watching a movie about its founding, Facebook has been busy attending to other matters: developing a partnership with Skype, improving its photo sharing service, and going all DMCA evil by shutting down an unofficial Let Me In fan group (Facebook reversed the decision after this was publicized, however). Anne Thompson highlights the marketing possibilities of Facebook by featuring some official and unofficial pages for The Social Network, and Alexia Tsotsis addresses the intriguing evolution of the “Like” button, which could have been totally “Awesome” instead.

2. The lawyer going after Hurt Locker downloaders insists illegal file sharing must stop, and many would agree that piracy is hurting independent filmmakers more than the major studios. Another lawyer is leading the fight against piracy of porn movies, with leaders of the porn industry uniting to support action against individual file sharers (hey, that would actually make a good porn premise: knock at the door, it’s a process server in a tight shirt saying, “You’ve been very naughty”). In terms of government action against piracy, a key US bill has been shelved, while France is starting to send threatening letters to pirates, and forty countries have signed an anti-piracy trade agreement. James Myring says the end result of this will be a piracy arms race.

3. AOL went wild with acquisitions this fortnight, snapping up TechCrunch, 5Min Media, and Thing Labs and Brizzly. Too bad for them the media only really cares about what Apple does. Google has also been spending a lot of money on odd things like robot cars and a human-powered monorail (That’s right! Monorail!). Google is also vowing to bring the sexy back to display ads (who knew it had left?), while AOL has studied how consumers react to online ads (unfortunately “sexy” didn’t come up there), and MSNBC has developed a new ad rendering system (no “sexy” there either, but plenty of talk about “performance”).

4. There’s turmoil at Yahoo, Internet Explorer usage is plunging, and MySpace has been surpassed by Twitter, which has a new CEO, Dick Costolo. To get himself up to speed, Costolo might want to check out XKCD’s map of online communities, Lou Kerner’s charts on who uses social media, and CNN’s study of news sharing on social networks. He should also take toddlers much more seriously than John Mayer.

5. DC and Marvel are dropping prices on comics in an effort to boost readership; comics retailers are confident of a positive effect. And to capitalize on wide interest in the TV series launch, the latest Walking Dead comics appear simultaneously in print and digital form (plus Walking Dead novels are on the way). Dark Horse is also planning to capitalize on digital options, the future potential of which a company called ScrollMotion is trying to innovate for the publishing industry.

6. Record stores aren’t pleased with Lil Wayne releasing his next album digitally two weeks before they receive it, but they should be pleased that vinyl sales are actually booming right now, though record stores continue to close across the globe. Wilco and other bands aren’t pleased with fans who come to concerts and record the shows on their phones, especially since some bands make a lot of money or at least generate valuable buzz from live gigs. ASCAP wasn’t pleased with a court ruling that said downloads can’t be counted as public performances, but despite the common impression that the music industry is in dire straits, some things are going quite right and spreading pleasure from fans to music executives.

7. The Academy is thinking of moving up the Oscars to late January, possibly impinging on Sundance in the process. Steve Pond says it’s a terrible idea; David Poland says the idea makes sense. Poland also has some strong words for the Hollywood Reporter in response to its early speculation about possible African-American Oscar nominees, while the foreign language nomination submission process is nearly complete.

8. Better visit your local video rental store before it’s gone: more companies are getting behind streaming, some studios want to shorten video-on-demand windows dramatically, and Universal is testing premium rentals at kiosks. However, Netflix’s streaming content is still minimal compared to DVDs, and Rupert Murdoch thinks collapsed VOD windows would be a big mistake.

9. Despite the removal of the Taliban option from the game, the U.S. military won’t lift its ban on the sale of the new Medal of Honor on its bases, while a Fox News co-host is suspicious of the possible leftist slant of NBA Jam. But Drew Napoli says there’s value in still playing games others say are awful, and even if it turned out awful, I would still totally play Need for Speed integrated with Google Maps. Apparently not awful is FIFA 11, which has become the fastest selling sports game ever.

10. Some good News for TV Majors from the past two weeks: User-Generated Current TV, Apple TV v. Google TV, NBC News Concerns, The Internet Can Help…Mostly, Televisa & Univision, Good #Flow10 Tweets, Google TV’s Partners, ABC Changing Model, Upscale Popularity, Secondary Streaming Reconsidered, NYTF Wrap-Up, We Love the Overnights, Burke Replacing Zucker.


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The Warner Archive Program and Hollywood History http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/03/12/the-warner-archive-program-and-hollywood-history/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/03/12/the-warner-archive-program-and-hollywood-history/#comments Fri, 12 Mar 2010 16:47:33 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=2486 A month ago Sony announced that it was laying off 450 employees, most of them in the home video division, due in part to recent declines in DVD sales. The Wall Street Journal notes that last year was the first since 2002 that the film industry made more money at the box office than through home video.

In the last decade, the profitability of the DVD sell-through model turned studio vaults into goldmines. This was a boon for students of American cinema, as even obscure films like Midnight Mary (1933) and Second Honeymoon (1937) received expensive digital restorations and were accompanied on DVD by bonus features like documentaries, historian commentaries, and contemporaneous cartoons and newsreels. The classics divisions of Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony in particular have helped to expand the classical Hollywood canon and educate audiences about Hollywood history.

Today, consumers’ shelves are full and major retailers have either gone under (Tower, Sam Goody) or stopped stocking classic titles (Best Buy). In an effort to squeeze the few remaining dollars out of the home video market, studios have begun selling DVD-R copies of library titles that are burned on-demand. Warners has led the way with its Archive program, and Universal and MGM have followed, if somewhat tentatively, via Amazon.

These programs have been beneficial in one important respect – sheer quantity. In an example of “long tail” retailing, Warners has made available nearly 500 films in the last year alone. Historians and fans alike now have access to films that would have never received a retail store release, like the “Dogville” shorts. It’s possible that the bulk of the WB, MGM, and RKO libraries will be available in just a few years, making these programs unprecedented research tools for film historians.

However, this distribution system also reinforces the diminished visibility and accessibility of classic Hollywood in the marketplace. Previously, Warners released its classic films to retailers in boxed sets where films cost $5-$10 each. Warner Archive discs, in contrast, are sold a la carte for $20 each. They are not available via brick-and-mortar stores, or from Netflix, which refuses to stock DVD-Rs. Under this new system, consumers are much less likely to take a risk and “blind buy”, meaning there is much less chance that hidden gems will find an audience.

By limiting access to these discs, Warners cannily positions them as “rare”, which increases their value as commodities and allows the studio to sell them at a premium. Warners targets DVD collectors with their “Insider” program, even as they strip away the aspects of DVDs that appeal to that audience. Archive discs, typically sourced from old video masters used for television broadcast, are often inferior in audio/video quality – this is especially noticeable on today’s huge HD sets. They also lack any special features that might analyze the films or provide historical context.

The manufactured-on-demand (MOD) model represents a way for studios to retain some of the value of their libraries in the midst of DVD’s inevitable decline. It allows them to cut production costs (no expensive restorations, no special features, no unsold product taking up warehouse space) while also raising prices. The “less for more” policy risks alienating collectors, but Warners claims the program has been extremely successful. Unfortunately, with few classic movies justifying the expense of a Blu-ray release, it appears likely that the less familiar (and potentially more interesting) nooks and crannies of Hollywood history will remain hidden to most. Then again, there’s always Turner Classic Movies…


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