Crosstalk: Is The Golden Age Of DVD Over?

Crosstalk: Is The Golden Age Of DVD Over?

Noel: Scott, you and I have been writing about home video for The A.V. Club since back when the section was called "Video," not "DVD." When we changed the heading, I don't think we realized we were heading into something of a golden age for movie fanatics, with some of the greatest films popping up on discs packed with commentary tracks, documentaries and all kind of other contextual material. And it wasn't just the classics—studios also started emptying the vaults of good-to-great older films that had never been released on home video before. A hefty-sized chunk of the Robert Altman catalog, for example, had been out of circulation pre-DVD. Meanwhile, smaller companies like Anchor Bay, Image, NoShame, Blue Underground, Something Weird and Cult Epics were meeting our exploitation cinema needs, finding drive-in treasures and multiplex oddities from around the world for us to salivate over. And somewhere along the line, the rights-holders for old TV series realized that they could slap together complete season sets of beloved old shows and get nostalgists like me to open our wallets. Hardly a week went by when there wasn't more to write about than we had space for.

Lately though, even though there's still plenty of DVDs out there to cover—and many of them eminently worthy—there are fewer and fewer must-own/thank-the-heavens-this-is-finally-out kind of titles. And it's not just the prestige fare that's tapering off. Something Weird stopped producing its special-edition double-feature DVDs last year, and some of the other specialty lines have either shuttered or cut their output. Also, while a lot of hoopla attended the DVD debut of classic TV series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, slow sales have kept the series from completing their DVD runs. (And yet, sitting on my desk right now, ready to be reviewed if anyone in the world gave a hoot, are the first-season sets of Dave's World and Caroline In The City.)

There's a lot of factors here that explain the decline in exciting DVD releases, including the low sales I just mentioned, but perhaps the biggest factor is something relatively simple: Maybe there's just not that much left to put out there. Not the tree is empty, goodness knows, but maybe the ripest fruit has been plucked. What do you think, Scott? Are we destined to spend the rest of our DVD-reviewing days writing about Evening Shade and the inevitable Warner Brothers' Best Of Marjorie Main box set?

Scott: Because we always love our Crosstalk titles to be doom-laden ultimatums here at The A.V. Club, there was some joking in the conference room that the title of this one should be "DVD: Dead Or Dying?" And I feel like that's appropriate, in a way: Without question the Golden Age of DVDs is over. Sales are down, most of the major titles have been issued and reissued ad infinitum, and the advancement of Blu-Ray and other digital technologies has sent a clear signal that the DVD, like the videotape, is on the slow fade to irrelevance. For now, though, we'll have to listen to the format's hideous death-wheeze as it grows ever louder. It won't expire quickly—there are too many people that care about it to let it die, some of whom have only just gotten over the passing of their ancient VCRs— but it's on its way to the nursing home, where its children will no doubt be too busy with their new technologies to visit it.

On a personal level, coming to the realization that DVD is on the outs has been as terribly disillusioning as it was perhaps inevitable. Back when Laserdiscs were coveted by cine- and technophiles looking for the highest quality image available—and sweet, sweet letterboxing—there was no question that something better was going to come along. The industry never really backed the Laserdisc, for one, and the discs themselves were so unwieldy that it felt like video was taking a step back to LPs before taking a step forward to a more compact format. So when the DVD came along, it seemed like the indefinite future: A lot of material could fit onto a disc the exact size of a CD, the resolution was superior, and the industry was committed to drawing in customers with special features (a concept stolen from Criterion, which still managed to do them better) and complete TV seasons, which were nearly impossible (or at least a major storage problem) to conceive of on previous formats. It was enough to make you forget that technology is constantly evolving, and yesterday's wonders are doomed to clog up tomorrow's landfills.

These days, I gaze up at the towering wall of DVDs in my home—I never downsized to a more efficient filing system, as I think ceiling-high, custom-built shelves better intimidate my enemies—and it's like a looming existential crisis. Why oh why did I invest so much time and energy (and money, though far less than non-professional critic might have spent) accumulating hundreds upon hundreds of DVDs that are going to look eight-track tapes to my infant daughter one day? And while the DVDs keep on coming, my enthusiasm for actively acquiring them has waned considerably over the past year or so, partly because I can see the end on the distant horizon and partly because… well… there are fewer discs left to accumulate.

I want to tread carefully on that last point—so carefully, in fact, that I'll throw it over to you—because there remain plenty of worthy titles that have never been released on DVD and legions of humorless region-free-player-owning cineastes out there to list them for you. But the question isn't necessarily what those titles are, but who will put them out? Outside of a handful of companies, Criterion foremost among them, are there many distributors left who can release those remaining gems and obscurities, and still turn a profit?

Noel: Last year I wrote an article for another publication on cult films not yet available on DVD, and one of the people I spoke with—an expert on the home video business—told me that there's really not a lot of money to be made in putting old movies out on DVD. The cost of prepping a decent transfer, let alone adding special features, is awfully hard to recoup, unless a company charges as much as Criterion (and has a built-in audience like Criterion), or they're a multi-media conglomerate like Time-Warner (and can write-off the expense without strongly impacting the bottom line).

That's one reason why we keep seeing the same movies get released over and over, with new cover art and very little in the way of new special features. Most of the work has already been paid for, and some catalog titles—like the Hitchcock filmography, and pretty much every movie made between 1982 and 1991—always seem to sell well. And now that Blu-Ray has won the HD format wars, we can expect studios to pour a lot of their home video resources into getting the same damn set of movies out yet again, rather than working on, say, The Immortal Story or a slate of Budd Boetticher westerns.

Even on the new release front, the trend seems to be to offering less, whenever possible. Over the past couple of years, there's been a move towards two-tiered pricing, with recent theatrical films coming out in stripped-down single disc editions (for the rental market) and the higher-priced, limited edition double-discers (for the collectors). In the early days of DVD, Disney was one of the format's pioneers, coming up with clever featurettes and creative versions of the same old commentary track. But lately? The Disney staples are arriving on discs with a couple of indifferent interviews and maybe an interactive game.

All of which raises a question (one that I think gets to the core of what we're talking about here): What, exactly, are we looking for from the stewards of home video? If we didn't have to review them, would we still care about commentary tracks and deleted scenes and documentaries? When was the last time you used your "alternate angle" feature?

Or do we just want easy access to as many titles as possible, preferably with a clean image and sound?

Scott: When was the last time I used my "alternate angle" feature? A better question would be, "When was the first time you used it?," and my answer is, "never." (Amusingly enough, that particular feature has only really been exploited by pornography, for obvious reasons. For porn hounds who are frustrated by a less-than-erotic camera vantage, it would probably be pretty useful. Considering that legitimate filmmakers would never think to allow the viewer to determine which shot to use, it seems logical to conclude that this particular feature was created specifically for porn.)

In any case, now may be a good time to step back and reconsider just how special those "special features" are. As a DVD consumer, I have a weird confession to make: I rarely watch special features on discs I'm not reviewing, yet I feel burned by bare-bones discs that don't include all the special features that I have no intention of watching. There are exceptions, of course: The irrepressible Laurent Bouzereau is a master of the making-of featurette, Criterion and Warner Brothers consistently produce compelling and original supplements for their DVDs, and a handful of directors (Paul Verhoeven, Joss Whedon, Steven Soderbergh, and the majority of Criterion's scholars and filmmakers) can put together commentary tracks that are not of the damned variety.

And yet there's a carelessness that's creeped into DVD production in general that irks me a little. Commentary tracks are the best example: When filmmaker commentaries became standard on DVDs, I expected the quality to improve over time. After all, these are the entertainers responsible for making a movie, so surely they can put together a smart, informative, well-produced, and engaging two hours of chatter. But most of the time, it's just a one-take session where the filmmakers pile into a studio, watch their own movie as if they were sitting on the couch with the rest of us, and blather on without much of a game plan. There's no thought given to the possibility that anyone might be listening, much less any of the careful editing you get on a Criterion disc. The commentary tracks are just there for dopes like me, who care about having bells and whistles, but don't always pay much attention to their quality. And I'm afraid that's just emboldened DVD producers to hold themselves to a lower standard: If investing in good special features yields little discernable return on the bottom line, then why bother?

Lately, some the repacked and reissued DVDs that have crossed my desk have left me a little dumbfounded. The once-proud, now-desperate Anchor Bay offered up their bajillionth special edition of Heathers, with virtually nothing in the way of new features. And what was the special occasion? The release of Sex And Death 101, the by-all-accounts dismal reteaming of Heathers writer Daniel Waters and star Winona Ryder. Now we're getting compact, budget-priced quadruple features from Universal, which jam a bunch of movies on two discs that don't necessarily make sense together. (Though I had a good chuckle over the "thriller pack" including Brian De Palma's batshit Raising Cain, which may be quite a jolt to those used to more conventional likes of the Marky Mark chest-thumper Fear and the Sean Young vehicle A Kiss Before Dying.) All of this recycling gives these movies another chance to take up shelf-space at the front of the store, but it doesn't make you feel good about DVD's future. Sometimes, it seems like the entire format is headed to the cut-out bin.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As I said earlier, there are a sizable number of people who have only just gotten weaned off the VCR and probably won't be inclined to jump to some new technology any time soon. Just because the medium has plateaued—and I think we both agree that the "Golden Age" is definitely over, never to be revived—doesn't mean it won't be viable for the long term. Not everybody is leaping onto the HD/Blu-Ray bandwagon, and it's easy for media types like ourselves, who are eager to adopt new technologies quickly and leave the old ones behind. But what of Joe and Jane Analog? Is DVD really dead for them? And how might digital technologies like set-top boxes and Internet downloads figure into the present and future? When do we start etching the tombstone?

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Noel: At this point, I think DVD itself is here to stay for a while. At the very least, it's going to take a few hundred years to dispose of all those discs filling up the five-dollar bins at Wal-Mart. As you allude to, sometimes we in the media are quick to jump on the emerging technologies and talk about them as though they've penetrated further into the culture than they actually have. The majority of Americans have finally made the jump from VHS to DVD—more than two-thirds of households, at last count—but not so many are jumping on the Blu-Ray bandwagon yet, and the move toward legal downloads has yet to become a groundswell. And while we bang out breathless stories about Netflix's adoption of the "set-top box," do you know who's quietly become the fifth largest video rental company in the U.S.? Redbox, who operates those little kiosks that have popped up outside McDonald's and grocery stores across the country.

And what's inside those Redboxes, by and large? Well, you and I both worked in video stores during our misspent youth, so we know what movie renters have always wanted to find at their outlet of choice: The Hollywood hits of two or three months ago, preferably for a dollar a night.

Still, there are a couple of interesting trends at work—I don't know if they're encouraging necessarily, but interesting. One is the boom in straight-to-DVD product. Straight-to-video made a lot of sense in the days when there was a video store on every corner but the hot new releases weren't always in stock. Now kiosks and on-line renters are flush with hot new releases, so it's hard to imagine many people deciding to risk their buck on some off-brand western or horror film. And yet, while The Weinstein Company has yet to make much of a splash in the theatrical market, they're flooding your mailbox and mine with DVDs under the auspices of "Genius Products"—and some of those strange little movies they keep sending our way aren't so bad. I can't tell whether the "Genius Products" line is a tax write-off for the Weinsteins or if they're genuinely profitable, but if it's the latter, that could be a bright sign for the future of DVD—not as a medium to preserve our cinema past, but a medium to deliver our cinema future.

The other interesting trend is towards double-disc editions in which the second disc contains a digital copy of the film for the purchaser to load onto their portable device of choice. Apparently, the home video companies behind these sets are acknowledging the imminent shift of movie-delivery away from hard copies and toward virtual ones.

I don't know how imminent that shift actually is—like I said, we in the media often oversell these kinds of changes—but it's a future I'd like to see come sooner rather than later. And here's why: Those obscurities and cult movies that are languishing in the studio vaults may never get their due on DVD, but it wouldn't take that many downloads to make it profitable for studios to dust off old prints and make them iPod-ready. The golden age of DVD may be over, but if the world of digital delivery takes hold as it should, we could be on the cusp of a new golden age of cinephilia. Remember how the film school brats gave way to the video store brats in Hollywood? Well, in 10 years or so, we could have a whole generation of filmmakers who had legal access to the entire history of world cinema with just a few mouseclicks. Imagine the possibilities.

Scott: When I was a child, I used to dream of having a box with a gigantic dial on top of my television. By turning this magical dial, you could call up any movie ever made—including the ones I tried to watch through the fluttering V-hold on the Playboy Channel—and voila, there it would appear on the screen. I don't imagine a dial will come into play, since it would take endless scrolling to get to whatever you wanted and there would need to be searching and browsing functions, but certainly the digital age promises to make that dream a reality eventually. (Either that or movies will be something you ingest in pill form and have projected inside your skull.)

In any case, I'm heartened by your optimism about what's coming next: If it does indeed become cheaper to distribute the cool obscurities and hidden gems that are never going to be available on (Region 1) DVD—and digital delivery does seem to promise that—then color me excited. I've always considered cinephilia like the loose thread on a sweater: Pull on it, and the whole thing starts to unravel. If you could access world cinema with the immediate, mouseclick ease of following trails of hypertext on the Internet Movie Database, then it's possible to explore all sorts of little-explored corners and unheralded filmmakers. DVD opened things up enormously in many respects—particularly television, which has been more enriching than I ever would have expected—but we've hit the wall now. But we're hitting a wall now: Most of the worthwhile TV shows have found their way to disc (sorry, According To Jim fans), and production has slowed markedly on the release of older movies that have never been on DVD. (A handful of smaller companies excepted, of course.) With sales falling, unreleased titles growing more obscure, and new technologies on the march, there's just no incentive to assault the market with DVDs like there was before.

And yet, as you say, DVD isn't going anywhere soon. Those Redbox kiosks are just a diabolical blight on the culture: All new releases, all Hollywood movies, and absolutely no indication that movies even exist past a two or three month window. If you use Redbox exclusively, you have no sense of the past and no sense that films exist as anything other than disposable nuggets that are consumed and forgotten. At least in the video store—where, yes, the majority of customers are trolling for yesterday's multiplex fare—there was the possibility of stumbling into something unknown and intriguing on the new release wall. You could pick up a DVD box, look at the description on the back, and maybe find something that won't be parodied in the next Date/Epic/Disaster/Superhero Movie. With Redbox, simplicity and convenience comes at the expense of everything; it's the opposite of the magical dialbox technology of my dreams, which is endlessly vast and far more democratic. Seeking out only the new breeds narrowness and stupidity, and I hope that whatever's next will expand, not contract, the world of cinema.

In the meantime, there are still DVDs to cover, no? Just yesterday, the Criterion version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's scandalous Salò arrived on my desk, which will surely make it a Blockbuster Night for somebody (but not at Blockbuster, which I can only imagine won't be stocking it), and there are still surprises and delights to be had every month, even if they're coming at a much slower rate than before. Just a quick scan in my immediate area reveals a pile of intriguing Criterions (including Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain! with your choice of narrator), some Dragon Dynasty discs, the latest (Larisa Shepitko) from the very cool Eclipse series, the most recent seasons of Dexter and House, and a Derek Jarman set. Not bad for a dead format.

R.I.P. DVD. Viva DVD!

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