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Vintage Film on DVD: Few and Far Between

12 January 2010

From David Kehr’s piece in the January 3rd edition of The New York Times (“The Ballad of Blu-ray and Scratchy Old Film”):

When VHS arrived, the format was forgiving enough to allow the studios to transfer many of their titles to tape directly from the video masters they had already made for television distribution. Many of those titles disappeared in the transition to DVD because studios felt that more obscure films wouldn’t be profitable enough to justify striking new prints and preparing new digital transfers.As a result huge swaths of our film heritage have vanished. After 10 years of DVD the studios seem to have concluded that all the films that will make money in home video have already been released; that number is a very small percentage of their output. Turner Classic Movies online says that of the 162,984 films listed in its database (based on the authoritative AFI Catalog), only 5,980 (3.67 percent) are available on home video.

At this point only Warner Brothers and Sony (the owners of the Columbia films) are maintaining a truly active library program. Fox has virtually eliminated the archival initiative that brought us marvels like the Fox Film Noir series and the box sets devoted to John Ford, Frank Borzage and F. W. Murnau. Paramount has apparently lost interest in releasing its older titles (a shame, since it also owns the Republic Pictures library, a wonderful, largely unexplored repository of genre films from the ’30s, ’40s and early ’50s).

Universal makes the occasional effort on DVD, and usually does a good job with what it does, but the studio has allowed its superb library to fall almost entirely out of distribution apart from a handful of horror films and Abbott and Costello comedies. The vast majority of the 700 prime Paramount titles owned by Universal (essentially all of Paramount’s sound films up to 1948) have for all practical purposes disappeared down a black hole.

Perhaps this policy will change now that Universal NBC has been acquired by Comcast, a cable company with a financial interest in making the most of its assets. Increasingly, however, one has to turn to Europe to find good DVDs of American studio films, like the Douglas Sirk series (most of the titles licensed from Universal) released by Carlotta Films in France, or the Blu-rays of Murnau’s “Sunrise” and (coming) “City Girl” from the British company Masters of Cinema (licensed from Fox). The Criterion Collection is a national treasure, but it can’t do everything.

Blu-ray is wonderful for what it does. Still, the most encouraging development as the decade turns is the multiplication of alternative formats and means of distribution. Cinephiles have taken matters into their own hands by trading digital copies of out-of-distribution films on the Internet. Burn-on-demand programs, like Warner Archive and TCM’s Universal Collection, provide an economically viable way of making older movies available to the relatively small audience interested in them. Warner Archive has released many titles in unrestored versions that would not be acceptable as mass manufactured DVDs, though collectors seem glad to have them (even at a steep $19.95). Perhaps other companies will follow the Warner Brothers example, if only as an intermediary step toward the wide implementation of video on demand.

We will probably never achieve the utopian vision of having every film ever made available at the click of a mouse, but we are certain to move a little bit further in that direction in the decade ahead — with the cooperation of the studios or without them. (Copyrights will soon be expiring on the first wave of talkies.) In the meantime let us praise diversity. As confusing as the format wars may be, they keep hope alive.

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