Tech: Sony Choice Collection and Manufactured-On-Demand Media

Leading the forefront of the DVD format at the height of it’s commercial success was Warner Brothers for their numerous reissues of studio classics in ornate special edition DVDs with the original theatrical poster art often adorning the cover box.  For a long time, it was easy to point to Warner as a favorite home video company among cinephiles.  But in recent years following the developments of online streaming digital video formats including Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, the demand for physical media content decreased somewhat and soon warehouses found themselves overstocked with DVD titles that couldn’t sell off.  With many DVDs of titles still yet to be released on home video to niche markets as well as the problem with managing overstock of previous releases, the new and still controversial solution to the problem became known as the equally celebrated and maligned Warner Archive Collection

Launched on March 23, 2009 and serving as a platform for over sixty years of films yet to be released on DVD or blu ray, the manufacturing-on-demand (MOD for short) distribution plan utilized recordable DVD-R discs on an order-to-order basis rather than universally pressing standard DVDs for factory retail selling.  Even a number of previously released DVDs that have long since gone out of print resurfaced as Warner Archive releases.  Moreover, Warner Brothers Digital Distribution also vied for digital downloading which can either download a film to a personal computer for playback viewing or allow for the consumer to burn the files to a DVD-R themselves.  Each title is approximately $19.95 with a digital download at $14.95 per purchase.  To be fair the journey older titles have made from standard DVD to Warner Archive DVD-R is that many titles previously only available in fullscreen are often remastered in widescreen, such as Bob Fosse’s Star 80 and The Great Santini, giving consumers an arguably better deal despite being pressed on an MOD DVD-R disc.  Generally a bare bones disc, Warner Archive even stepped up their game with the release of Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland which included a director commentary track. 

The idea behind the plan is one that benefits the company more than the consumer who doesn’t care about mitigating a bulk of unsold merchandise from warehouses and many no doubt balked at the notion of being stuck with DVD-Rs that aren’t always compatible with earlier models of DVD players.  PC DVD drives in particular seemed to present most Warner Archive consumers with problems during playback.  Like Twilight Time, it’s a distribution format I’m always coy about giving my money to unless it’s the only way to get a specific title at all.  $19.95 for a DVD-R of a film that’s often devoid of extras or menus to speak of is a lot to ask of the consumer, especially if their DVD player can’t handle the playback of the disc.  Worse still, closed-captioning or subtitles for the deaf and/or hard of hearing are nowhere to be found on Warner Archive discs, making them even less friendly to the consumer.  To find a happy medium between the MOD distribution method and the newfound demand for blu-ray disc releases, Warner Archive soon began releasing blu-ray titles including films such as Far from the Madding Crown and Peter Weir’s Fearless, which for years prior was only available on a fullscreen Warner DVD.  Despite the recent updates in Warner Archive’s releasing platform with real studio pressed BDs being printed over DVD-R content, Warner Archive still continues to press DVD-R content despite the inclusion of blu-ray discs on their roster.

Soon after, Sony Pictures, MGM/UA, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox and even Walt Disney Pictures followed suit and started to get into the MOD releasing format, often with mixed results.  20th Century Fox’s aptly named Cinema Archives program, for instance, offered the only DVD release at the time of the CinemaScope picture April Love and yet it was only available in a cropped fullscreen transfer sourced from a VHS master.  It didn’t take long for Twilight Time to license the title on blu-ray and give it a proper widescreen transfer.  Others included the Universal Vault Series, the MGM Limited Edition Collection and weakest of all, the Disney Generations Collection which only amounted to about fifteen titles that are unavailable otherwise.  Oddly, there was even a time when Disney had an exclusive membership club in which you had to register and go through a number of doors before being able to purchase a DVD edition of films like DuckTales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, a disc which ultimately did get an official DVD release over the previous clandestine release. All of which brings us to the latest chapter in the ongoing MOD saga: Sony Choice Collection.  Like Warner Archive’s own foray into releasing niche as well as current titles on the blu-ray disc format, Sony Choice Collection will begin releasing titles in full 1080p high definition in early September including a reissue of Brian De Palma’s Body Double for those who can’t afford the out-of-print Twilight Time disc and the 10th Anniversary blu-ray debut of Sofia Coppola’s celebrated cult gem Marie Antoinette.  While still in its infancy, Sony Choice Collection’s debut already has it’s hand in my wallet for these first couple announcements and represents another major shift away from the standard method of DVD/BD releasing towards MOD. 

It’s a tough spot to be in as a cinephile as well as a retail seller with the companies now, more or less, dumping these titles on disc per individual sales rather than pressing mass quantities for stores such as BestBuy, FYE or Barnes & Noble.  Although it may seem like a cheap route for studios to go, I will still take a physical disc of any kind that I can put on my shelf over a digital copy stored in an online digital cloud any day of the week in spite of the film industry’s push in that direction.  For instance, Ken Russell’s The Devils appeared on iTunes for one day before being withdrawn indefinitely, which means if you purchased the title, chances are your money either went up in smoke or you got a refund of some kind.  Rather than get caught up in that ever shifting conundrum, I sought out the import DVD from the UK which currently represents the only official home video release outside of out-of-print laserdiscs and VHS tapes.  That said, let us hope that with the film studio shift towards MOD content over retail store content that it’s simply another development in physical home video media collecting and not another nail in the coffin pushing towards streaming video only.

-Andrew Kotwicki

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