By DAVE KEHR
DVDS were introduced in 1997 in the United States but didn’t really take off until a few years later, when the price of players dropped low enough to make them affordable for a large number of consumers. The same thing seems to be happening now with Blu-ray, which was introduced in 2006 but has only become widely affordable in the last year or so, as the price of players has dropped from the $900 range to something on a par with a midrange DVD unit: $200 to $300 for a quite acceptable player, with budget ones available for as little as $90. And while DVD sales declined by some $1 billion in 2009 from the previous year, sales of Blu-ray discs, according to data from the Digital Entertainment Group, rose by $200 million, partially offsetting the industry downturn.
Does that mean that the DVD decade is over, and the era of Blu-ray is about to begin? Although it would satisfy our primal human need to divide experience into tidy 10-year slices, it is probably premature to say.
For one thing, Blu-ray faces much stiffer competition from other delivery services than DVDs did: companies like Apple, Netflix and Amazon are falling over one another with rival schemes for digital downloads, streaming video and video-on-demand services. For another, most consumers seem perfectly happy with DVD technology and see no reason to convert to another standard that won’t be playable on much of their installed equipment. (To counter that argument, some distributors have started offering standard DVDs and computer-friendly digital files in the same Blu-ray package.)
There’s no doubt that Blu-ray is the better technology. (Blu-ray machines can also play standard DVDs.) Blu-ray offers a sharpness of detail, stability of color and depth of sound far beyond the capabilities of DVD. And yet that’s exactly why I’m wary of it.
As an omnivorous cinephile, I’m interested in seeing as much material as possible made available to as many viewers as possible, and Blu-ray doesn’t promise much in that department. For bringing the latest Hollywood blockbusters into homes, Blu-ray is without parallel. But it is less friendly to older films, foreign films and films made with antiquated technologies (like 16 millimeter and analog video).
For Blu-ray to look its best it requires picture and sound images of the finest, most pristine quality. That’s not difficult to come by in a contemporary release like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (the best-selling Blu-ray of 2009), but is somewhat more problematic for a film made in Germany in 1926. Blu-ray exaggerates the faults in older material: the dust specks and scratches caused by decades of wear and tear, the softness of detail or harshness of contrast caused by duplication from sources several generations removed from the film that actually passed through the camera.
Even on those rare occasions when first-rate source material exists for older films — Kino’s fine new Blu-ray of Buster Keaton’s 1926 brilliant adventure-comedy “The General,” for example, was made from a fine-grain positive struck from the original camera negative — the modern eye requires digital intervention to clean up the imperfections built into the original. And because digital restoration is often a zero-sum game, in which the erasing of one flaw produces another, we continue to move further from the look and feel of the first-generation film. The dust specks on a D. W. Griffith one-reeler have probably been there since the film was first developed: laboratories weren’t as antiseptic then, and audiences had different expectations.
Restoration on that scale costs a lot, so much so that only the most famous titles seem to justify the expense, as exemplified by Warner Brothers’ recent high-definition transfers of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” to Blu-ray. It’s safe to say that only a tiny fraction of the movies produced by Hollywood studios, much less those from international sources, will make the cut.
This isn’t the first time this winnowing has occurred. 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.