March 05, 2009

Put the blame on DVD

A recent article by Anthony Kaufman writing in Moving Image Source summarizes some of the losses that come with the digital age. Here's a shortened version:

In the wake of video-store shutdowns across the USA, and a move toward DVD-only subscription services modeled after Netflix and digital download initiatives, the non-digitized movie is becoming an endangered species.

The death of VHS has long been foretold. In November 2006, Variety published an obituary headlined "VHS, 30, dies of loneliness." But the industry appears to have overlooked the films themselves. Masterpieces like Erich Von Stroheim's Greed, have always been difficult to find, but with the decline of the VHS format , the chances of seeing obscure but great works are only getting slimmer. (At least, legally and in pristine form. A number of rare films can be found as downloadable files on peer-to-peer-sharing sites. )

But video stores and libraries will always remain at the mercy of what's legally available. With every new shift in media technology, from 16mm to VHS, from traditional broadcast to cable TV, from VHS to DVD, huge numbers of films are lost, says Facets Multi-Media executive director Milos Stehlik. "What irritates me is that with each technology comes all this promise—that you’re going to be able to watch whatever you want, whenever you want. But then it turns out not to be true," he says. "Because most art films are marginal, financially, to the mainstream culture, they will always get pushed out."

"I never understood how this myth that 'everything is available on DVD' got started," agrees critic Dave Kehr, the DVD columnist for The New York Times. As evidence, he points to Turner Classic Movies' database of U.S. feature films—of the 157,068 titles listed as of late February, 2009, fewer than 4 percent are available on home video. TCM also includes a reader's list of the top 200 films not on DVD. While many of the titles are available as imports—for example, there are South Korean versions of John Huston's The African Queen (#2) and Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (#67) and Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (#100)—many others are not available at all, including René Clément's This Angry Age (#1), Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (#4), and King Vidor's Northwest Passage (#7).

Kehr, and others, lay most of the blame on studios that own the rights to the films. "The worst offender is Universal," he says. The technology requires pristine 35mm negatives; "we lost a tremendous amount of stuff, because they had to remaster them and no one wanted to spend the money. Concentrating on technical quality eliminates 90 percent of American film history," says Kehr. He worries that the movies of important, little-known American auteurs—for example, Lew Landers and André De Toth—are simply "vanishing into the ether," he says. "They’re just gone from the conversation and that’s unfortunate. The younger critics haven't seen this stuff, but how could they?"

An all-digital future, where consumers will be able to download films directly to their computer, will only continue to curtail availability, says Kehr. "They still have to make those masters," he says. "It still costs $30,000 to digitize a film. And how many non-commercial films is MGM going to digitize?" The unsteadiness of the DVD market—which dropped roughly 6 percent in 2008—is only making matters worse.

On the brighter side, some industry observers are quick to point out that, in some ways, the current moment is incredibly fruitful for movie lovers, what with multi-region DVD players, torrents, and lots of obscure films still somehow finding their way into the world—if you look hard enough.

1 comment:

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