Posted in: DVD, Industry, Technology

Warner Archive Collection – New Access to Old Movies

Warner’s launch of the Warner Archive Collection, its new DVD on Demand site, was well covered earlier this week (see The New York Times’ The Carpetbagger, Susan King at the LA Times and Lou Leminick at the New York Post) but there’s been little follow-up in the days since. Maybe that’s because we’re all waiting for that first disc to arrive before we pass judgment in the efficiency of the system and the quality of the discs. There was a pretty slow response time when I got on the site on Monday, March 23. It had been launched a week earlier but this was the date that the press releases went out and the home video sites and related blogs all spread the news. Everyone needed to check it out and a lot of folks made their first order.

Available from the Warner Archive now
Available from the Warner Archive now

The site launched with a curious collection of 150 films from the Warner Entertainment library of pre-1986 films from MGM, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros., from westerns to romance, science fiction to melodrama, each one priced at $19.95 (or $14.95 for a digital download). They have little broad commercial appeal but have their fans, as evidenced by requests made over the years on sites like Turner Classic Movies and Amazon. Some of the more familiar titles include All Fall Down with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant (it was ubiquitous on VHS but nowhere to be found on DVD), Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey and Possessed starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. There’s plenty of early Greta Garbo and second-tier Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy titles, as well as auteur oddities like The Bamboo Blonde (Anthony Mann) Countdown (Robert Altman) and The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola). I was most excited by the silent film selection and I ordered Rex Ingram’s 1923 Scaramouche. Just yesterday I just received confirmation that my order was sent (free shipping, UPS ground) and is expected to arrive on Tuesday, March 31. It a simple, no-frills disc, just the movie in a case with sleek artwork (and, if available, the original trailer), and George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video, promises that they are all presented in their original aspect ratio. Given their source (most, if not all, have already been remastered and run on Turner Classic Movies), we should expect good quality transfers and mastering.

Industry observers have long been predicting some kind of shift to DVD burn-on-demand, whether it’s in portable kiosks at your local market or ordered from online lists of available titles. With the downturn in DVD sales and an increasingly crowded market vying for limited space on store shelves, not to mention expense of promoting new titles, Warner’s move is smart. It solves backstock and storage issues and frees up the strain on conventional DVD production facilities (“They are manufactured via proprietary MOD process which is very different from home-used DVD-Rs on one’s computer….we guarantee the quality of these discs and will stand by them,” wrote Feldstein in a live chat on the Home Theater Forum earlier this week). And it offers instant access to a title that might otherwise take years to become available.

Scaramouche - a silent classic now available via DVD on Demand
Scaramouche - a silent classic now available via DVD on Demand

One aspect that the coverage hasn’t really explored is the option of buying a digital download instead of a physical DVD (for “movie fans… to enjoy immediately on their PC,” in the words of the press release). I’d be curious to know how many people have opted for that option; I’ve never warmed to watching movies on my computer screen. But with advances made in video-on-demand via cable and the recent Netflix partnership with TiVo for ordering and storing digital downloads via its digital video recorder , I can see the future of this alternative moving away from the PC and into the home entertainment center. It’s just a matter of standardizing the process and making it possible to do it all from the TV/cable interface.

Warner plans to add 20 titles a month to the archive, based on requests and on the titles that have ready digital masters, and has ambitions to make the entire catalogue available sometime in the future (perhaps the far future). I’d love to see other studios follow Warner’s lead, but let’s fact it, Warner has a big head start here. Back in the eighties, when Ted Turner bought the MGM library (which included pre-1945 Warner Bros. films), he set his staff to preserving the prints and original elements to every film in the library and setting a schedule for restoring damaged films and degrading elements. He saw the future value of the library in cable showings on his new channels, TNT and TCM. Warner bought the library from Turner years ago and is cashing in on the preservation work he started. New masters are needed for the new HD standards, but in most cases the sources materials are there, thanks to the vision of Turner.  The other studios were late to discover the value of the less famous titles of their film libraries and are still catching up in terms of preservation and restoration.

Some of the folks who ordered before the press blitz have started receiving their discs and reporting on them on this thread of the Home Theater Forum.

And for more news on official Warner Home Video releases on DVD and Blu-ray, check out the text of their live chat with WHV’s George Feltenstein (SVP Catalog Marketing), Ronnee Sass (VP Publicity & Promotion) and Janet Keller (Manager of Publicity).

As for me, I’m looking forward to watching my first Warner On Demand DVD.

The complete list of titles available through the Warner Archive is here.