DVDs and Film History

Thanks to a project I’m currently developing on new models of DVD distribution, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utopian claims about “long tail” retailing and its relationship to film history. In Reinventing Cinema, I expressed quite a bit of skepticism about claims that at some point in the future, film consumers and cinephiles would have access to the entire history of cinema at the click of a mouse, a claim expressed most vividly in this New York Times article by A.O. Scott (note also Kristin Thompson’s critique of this fantasy).  In addition to noting the sheer financial and infrastructure costs, it’s worth considering that such a fantasy obscures the larger question about who might have access to this perfect archive.

Now, with the decline of the DVD sell-through market, we are beginning to see just how precarious our film catalogs actually are.  In a post for Antenna, Bradley Schauer points to two notable stories about DVD consumption.  First, Sony announced that it is laying off 450 workers, many of them in their home video division.  More notably, the WSJ also points out that, for the first time since 2002, studios made more money from box office than from home video.  Schauer uses these details to contextualize his discussion of Warner’s decision to make much of its back catalog available via DVD-R copies of titles that are burned on-demand.  As Schauer notes, Warner’s strategy has two major effects: one, it takes classical Hollywood films further out of the realm of bricks-and-mortar stores.  Second, it allows Warner to market these products as “rare,” adding to their value as collector’s items.

But it also makes it possible that many “hidden gems” will remain invisible to casual (or even energetic) film viewers.  In that sense, both Schauer and Richard Brody, in a post discussing Humphrey Bogart’s The Harder They Fall, remind us of the significant curatorial role of TCM in presenting many of these forgotten classics.  These issues were turning over in my mind last night during a conversation with another local film professor, when we were talking about the implications of the degrading VHS tapes that contain dozens of films that have never been converted to DVD.  It’s easy to dismiss this in terms of market logic–if the films were that good, they’d be available on DVD–but obviously it’s not that simple, and even if the films themselves aren’t gems, we can learn quite a bit about film and media history from some of these “lost” texts.  That being said, one of the “lost” movies that we watched last night, a Star Wars Holiday special–featuring the film’s entire lead cast plus Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Diahann Carroll, of all people–did turn up online after a quick Google search.


  1. Tom Connelly Said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Thank you for posting this information. I would like to add to your comment by addressing the Bluray format and its role in visualizing film history – especially film noir. The text included on these DVDs not only provides us a portal into the golden age of Hollywood, but the high definition format will also reveal how beautifully these classical films were photographed. The 1940s was such an important transition for Hollywood in terms of lighting and photography, I am worried that we are not going experience a lesser known film like “Dark Passage” or “They Live By Night” in high definition.

    I am always thankful that we have TCM and was very excited to watch the premier of “The Harder They Fall.” But the extra information DVDs provide is very important for the field of film history.

    By they way, I recently read “Reinventing Cinema” which I thought was awesome. It has helped me tremendously in my doctoral research on digital filmmaking and independent cinema. My qualifying exam is the fall and your book has led me to other important sources that I am now pursuing.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Thanks for the nice words about “Reinventing Cinema.” I’m glad you found it helpful in your research.

    DVDs definitely have proven to be great resources for film history, and they also help us to see these films much more clearly. I’ve revisited some of the films I saw on VHS and it is an entirely different experience.

    The format shifts illustrate one of the bigger challenges associated with our field in terms of historical preservation, so hopefully it will become economically viable to package even more of these films.

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