Back to the Future

As the DVD begins its descent into technological obsolesce, here’s my attempt in the New York Times to assess the effects of the format’s slow fade-out on cinephilia. For the moment, the bad news is that the hot new streaming technologies don’t offer a visual experience all that superior to VHS; the good news is that lowered tech specs might allow some long neglected (and uneconomical to remaster) titles to return to distribution. Netflix, for example, is offering some a grab bag of 1950s obscurities that includes some United Artists titles like Andre De Toth’s “Hidden Fear” (a film that surely ranks with “Reptilicus” as one of the finest drive-in pictures ever made in Denmark) and Pine-Thomas Paramount productions like Nicholas Ray’s “Run for Cover” (albeit whittled down to 1.33 from its original VistaVision).

In the end, the gains and losses will probably balance out. The immediate danger here is the widespread sense that, thanks to streaming video, “everything” is now available for viewing with the click of a mouse. That’s far from the case, unfortunately, but once that kind of complacency takes hold, it’s hard to shake off.

122 comments to Back to the Future

  • Bruce Hagood

    Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, please, but right now at least, streaming video offers ONLY the film itself, and none of the extras — commentary, or whatever else. Not good!

  • Rich Deming

    Dave,

    I was very happy with your article about the ramifications of MOD and lower video standards.

    However, if your point was simply that higher and higher video specifications have been a negative factor in the release of many a non-blockbuster film, it would be fine. But stating that VHS tapes drove second-run and revival houses “into oblivion” is not true. Porn and Martial Arts theaters had already killed off most of the second-run houses long before VHS made the scene. It also strikes me as a romantic notion that “revival houses” were much of a factor beyond the 70′s in all but the major cities. Either way, relatively unknown titles provided on VHS dwarfed anything coming out of anyone’s local revival house.

    Also, suggesting a “disappearance” of titles is, at best, a misnomer. Movie fans didn’t dump their VHS players into the sea once Laserdisc and DVD came along so those released titles were not lost nor were public library collections destroyed. Nor were the sea of non-commercially released titles film fans recorded off of TCM and AMC (pre-commercials) such as Joseph Losey’s FINGER OF GUILT been given up to this day.

    That said, no doubt hi-def formats are a barrier to a film that a studio didn’t think would even sell on VHS. I look forward to MOD or streaming of lower definition video providing us with more titles with keen interest.

    I know it may not seem like I enjoyed the article, but I did. I care, so I share.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Bruce, call me a Luddite, but of the several thousand laser discs and DVDs I’ve purchased with “extras” and thousands more I have viewed, I’ve actually gone to the extras in probably less than 1%. Doubtless they often do add to the experience, and have real value, but for me there is the problem that they can also be a distraction and often replace the written word as a source for analysis and research.

    Me, I’m usually happy with the movie in good shape, the rarer the better.

  • Bruce Hagood

    Tom, I think that “purist” would better fit the reaction that you are describing, and I respect it. I understand your position, but what about those out there who want the other stuff, too?

  • jbryant

    Bruce: Since Hulu Plus is eventually going to offer Criterion’s supplemental content, perhaps Netflix and others will follow suit. You can hope anyway.

  • Michael Worrall

    Bruce,

    What about those out there that don’t have titles saved or purchased on VHS or laserdisc; from not having the opportunity, money, or means to acquire such titles or became aware of a film AFTER it was made unavailable on the home video market? I think Dave’s point is that a lot of titles do not make it from one format to another and that the onus is on the studio, not viewer and/or collector. As for library collections destroyed, it has certainly happened here in San Francisco, where I have noticed many titles that were on VHS have disappeared and not been replaced by DVD copies.

    I don’t know about your local revival house, but when I lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado –not a major city by any means– the local rep house bit the dust in 1981, without a porn house or martial arts theater in sight. Titles on VHS may have appeared to have dwarfed what was playing at the remaining revival houses, but I can guarantee you at the time you that many of titles available on 35mm and 16mm did not make it to VHS. (Nor to DVD.) Such was the condition when I was programming films for my college theater in the late 1980s to early 1990s. (If titles made it to VHS, there was not much comfort as any film shot outside the ratio of 1:33 would be pan and scan.)

  • Bruce Hagood

    Michael, I understand Dave’s points and they are good ones. I was just trying to introduce another dimension.

  • david hare

    Dave, it’s not always mentioned but critical for collectors like many of us here is that streaming as distinct from VOD is – with very few exceptions – not downloadable. That is the movies are either delivered in such a way as to prevent capturing the movie file in a useable (burnable/playable) format.

    So the whole area of streaming is now remote or distinct from “collectible” media like VHS, Laser DVD and now burnt media/VOD from Warner., Fox, Sony Gaumont and perhpas others to follow. The other issue about Streaming is quality. We have limited experience here in Oz but my impression isn’t at all negative. As someone who wants everything in 1080p BluRay standard, I’m pleasantly surprised by the image quality of both SD and HD. The codecs they are using now are very efficient to display 576p SD, and 720p for HD. They are using one of the super efficient compression codecs like h264/avc and these seem literally good enough to blow through a projector for over 100 inch screen image, I believe.

    The only problem for us is the limited catalogue available. Obviously Hulu and netflix in the States provide a far greater range than the nascent Australian Bigpond pay per view service. The other issue in this of cours is IT connection speed. Without a high speed cable you may as well give up. And some players, streaming devices (Wii, etc) are better than others at streaming and maintaining memory/buffering. HD particularly can be plagued with stop/starts, even with an ethernet cable.

    And lurking somewhere behind all of this is the vast unknown reservoir of privately held material copied in one form or another which may end up being the only available record of so much. There’s an imponderable here which will never be settled while the issue of “intellectucal property” reamins in the hands of the corporate state.

  • Michael Worrall

    Bruce,

    Apologies, as my response was to Rich Demings’ post and somehow Rich became you. The edit function has disappeared from my first post and I cannot switch the name.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Bruce

    In the post of mine to which you responded, I hoped that I had made it clear that those who utilize these extras had valid reasons.

    One of the things that some of the extras have done is blur what a final film is and what is wasn’t, particularly with deleted/edited/reworked scenes. The general population doesn’t get this with plays, music, literature as a common, wide-spread practice. I find it particularly problematical when films I love – Bonnie and Clyde and There Will Be Blood, for example, neither remotely ever said to have not been the final version of their makers’ vision – attach a deleted scene as though it was required on a DVD and with little or no context given.

  • Pam Wintle

    I like the ruler touch–VHS tape as museum artifact.

  • Barry Putterman

    Tom, I think it is possible that you are taking an overly rigid position regarding deleted/etc. scenes. Actually, in the case of music, this is something of a wide-spread practice. Jazz CDs abound with “alternate takes” and fans debates their relative merit endlessly. And, as anybody who is devoted to The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix can attest, you are NEVER certain that you have the complete works in your collection.

    I certainly agree that context is always preferable when showing scenes which did not appear in the released version. But it does seem to be that the viewer will create his or her own context, much as one would when looking at notes or earlier drafts by fiction writers or playwrights.

    Bruce, I must say that I admire the good cheer and reasonableness you have displayed towards questions directed towards you in this and other threads.

  • Michael Worrall

    I should also add that by the time I was programming films for my college’s film series in the late 1980s, the effects of home video were definitely being felt. New prints of older films were not being struck, leading one to show severely faded or damaged prints.

    By 1991, I noticed fewer recent film titles being offered, and if they were, the lab work was of poor quality and films shot in 2:35 were not being made available in 16mm ‘scope. (I remember not being able to show BLADE RUNNER in its proper ratio as the one remaining ‘scope print in 16mm was damaged beyond repair, and I was told by the distributor that no plans were made in striking new 16mm ‘scope prints.)

    To add my two cents about Tony Scott, not showing his films in ‘scope would not be that much of a compromise or disservice, as I find his composing for the 2:35 frame to be almost nonexistent. Lots of center, far left or right frame compositions with empty space and shallow focus. Ridley’s ROBIN HOOD looked like this, with perhaps even more camera set-ups and arbitrary editing than Tony. Unfortunately Ridley now seems to be following in his brother’s footsteps.

    Probably nobody makes processed chicken nuggets better then McDonald’s, but does that necessarily make it a great, or even good?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    To “defend” Tony and Ridley, a lot of contemporary scope films are shot so that those who don’t see them in the proper aspect ratio (either when cable doesn’t show them right – even HD channels often show in 1.85 or so, or when people show the DVDs with an enlarged picture because they don’t like all the black space on the screen) aren’t bothered too much.

  • Michael Worrall

    Tom,

    I agree that the Scotts are shooting films in what is now a standard practice, but I find the practice of framing 2:35 for 1:33, in terms of film aesthetics, more than dubious. Why shoot in 2:35 at all? To give a film a false sense of “scale” in the theaters? (I am in no way inferring you condone such a practice, just putting the question out there.)

    I did not see this practice in Ridley’s ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and LEGEND but I think it was there by THELMA AND LOUISE. However, Tony’s shallow focus, empty spaces, and generally undernourished 2:35 images are very present in THE HUNGER –which is tripped up by a lot of second rate elliptical cutting Tony swiped from Nicolas Roeg– and TOP GUN.

  • Rick K.

    I’m worried. Dave’s excellent piece touches on some potentially sensitive areas for readers of his DVD reviews and movie lovers in general (speaking to those of us whose passions extend beyond the new and trendy to an appreciation of past masters). My skepticism towards the future is rooted in the omnipresent dichotomy of art vs. commerce. We’ve been fortunate to experience a phase (via the DVD boom) wherein the marketplace actually supported the efforts of studios to tap their holdings, invest in restorations, resurrect “forgotten” treasures, and even supplement those releases with noteworthy additions via commentaries etc. all of which was seen, no doubt, by the corporate hierarchy as a sound investment toward lucrative returns.

    My own feeling is that some of the studios, Fox for example, expended too much on DVD “extras” (well-intentioned but often over-elaborate bonus features, expendable lobby card reproductions, booklets and totally unnecessary duplicate slipcase covers, etc. etc.) while a more modest approach could have enhanced profit margins and kept the program going. Eventually it all boils down to the bottom line, which is where this next phase has me worried. I do not see that there is a sufficient potential revenue in streaming (at least in the long run to appease corporate concerns) to support the “cinema archeology” which we’ve had up to now. As noted, during the 50’s we had newfound TV air time to fill (conversion of 35mm to 16mm of studio holdings). A nostalgia and film study boom in the 60s-70s (successful theatrical revivals via art house, museums and colleges), video cassettes/laserdiscs in the 80s-90’s and DVD to the present. Now this has all tapered off. From my novice perspective, click-on-demand is simply not lucrative enough to keep the momentum going (at least for the tremendous backlog which we, at this site, are so anxious to continue tapping into).

    DVDs allow us, if we wish, to simulate the experience of theater projection which, of course, was the norm back in the heyday of Ford and Hitchcock. I have virtually every DVD released of these two artists, and refer to them constantly. As a youth, it was always a dream to have my own theater and film library, and apparently some dreams do come true. Keeping up to date, seeing NORTH BY NORTHWEST on blu-ray was a revelatory experience … though never really one of my favorites, my appreciation for it advanced significantly, becoming virtually intoxicated by the refined imagery from beginning to end. I love blu-ray (when it is done right) and look forward to methodical releases of films which will be enhanced via this technology. Streaming, at this stage, is a step BACKWARD. Yes, we have a sudden blast of tempting appetizers (I have Lewin’s PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI cued up to watch on Netflix this week, which I AM looking forward to) but, as Dave notes, these are available more due to convenience, simply transferring old television materials to the streaming format. No restorations here … this title, for example, hasn’t been utilized since a VHS was issued over 20 years ago. My feeling is that, those of us who appreciate Hitchcock upgrades on blu-ray are fringe-dwellers who will only be catered to exponentially … those who desire Murnau and Borzage on blu-ray will need to scrounge (and/or plead to Criterion). Click on demand will serve us in moderation WITHOUT the benefit of enhancements, other than those which already exist. Otherwise, it is a service designed for those seeking convenience for new releases, many of whom, as evidenced by some of my roommates in the past, use moving images as night lights, or even as sleep-inducers, which I always found a bit insulting, though my efforts at suggesting a warm cup of milk instead were always destined to failure, arousing suspicion by the eye-catching glow of the milk as I climbed the stairs and, of course, my natural Cary Grant-like demeanor.

    I hope the MOD initiatives continue … Warner Archive , Columbia-by-request etc. are the most encouraging sign that studio backlogs will continue to be mined AND treated with respect (via remastered and anamorphic editions) for those of us who DO care. Doubtless there will always be at least a corner of the vast movie audience who revel in celebration when an obscure Michael Curtiz/Lil Dagover collaboration suddenly appears on DVD.

  • Brad Stevens

    It’s perhaps surprising that Dave’s very interesting piece doesn’t mention filesharing, surely the most important current technology in terms of making rare foreign language films available to English-speaking viewers. Something like 60 Naruse Mikio films (only a few titles short of his entire surviving output) are now available for download, most of them with with English subtitles created by bilingual fans. This may technically be illegal, but the issues raised seem to me at least worth discussing. It is, for example, highly appropriate that Rivette’s OUT 1, a film obsessively focused on communal projects and conspiracies, has finally become available for home viewing with English subtitles thanks to a communal project which is also a conspiracy.

  • I have a concern which is definitely a minority one. I am a former animator and now teach animation. DVDs have been a boon for the single frame study of animation and film. I can step through a piece of animation a frame at a time for my students, allowing them to clearly see how something is achieved.

    While YouTube offers many films that are not available on DVD, you can’t step through them. While I have nothing against streaming (there are many films that I would prefer to watch and not buy), I hope that DVDs or their equivalent survive so that people who need to study film frame by frame can continue to do so.

  • Kalitta

    “I love blu-ray (when it is done right) and look forward to methodical releases of films which will be enhanced via this technology.”

    Is the trend toward the availability for rental of more and more old movies on Blu-ray and DVD going to end? And will Netflix’s deemphasis of physical product make more and more titles unavailable and more and more discs dysfunctional? For me the easy availability of high-quality (DVD or better) versions of more and more old titles has felt like a luxury the past five or ten years; $300/year has felt like a very low price to pay for all this. Is the party over?

  • Rich Deming

    “Bruce,

    What about those out there that don’t have titles saved or purchased on VHS or laserdisc; from not having the opportunity, money, or means to acquire such titles or became aware of a film AFTER it was made unavailable on the home video market? I think Dave’s point is that a lot of titles do not make it from one format to another and that the onus is on the studio, not viewer and/or collector. As for library collections destroyed, it has certainly happened here in San Francisco, where I have noticed many titles that were on VHS have disappeared and not been replaced by DVD copies.”
    _____________________________________________________________________________________________

    Michael,

    It’s called ‘Inter-library loan’ or the large secondary market available on Amazon Marketplace as well as a host of other avenues. If a title was released on video, it’s available. My main point being that more old or non-blockbuster movies are available to film lovers on video than anytime in history and VOD and MOD will add to that. Video may have “killed the radio star” but it did not hurt the available of old films, it’s been a boon for them. If a movie made it to 16MM it made it to TV and recorded on VHS and in collector’s hands across the country. As to your point about “many” 35MM films made available to the early-80′s art houses that never made it to video, I would kindly suggest that your definition of “video” or “available” is too constricting. They are out there. In fact, I doubt that you could name 10 titles available on 35MM to the movie house circuit in the early 80′s, that I can’t get my hands on. Rich (sometimes mistaken for Bruce ;-) )

  • Kalitta

    Um, if that was a suggestion that I should read more carefully, my apologies. Let me rephrase my question as: five years from now, will the access that’s been available on Netflix recently, the experience I describe above, only be available through avenues like inter-library loan and Amazon Marketplace?

  • Vivian

    Do those of you who have kept old VHS tapes find that their quality degrades quite a bit over time? If a tape is no longer watchable, it’s kind of like it doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve recorded DVDs of movies from TCM etc., and although none of them have degraded yet, that’s apparently also a problem with “burned” DVDs, which I think would include on-demand discs? I’d be much more sanguine about all the movies I own on VHS and DVD if I thought they’d continue to be watchable indefinitely.

  • Bruce Hagood

    Yes, I think that Vivian’s point is a good one. I do think that “burnt” DVDs and VHS tapes do deteriorate. New DVDs? I think that they do not deteriorate (unless, of course, they are scratched or otherwise maltreated). But I may be wrong about that.

  • Peter Henne

    Kalitta, Many people here post without responding to the previous poster. Several conversations can develop at once. So please don’t draw a conclusion you’ve been ignored or replied to haphazardly. I’m wondering the same things you brought up, and finding the posts in this thread sharp and informative.

    Call me acquisitive, paranoid, or both, but I like owning a DVD or blu-ray or anything else that relies on a minimal number of electronics and connections in my home to play. I have more control over access to these movies this way. When you stream, you are at the mercy of the rental company (such as Netflix), your internet provider, the connectivity they provide, your computer and its connectivity to your television. If any one of these things falters, you’re out of luck. I hope physical blu-rays don’t go by the wayside. They require two electronic components to use, a player, a hi-def television, and an HDMI cable connecting them. Specifically, this way I don’t have to subscribe to a corporation’s service to watch a movie I want to see, and I’m happy about that.

    I subscribe to Netflix, and haven’t tried streaming yet but can go only so long before my hunger for watching films I’ve longed to see and which are only rentable this way brings me up to speed. I’m concerned along with Rick K. that low-resolution deliveries will, over time, become the new acceptable standard for “old black-and-white movies.” Excellent post, Rick. Let us know what you think of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI. I remember that film having the most decisive shot lengths of the Lewins I’ve seen, and a gorgeous deep chiaroscuro for some nighttime exterior cafe scenes.

  • Brad, filesharing of copyrighted material is not just technically illegal — it is really and truly illegal, and as such it’s not the kind of activity I’m going to endorse in a public forum. Besides, are these bootlegs really the way we want these films to be seen now and forever? The boot of “Out 1,” for example, is of very low quality, taken from a VHS of an Italian TV broadcast with Italian subtitles burned in — which makes the superimposed English titles almost impossible to read. It’s well and good that cinephiles are willing to risk fines and take matters into their own hands (the situation reminds me of the bad old days in the 1960s, when the FBI was raiding the homes of 16mm collectors and seizing their prints — though the studios have since changed their tune and sometimes turn to private collectors for material that no longer survives in their vaults). But isn’t this a way of letting the big copyright holders off the hook for not taking responsibility for their own property? The studios and the other big rights holders fought tooth and nail, in the desperate lobbying over the Millennium Copyright Act, to retain rights to films they apparently have no intention of ever releasing, and only pressure from collectors and scholars and cinephiles such as ourselves will make it clear to them that this huge volume of material (sorry, Rick Deming, but there are many more movies in the vaults than were ever released to VHS — forget about DVD and Blu-ray) forms a very important part of our cultural heritage that can and must remain accessible to the widest group possible, and not just professionals and filesharers.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Do those of you who have kept old VHS tapes find that their quality degrades quite a bit over time?”

    I have recordings I made back in 1980 that still look as good as new.

  • I have recordings I made back in 1980 that still look as good as new.

    You’ve been very lucky, Brad. All magnetic media is inherently unstable, mainly because the glue used to bind the magnetic layer to the tape degrades very quickly. No archive does preservation work using magnetic media — just the opposite. A lot of time and money is being devoted to rescuing material that exists only on tape and fixing it on a more stable support — which is to say, 35-mm film, still the gold standard for preservation. (Another problem is that the technology for recording and reading videotape is nowhere near as standardized as that for film. The Library of Congress has many videotapes from the last century that can no longer be read on current equipment, and UCLA has made a made a priority of preserving shows produced on the now-obsolete 2 inch videotape that was used from the late 50s through the 70s, most famously the 1958 “An Evening With Fred Astaire,” one of the first commercial broadcasts to use videotape with color capabilities.)

  • Brad Stevens

    “filesharing of copyrighted material is not just technically illegal — it is really and truly illegal”

    According to certain interpretations of the Berne Act, material that isn’t otherwise available falls into a legal gray area that can be defined as public domain.

    But the point I’m making is essentially a moral one, not a legal one. Of course, I’d love to have a beautifully restored DVD box set of OUT 1. But the film has been around for four decades, and it seems reasonable to assume that if nobody has released an English-subtitled transfer by now, then this is probably never going to happen. The choice is between an average quality Italian-subtitled transfer, and…well, nothing. Same thing, but even more so, with Naruse’s films. So far, 6 are available on DVD, and Criterion are about to release some Naruse silents. Perhaps one day they will release a few more. But the sad truth is that the majority of Naruse’s films are never going to be distributed in English-subtitled editions: the chances of such minor masterpieces as TRAVELLING ACTORS, FIVE MEN IN THE CIRCUS, and CONDUCT REPORT ON PROFESSOR ISHINAKA becoming available through legitimate channels is non-existent. It will, quite simply, never happen. So it has fallen upon those naughty (and, quite possibly, really and truly illegal) file-sharers to rescue these films from obscurity, spend a great deal of time and effort translating their dialogue and creating subtitles, and make them available for free (sometimes in excellent quality transfers) on the internet. It seems to me that those of us who care about cinematic culture should be actively supporting these efforts, rather than refusing to endorse them in public forums! There is, after all, a very thin line between wanting to maintain pressure on copyright holders (And how should we do this anyway? Convince them that there’s a small fortune to be made by releasing A DESCENDANT OF URASHIMA TARO? Threaten to shoot them unless they start distributing DVDs of HIDEKO THE BUS CONDUCTRESS?) and buying in to the idea that, in a capitalist society, it’s capitalists who should have the ultimate right to control our cultural heritage.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well I would be close to the last person one should go to for any kind of technological prophesy, however I am trying to put all of this information into some kind of historical perspective. So it would appear that the era of the DVD is in fact ending. Or, as Kalitta would put it, that party is ending. What we don’t know at the moment is what, if anything, is going to replace it. Or, as Kalitta might put it, where the next party is taking place.

    Is Blu-Ray the wave of the future or will it be the film delivery equivilent of eight track tapes? Will streaming catch on in a big way or will people lose interest once the novelty has worn off?

    What does seem clear to me at the moment is that the major companies aren’t going to jump in with both feet unless some system becomes standard with the general public and most people have bought whatever equipment they will need to collect and store with it. It was only after LP and then CD in music and VHS and then DVD in film had become established with a large enough pool of buyers that the major companies began rumaging through their vaults for material which might not bring in huge amounts of sales, but were profitable in relation to what they cost to produce.

    So it would seem to me that the only real danger is that the situation remains as fragmented as it currently is, and no real system emerges that the majority of people buy into. But, as I say, I have no clue just how significant that “only” really is.

    I do know that the technologies of LP and VHS pretty much had deterioration built into them. And, in theory, CD and DVD did not. But that’s just a theory. Planned obsolescence is a fact.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    VHS tapes do degrade over time, although they do in a puzzling unpredictable way. I have some two thousand movies taped from TV starting, I think, in the early eighties, and while some of the earlier ones still look quite good, others, sometimes much more recent, have deteriorated. I also noticed that color seems to deteriorate faster than black and white.Sometimes there are both perfectly good-looking films and badly damaged ones on the same tape… I estimate that only between twenty to thirty per cent of the tapes have degraded, which is not so bad, but I suspect that ultimately they all will — even though some might survive until after my passing away. I don’t know about burned DVDs but I would be surprised if there wasn’t a point in time when they too deteriorate. Nothing is eternal.

  • Rich Deming

    “… will make it clear to them that this huge volume of material (sorry, Rick Deming, but there are many more movies in the vaults than were ever released to VHS — forget about DVD and Blu-ray) forms a very important part of our cultural heritage that can and must remain accessible to the widest group possible, and not just professionals and filesharers.”

    Dave,

    Forgive me for cutting your sentence but if we start going in on the Millennium Copyright Act we might then discuss watching movies on cellphones and the whole topic going into a sea of mush. With the goal of a wide release of movies a given we all want, your article instead waxed poetic about “revival houses” that barely made a dent in audiences seeing largely unknown film when they weren’t showing twin bills of Casablanca/It Happened One Night or other films that helped pay the bills. And just because films may be in the vault and never released to video, doesn’t make the case that prints of the film were actively distributed in the early 80′s. Seems to me that to talk about wide availability of movies and to ignore the millions of us that recorded these gems over the years seems to be only sharing the story that fits the message.

  • Peter Henne

    Brad, Dave’s article this week informs us that the cost for making a film available for digital streaming, without restoration work, is no more than $600. I assume that cost falls to the rights holders, who can offer streaming a film any number of ways. It seems like a reasonable investment to make for many feature films, and a cinch for any directed by a major auteur like Naruse. A rights holder could make that much just from the pool of people which visits this web site.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, Dave’s article this week informs us that the cost for making a film available for digital streaming, without restoration work, is no more than $600. I assume that cost falls to the rights holders, who can offer streaming a film any number of ways. It seems like a reasonable investment to make for many feature films, and a cinch for any directed by a major auteur like Naruse. A rights holder could make that much just from the pool of people which visits this web site.”

    I’m not so sure that’s the case. Simply creating subtitles for these films would probably cost twice that amount. Unless, of course, you can find idiots like us, who might be willing to do the work for free…but then you’re back to an argument that supports free filesharing as the best solution for making these films available.

    Jean-Pierre: “Sometimes there are both perfectly good-looking films and badly damaged ones on the same tape”

    My guess is that these tapes contain recordings made on two different VCRs, one of which was of inferior quality.

  • Peter Henne

    Thanks for your reply, Brad. I wanted to add that it sounds like the subtitles already made for these covert files weren’t copyrighted. If that’s true, they’re available to obtain by the rights holders from the public domain.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Thanks for your reply, Brad. I wanted to add that it sounds like the subtitles already made for these covert files weren’t copyrighted. If that’s true, they’re available to obtain by the rights holders from the public domain.”

    So capitalists stealing material from filesharers is acceptable, but filesharers stealing material from capitalists isn’t?

  • Peter Henne

    Seems like fair turnabout, since the filesharers made the original theft.

  • Brad Stevens

    Peter – As I see it, it’s the copyright holders who made the original theft – by denying the public access to films whose rights they controlled. In any case, you may be right in saying that it would make financial sense for rights owners to make these films available online – but I’d be surprised if anybody here plans to hold their breath waiting for this to happen.

  • Rich, I’m assuming you’re a bit younger than I am and only experienced revival houses in their second wave, cappucino and biscotti incarnation, as administered by the Landmark Corp and so on. When I was in college in Chicago, we had the Clark, the Parkway, the Star and Garter and a number of unpredictable neighborhood theaters that ran pretty much anything that was sitting around the local exchange and was available for a two figure rental. I remember one magnificent double bill at the old, pre-rehabbed Biograph that consisted of John Ford’s “The Sun Shines Bright” and Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.” Now, those local exchanges no longer exist and those prints have long since been junked. But it’s really the 16-millimeter libraries that I miss. You could have a level of programming at a college film society that is now only possible at major archives, and is becoming increasingly expensive even for them.

    You sound personally offended about something I said, but I’m really not sure what it could be. I think it’s wonderful that you have a large personal collection of films you recorded off the air. Please share them with the rest of us (legally, of course).

    Brad, just keep on publicizing those filesharing sites, and we’ll see how long it takes for the MPAA to shut them down. A line from David Fincher’s “Fight Club” comes to mind here . . .

  • Brad Stevens

    Dave – Perhaps I misunderstood you. I thought you had some kind of moral problem with the activities I was describing. But if you simply meant that filesharing sites should maintain a low profile so that they can keep on doing what we presumably agree is important work, well fine.

  • D. K. Holm

    There are also the interesting facets of how the viewer’s relationship to the movie and the medium are altered by the new ways of watching movies. Indeed, by the multitude of choices. In the 1950s, suddenly there were two choices, big movies and little black and white TV screens. Now there are screens of different sizes and clarity, portable replay devices, and so forth, all part of an image overload. The viewer’s relationship to the film changes – she is in control of its stopping and starting, its size on the screen, how many images to view at the same time. The non-stop unspooling of an oversized image put the viewer in the hands of the filmmakers. Now the film is more of a commodity than ever, from the business end of things anyway, something that one can fast-forward through to consume quickly, like skimming a magazine article. Is “the male gaze” enhanced or diluted by viewing Shanghai Express or Mudhoney on one’s cell phone? Is it easier or harder for me to “suture” myself into Suture if I can stop and start it, and watch it over the course of several days at my leisure? I have friends who watch movies in pieces, like chapters of a book, and they seem to retain the continuity of the presentation, of the experience.

    Just thinking out loud: Did commercials and rock videos, for example, really change the way movies tell their stories? The new medium or form of transmission created its own narrative structures or shortcuts of presentation, of course. But these days, the 30 seconds of a television commercial presents its “narrative” with much greater clarity than equivalent parts of many busy-bee Hollywood blockbusters. Music videos married sound to image in a way that most movies still haven’t mostly caught up with, with all their tuneless, seesawing orchestral scores. The changes in moviemaking effected by commercials and videos might more be in the realm of catering to impatience, of a higher standard of clarity, of the viewer’s sense of “control” over the image and narrative. This doesn’t make much sense but there is the germ of some kind of an idea there.

    One way that the new technologies and different modes of access might be affecting movies might be seen in films such as The Last Broadcast, Blair Witch, the Paranormal films, and the forthcoming Apollo 18, which viewers seem to find scary because they look like found footage.

    As usual, I am only adding these thoughts in order to click the “Notify me” box.

  • nicolas saada

    I just watched BADGE 373 on VHS because it’s the only way for me to see it in Europe as i can’t watch it on amazeon.com’s site (same with the warnerarchive). I still have vhs of films taped from TV that look much better than bootleg dvd’s or horrid releases from Alpha. Is VHS becoming the vinyl of video ? has anyone read Pip Chodorov’s interview on the merits of VHS against dvd?

    here is an extract in French for those who can read it (sorry dave)

    Vous prônez toujours la VHS contre le DVD ?
    Le Mpeg 2 n’est pas satisfaisant. Les algorithmes ne sont pas conçus pour les images non-naturelles et non-prévisibles. Quand une voiture passe ou que quelqu’un parle, il n’y a pas de problèmes. Mais quand c’est de l’image peinte ou gravée à la main, quand c’est un film où chaque image est différente des autres, les détails sautent.

    Chodorov praises BLU Ray but complains about the flatness of DVD in regard of watching experimental films. He may have a case, there.

  • nicolas saada

    by the way, the VHS of BADGE 373 looked terrible. But it’s a very entertaining film !

  • Michael Worrall

    Rich wrote:

    “As to your point about “many” 35MM films made available to the early-80′s art houses that never made it to video, I would kindly suggest that your definition of “video” or “available” is too constricting. They are out there. In fact, I doubt that you could name 10 titles available on 35MM to the movie house circuit in the early 80′s, that I can’t get my hands on.”

    Rich, are you familiar with New Yorker Films?

  • Regarding streaming, almost all the films on iTunes are also available to buy/download, some even in HD – I prefer a physical copy, but it’s an option for the future.

  • Dave: As I’ve mentioned in other threads, I’ve followed this issue quite closely, and I thought your NYT piece was quite thorough and accurate. I’m looking forward to seeing how you tackle the wild west of streaming video in your column.

    As I’ve also said before, I think your nostalgia for the 16mm rental days is slightly myopic, just because access to that circuit was so much more proscribed than access to home video. (And when you add in everything that has ever been shown on cable in the VHS era, and thus might exist in someone’s private library, I do think that figure would be larger than the catalog of 16mm rental prints in its heyday … even though, of course, there are films that would’ve been available in one arena but not in the other).

    Kalitta: Yes, the party is over, at least with regard to Netflix and physical media, unless there’s a backlash from mainstream customers who begin to notice how much isn’t available to stream yet. At the moment Netflix claims to stock new catalog releases that it has passed over if enough users add it to their “Saved” queue. So (and pardon the caps, but it’s important) PLEASE SAVE IT TO YOUR NETFLIX QUEUE if you see something in Dave’s column, or anywhere else in the new DVD/Blu-ray world, that Netflix has not made available.

    Vivian: A lot of the VHS recordings I made 20+ years ago are still in reasonably good shape and can be transferred successfully to a digital format, mainly because I had enough sense and enough dough to purchase high-quality tape stock. However, when I went back to write something about a particular director a couple of years ago and rented VHS tapes of the relevant films that weren’t on DVD, I came home with several un-trackable cassettes … because the studios were so cheap that they used crummy tape.

  • Michael Worrall

    Stephen wrote:

    “And when you add in everything that has ever been shown on cable in the VHS era, and thus might exist in someone’s private library, I do think that figure would be larger than the catalog of 16mm rental prints in its heyday.”

    Is this just in regard to Hollywood films, or including independent, avant-garde, and/or foreign films? How many cable channels aired DEATH BY HANGING or THE GREAT BLONDINO? I believe that the gap between what was available in one arena but not in another is a bit wider than you say it was. At least you acknowledge lack of availability, whereas Rich asserts that everything is within his grasp.

  • Brad & Dave: Sidestepping BOTH the moral and legal issues of filesharing for the moment, one issue I have is that it will require me to learn a whole new skill set (how do I download these files safely? how do I convert them to a format that will play on my HDTV? how do I pair custom subs with commercial DVDs?), and a whole new set of sources (where do I go for DVD-quality files rather than super-compressed sludge? how do I find “dolphin-safe” sources that excavate unavailable rarities, and avoid supporting profit-seeking copyright pirates?) After two decades of learning VCR programming, several cities’ worth of video store inventories, cable schedules, crazy private collectors, Ebay, Ioffer, DVD purchasing from something like 20 countries, etc., etc., etc., I’m not adjusting well at all to the fact that most of that accumulated knowledge is obsolete, and I’m now a “noob” again.

    Along the same lines, streaming is perplexing to me because it requires competence on the part of the streaming provider; on the part of my ISP; and on my own part. I have no control over the former, partial control over the second, and of course yet another set of new internet skills to learn on my end.

    I recently bought a device that will port Netflix streaming into my plasma TV (victory!) and found to start with, via the invaluable site instantwatcher.net, an inventory of movies I can’t see via physical media (of particular interest, a good catalog of obscure UA and AIP titles, viewable in HD masters created for the MGM HD channel). Then the question is, why do so many of my selections fail the QC? Why can I see the fuzz on Portia de Rossi’s face while streaming BETTER OFF TED, but a lot of sub-DVD digital murk in DOLLHOUSE? (Both in “HD,” according to Netflix.) Why does the streaming master for FANFARE FOR A DEATH SCENE start to stutter exactly at the 18-minute mark every time I try it — is the master flawed, or is my internet connection being overloaded? Where do I find these answers? It’s a lot more complicated than looking up a few tech reviews and deciding whether a DVD transfer is any good.

    I’ve had a few good experiences thru streaming video that I wouldn’t have had via physical media, but boy, it sure seems like a lot more work to get there.

  • Rob Leith

    I enjoyed the NYT article. I’m surprised, though, by Dave’s conservative figure for the number of John Ford features. I myself have seen 75 of them (including three documentaries but not including the television work), and I count another eight surviving works that I have not been able to see. Such a number only further highlights how inadequate Netflix and other outlets currently are. Of course, many films never made it to videocasette, and some have not been available on 16mm for years. I am an irregular reader of this site, but have you or your readers ever compiled a list of the most important films that seem lost in limbo due to contested rights, movies like Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson? Then there is the next category, films that were once readily available on 16mm and then videocasette that have never appeared on (Region 1) DVD, like The Magnificent Ambersons, Shanghai Express, and Letter from an Unknown Woman, to name three prominent examples.

  • Brian Dauth

    I am grateful that D.K. added some thoughts (if only to click the box), since what he posts about is of great interest to me: “the interesting facets of how the viewer’s relationship to the movie and the medium are altered by the new ways of watching movies.” Over the past few years I have been going to Jersey City to watch movies from the Classical Hollywood period shown at an old movie palace. Even when the film is one I know well, seen on a screen larger than the ones I usually watch mnovies on, it conveys to me a different aesthetic experience. How will these new relationships affect criticism? Will some filmic elements that are less powerful on a big screen assume greater importance when seen on a small screen in one’s home or palm? In reverse: will some elements lose significance with the shrinkage and portability of screens? As I once asked on a_film_by: will cinephiles one day mourn the passing of the last person to see THE SEARCHERS properly projected?

  • Michael Worrall

    BTW: Does anyone here believe that a copy of a film on VHS would be as good as, or even surpass, a decent to good 16mm print of the film in its proper ratio?