Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Warner Bros. Launches DVD on Demand

By Steve Evans

Home Theatre took an evolutionary leap forward this week with the announcement that Warner Bros. will launch “on demand DVD,” allowing collectors to buy any of the studio’s 6,800 theatrical features not available on disc. A custom-made DVD with artwork would be mailed in about a week for $20.

Warner already offers thousands of films for viewing on demand via streaming video through the studio’s website to a movie fan’s computer, at prices starting under $2 per title. The studio since 2006 has offered View-On-Demand at $1.79 to $2.99 per title for a 24-hour rental. Download-To-Own services cost $10-$20 for newer films. Downloading allows unlimited viewing on two computers and one portable device, with a single DVD burn for backup.

The expansion of this concept to DVD product suggests Warner has found a way to compete with Netflix and other streaming services by selling film treasures directly to the public while booking all the profits. Custom-made discs also allow the studio to satisfy consumer demand for more obscure titles without the risks associated with mass-produced DVDs and competition for limited shelf space at retail stores. Only about 1,200 films in the Warner library (less than 20 percent of the movies in their vault) have been released on disc since the studio entered the DVD business in 1997.

“This news is going to make a lot of people really happy,” George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing at Warner Home Video, said this week.

The studio plans to release at least 20 classic films and TV shows each month, Feltenstein says. Collectors go to the Warner website, select titles and place orders. Digital downloads will also be available for $15 per title.

This brave new world of home entertainment represents the next logical step for the movie industry as it struggles to retain more revenue, cut down on piracy and compete more effectively.

Within five years, I believe film lovers will be able to buy a download of any film in existence and import the files for viewing directly into their high-def television sets, computers and personal digital devices. As digital storage becomes ever more affordable, collectors will be able to hold thousands of titles in a hard-drive component no bigger than a 7.1 amplifier.

While this would drastically reduce the amount of space needed to house the 3,000 films in my personal library, I would lament losing the aesthetic pleasure of taking a DVD off the shelf, reading the booklet of historical and contextual information about the film and placing the disc in the DVD tray – the little rituals that enhance my satisfaction when watching cinema. I harbor similar feelings about audio CDs and I especially miss vinyl records. The album sleeves included liner notes in readable type. There was the pleasant routine of using a DiscWasher brush to remove dust from the magical grooves on the vinyl, placing the tonearm over the platter and gently lowering it to produce that wonderful, warm sound. Yeah.

All of this is a roundabout way of posing the question: does life in the digital age create more convenience at the expense of causing us to lose some of the tactile pleasures associated with touching a DVD, a CD, or a vinyl record album?

There is a unique sensory pleasure in going to the video store or record shop and flipping through racks of music CDs, film DVDs, even musty, old LPs. This is why I do not own an iPod or MP3. I don’t like to think of my music – or my movies – as an assemblage of 1’s and 0’s.

On a darker note, I wonder if digital movies stored on a hard drive are just one more way for film studios to sell the same motion pictures over and over again. Some 20 years ago, I wore out two VHS copies of my favorite film, North by Northwest. A decade ago, I acquired the title on DVD. Now I am confronted with the opportnity to buy this Hitchcock classic again, on a Blu-Ray disc. In time, will I feel equal pressure to purchase a digital download just so I can see Eva Marie Saint charm & seduce Cary Grant on the train to Chicago one more time after my videotape and DVD collections have mouldered into dust? Sure, technological improvments bring incremental advances in picture and sound quality, but at what point can we say, definitively, that image and audio are good enough? How many times are consumers willing to buy the same film?

While I fancy the convenience of having 1,000 classic films in a storage device the size of a shoebox, I also really dig going into my home theater and seeing all those DVDs lined up and waiting on the shelves, organized by director and genre, in all their multi-colored glory. I will miss that at least as much as I will mourn the inevitable transition in movie theaters from celluloid-film to digital-video projectors. Yes, movie lovers can discern the difference.

Sometimes we might be wise to leave well enough alone.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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