Now then… today’s commentary was prompted by an interesting confluence of events. I was invited yesterday to join my friends Mark A. Altman (author, producer, and occasional Bits contributor), Daren Dochterman (artist, illustrator, production designer, and VFX guru), and Robert Meyer Burnett (producer, director, and special features creator) at Dean Devlin’s Electric Studios in Los Angeles to record a great discussion on the Inglorious Treksperts podcast. As a bonus, I got to meet actor Walter Koenig (The Original Series’ Chekov) and listen to a fascination conversation with him as well. Here we are during the recording:
Now, if you’re a Trek fan and you haven’t listened to Inglorious Treksperts, I can’t recommend it more highly. Mark and Daren’s expertise on not just Trek, but genre media, and the entertainment industry as a whole is unmatched. And the podcast is damned entertaining. You WILL learn something and enjoy every minute of it.
The topic of the discussion I participated in was the history of Star Trek on home video. And in preparing for the episode, it very quickly occurred to me that the history of Trek on home video is really the history of the home video industry itself. Episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series were among the first titles ever released on VHS all the way back in 1980. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was one of the early films released on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, and RCA’s CED video disc all the way back in 1981. Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home was among the first films released in widescreen on VHS back in 1992. You can go on and on, with each new home video format… and of course we do in our discussion, which will be available for listening online in the weeks ahead. (As soon as it’s officially scheduled, I’ll let you all know here – in the meantime, definitely make sure you subscribe to the Inglorious Treksperts on iTunes and wherever you find your favorite podcasts. New episodes debut every Sunday night.)
Of course, now we’ve reached the era of 4K Ultra HD and digital streaming… and there are exactly ZERO classic Star Trek films available on physical 4K (though you can get the Abrams films). You might recall how we revealed that a brand new 4K/HDR master was created for the recent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Director’s Cut. Yeah… it’s been quietly dumped in 4K on iTunes only by Paramount. Which is shocking, disheartening, and depressing… though probably not surprising at this point.
Now… even as we were discussing the topic of home video yesterday, CES 2019 was underway in Las Vegas. What are the big announcements at the show, you might be wondering? Well… this year appears to be the big coming out party for Artificial Intelligence, which is being rapidly introduced into just about every electronic product you can imagine. The major display manufacturers are very excited to sell you a new 8K TV… yes, 8K… despite the fact that there is virtually no 8K content available, not to mention the fact that consumers are only just starting to embrace 4K displays (regardless of whether they’re actually watching 4K content on them). IMAX Enhanced was very widely promoted at the show this year, which is a joint venture of IMAX and DTS to improve the A/V quality of filmed content. So what’s the big innovation of IMAX Enhanced, you might be wondering? DVNR. No, I’m not kidding. They apply Digital Video Noise Reduction to IMAX imagery, which seems like an oxymoron, to create the “cleanest and sharpest” possible image.
What else was announced at CES 2019? Tons of great new Blu-ray and 4K players, right? Nope. Just three major brand models. THREE. Specifically, only Sony and Panasonic revealed new physical media player models at the convention this year. There’s the Panasonic DP-UB450, which supports HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR, offers bitstream out (for DTS:X and Atmos), and can drive a Dolby Atmos soundbar. There’s also the Panasonic DP-U150, which also supports HDR10+ and Dolby Vision and can pass DTS:X and Dolby Atmos. And there’s the Sony X800M2, which supports HDR10 (but not HDR10+) and Dolby Vision, will pass both DTS: X and Dolby Atmos (bitstream out), and will also play SACD and DVD-Audio discs. All of them also play a wide variety of video and audio media files, etc.
Then there’s the annual DEG (Digital Entertainment Group) mixer that happens every year at CES. It’s an invitation only event, which is always a great time, and a great place to talk and network with a who’s who of senior studio and CE manufacturing executives, other industry reporters, and the like. This is where the DEG reports yearly sales stats, hands out awards for the best hardware and software content (I’m one of the judges every year), and generally crows about the latest home video formats and hardware. It’s also famous among attendees for an amazing swag bag given to everyone as they leave… a bag that in past years has been stuffed with Blu-ray and DVD titles and other branded promotional items. In recent years, though, the number of physical titles has declined dramatically, supplemented with paper codes for Digital copies of films instead. But this year’s bag? I’m told by an old friend that it included one Mill Creek 4K title and a branded speaker for your laptop or computer. No other discs, no codes. And that’s just about the perfect indicator of the state of the home video industry circa early 2019, at least as far as the major studios are concerned.
I didn’t go to CES this year, nor did I go last year. The reason I didn’t is because I went to CES 2017… and it was just depressing. And I knew it would only be more so this year. I’m not alone in this. Most of my peers, longtime friends who do what I do – covering the topic of 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and home theater for various magazines, online publications, and blogs – didn’t go this year either. There’s no point anymore. You can see everything that’s important to see online in about five minutes.
And that is the state of the home video industry at the moment. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment barely exits anymore, and after a great start with catalog 4K they seem to be losing interest in the format. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment now exists in name only (though at least they are continuing to release some good catalog titles on 4K). New Line and MGM exist in name only. Having just been purchased by Disney, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is soon to be absorbed into the House of Mouse at the cost of a lot of good people likely losing their jobs. We’re down to just one major replicator of physical media discs in all of North America now (down from six at the height of DVD and Blu-ray). Street dates are getting pushed and delayed. Some titles are hard to find on Amazon and local store shelves. When discs do get produced, there are more authoring and mastering errors (and complaining about these rarely does any good anymore). Titles like Disney’s animated The Lion King are getting quietly released on 4K without so much as a press release. Beloved manufacturer OPPO Digital has stopped making players. It’s a very strange time.
Now, I’ve spoken often here about why physical media is superior to digital streaming and what might be lost and overlooked in an all digital world. I certainly don’t dislike – nor am I against – streaming in any way, and I do indeed watch and enjoy plenty of content via Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. I’ll discuss the subject again, I’m sure.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad. There is still a ton of great film and TV content being produced – in some ways more than ever before. Lionsgate and Universal are still kicking ass with physical releases in 4K. Disney is releasing more new and catalog 4K (though their releases seem to be mixed first for streaming 4K than physical). There are MANY great indie studios carrying the torch and keeping the faith with physical media: Shout! Factory, Scream Factory, Criterion, Twilight Time, Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Arrow, Indicator/Powerhouse, Blue Underground, Vinegar Syndrome, Cohen, GKids, FUNimation, the Warner Archive, Umbrella Entertainment, Mill Creek, MVD, Synapse, BFI, La-La Land, Severin Films, and on and on. My advice to all of you is to keep supporting these companies in every way you can. As long as you keep buying their product, they’ll keep producing it. But their margins are tight and I fear that some will fold in the next few years. So do everything you can to keep them going, folks. I’m serious. Now’s the time to put your money where your passion is when it comes to physical media.
What does this mean for The Digital Bits? NOTHING.
Goddamn it, we’re going to keep on keeping on for as long as you’ll read us and as long as we can afford to. You know, there’s a reason I didn’t name the site DVD-something or BD-something back in 1997. I first started The Bits not just to review discs, but to share my passion for film with as many people as I could. Growing up in rural North Dakota, I had no access to arthouse or international cinema. The only films I saw were the ones that came to the local theater or appeared on early HBO or Cinemax. So when I eventually went to college to study the subject, a whole new world of cinema opened up to me. I went from watching Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and Meatballs to the films of Kurosawa, Ozu, Eisenstein, Godard, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Fellini, Leone, Bergman, Renoir, Melville, Lang, Wilder, and on and on. A decade later, with the advent of videodiscs and Amazon, almost literally any film you wanted to see from anywhere in the world was just a mouse click and two days away in the mail. Here at The Bits, we intend to keep sharing our love of film with anyone who’s receptive to it. So we hope you’ll all stick with us. One way or another, the years ahead are going to be interesting.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned…!