Well, we've lived with the Paramount Archive for about three months now and it's probably a good time to take stock. First of all, who would have believed me if I'd suggested a year ago that we could get laserdiscs manufactured on demand (that's MOD for those acronym-inclined) for those more obscure catalog titles that so many of us had despaired of ever seeing on our favorite home video medium. Of course if I had suggested it, I probably would have expected Paramount to be the most likely studio to come up with the concept. After all, they have the biggest catalogue (especially now that they've repatriated all their pre-1950 titles from Universal and found that archive comprising copies of their entire silent film roster that had been secretly maintained on their back lot by a far-seeing former employee) and they've always been the most prolific among the studios in putting classic titles out on laserdisc and VHS.
Now if you've been reading The Analog Bits lately, you'll have noticed that I've already reviewed a couple of the Paramount Archive releases – the first Henry Aldrich film, What a Life (1939) and that early Gary Cooper film, City Streets (1931). As I noted, neither has received any restoration so they look a little rough compared to other classic titles that Paramount has lavished attention on for impressive retail laserdisc release. Aside from a trailer accompanying the City Streets release, neither offers the impressive sets of supplementary material for which the studio's retail laserdiscs are famous. Yet, I gave both MOD laserdiscs a recommendation, first of all because I'm not convinced we'd ever see them made available as standard retail laserdiscs or even VHS, and secondly because the studio promises to give Archive buyers some compensation to upgrade should they ever restore previously-released Archive titles such as these in future.
So you can see that I'm sort of feeling favourable towards this new MOD initiative, but I recognize that classic enthusiasts do have concerns.
The first one is the fact that these MOD laserdiscs are single-sided CLV ones only. The factory that prepares the discs doesn't have the capability to manufacture either the double-sided CLVs that are the norm for retail laserdisc releases or the prized CAV discs that the most high profile retail releases get. Single-sided CLVs means you need at least two of them for most films and the fact that the MOD discs are being shipped in their cardboard cases without paper sleeves or even those flimsy plastic ones that some studios are starting to use means that scratching is virtually certain.
And speaking of the cardboard cases with the great artwork we've come to expect from retail laserdisc, why has Paramount dropped all such artwork in favour of a generic picture of the Paramount mountain on the front of all MOD cases? You'd think it would be easy enough to put original poster art on them.
Now the second issue is availability and price of the MOD discs. At first you could only order the MOD releases by phoning the Paramount studio store in Hollywood, and they'd only accept calls from within the continental U.S. and ship the discs to U.S. addresses. If you were Canadian or from abroad, you were out of luck entirely. That has changed somewhat. Paramount has given Ken Crane's on the west coast and Laser Craze on the east the right to take orders now and both will ship outside the U.S. Even better for Canadians, Sam the Record Man in Toronto has been accorded the same right. As for price, Paramount wants $80 for each title, which is pretty steep considering we're only paying a very reasonable $40-50 for a retail CLV laserdisc release at present (and one that usually has some pretty good extras on it, compared to the bare-bones or trailer only MOD discs).
But the real issue for MOD laserdiscs is longevity. We all know that retail laserdiscs will last forever. After all they're manufactured in plants where state of the art equipment ensures perfect bonding and exterior coatings that prevent the most minute entrapment of anything that might lead to future deterioration of the disc and thus compromise of the film image that is delivered. MOD laserdiscs are an unknown, however. We know nothing about the process being used by Paramount beyond their assurance that it's a high quality industrial one that far exceeds anything an individual could manage at home. Well I should hope so! The only way we'll know for sure will be by allowing time to pass and checking discs to see if they continue to stand up. Personally, I'm prepared to be convinced, but I do fear that there will be production compromises that will lead to future deterioration. Hopefully a year or two from now, we won't be discussing such an eventuality – something that we'll perhaps be calling "laser rot".
Well, those are the MOD laserdisc concerns that hopefully time will resolve. In the meantime, there is an upside. Maybe all those great Paramount titles that we've been looking for, some previously only on VHS, some never available to the home market at all, will materialize. After all, we've all wanted the entire Aldrich Family series, or box sets of Alan Ladd or Ray Milland, for example. MOD laserdiscs may be the only way we'll get them. And if the MOD idea really takes off, perhaps we'll see the other studios join in. After all, who wouldn't want to see Warner Bros., which has been notoriously bad at putting out classic titles, start finally to delve deeply into its catalog. Maybe then we'd be able to see such long-sought items as the complete run of Dick Foran B westerns.
The Analog Bits