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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

It's A MOD, MOD, MOD, MOD World

Thanks in part to the ongoing JET's Most Wanted feature on Facebook, I've sort of been tagged as the Bits' resident advocate (or apologist, depending on your position) for manufactured-on-demand (MOD) discs. It's no secret that when the Warner Archive collection was first announced, I thought it was a tremendously cool, innovative idea. Still do, for that matter. Now that Sony, MGM and Universal have all jumped on the bandwagon, I think it's fair to say that MOD is here to stay, whether you like it or not.

Obviously, quite a few of you don't. I understand where the frustration is coming from. MOD programs began cropping up right around the time Blu-ray was taking off. So in some respects, it seems like a gigantic stride backwards. We suffered through a whole decade with these lousy standard-def DVDs before the promised land of high-def appeared like a glittering oasis before our parched eyeballs. We'd been told that from now on, everything would be gleaming, new, interactive and probably jet-propelled. Oh and by the way, all those kinda obscure movies you've been patiently waiting for on disc? Here they are, too. On DVD-R, suckers. Hope you choke on 'em.

"DVD-R?!! I bought a copy of Tron 2 on DVD-R from some guy downtown last Christmas? Both he and the disc smelled like bad cheese and the movie looked like crap! I'm not putting THAT in my home entertainment system. Where are those Blu-ray discs you promised us?"

OK, hang on a sec, Cochise. For one thing, it's not like the studios are going down to Try 'N Save and buying 100 DVD-Rs for $4.99 and having some intern burn these on a laptop. The discs that I've looked at from Warner and Sony (admittedly, I haven't sampled MGM or Universal yet, but I'd be surprised if they're significantly different) have been perfectly fine, some better than others but none of them unacceptable. At best, they're just as good as any store-bought DVD I own. Are they as good as Blu-ray? Of course not, don't be crazy. But look, I've said it before and I'll say it again, not every movie will be or even needs to be released on Blu-ray. Most of the titles in these MOD programs are pretty old and relatively obscure. If they came out on Blu, we'd be hearing people complaining about how awful they looked. Because nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, is going to go to the time and expense of giving Jabberjaw: The Complete Series the care it would take to make it truly sparkle in high-def.

"Well, yeah but I don't even want it on Blu. I just want good catalog titles on DVD. Studios were releasing all sorts of weird titles for awhile. I know they're making a profit on them."

Well, sure... for a while. Times have changed, my friends. Every single home entertainment division of a major studio has suffered dramatic cutbacks and layoffs over the past few years. The gravy train that once was DVD is now officially out of gravy. These discs, whether they're packed with bonuses or not, cost money to produce. It costs money to manufacture them, to distribute them, even to do something as basic as design a custom menu for them. It all adds up. And if they do release something, where are they going to sell it? Circuit City's gone. Tower's gone. Virgin's gone. The other brick-and-mortars have had to cut back on what they stock, partly because they've been taking a bath on a lot of these titles but also because they have a finite amount of floor space which now has to be shared with your beloved Blu-rays. If they have Big Lots where you live, have you ever scored a really awesome DVD for $3? I have. Every time you do, that's the studios taking a loss, because every disc in Big Lots is an overstock from someplace else. I'm not saying you should cry salty tears for the studios. They'll be just fine. But it does go a long way toward explaining why maybe they're not all that interested in plumbing the depths of their catalogs anymore.

Well, what about licensing? If the majors don't want to do anything with these titles, there are plenty of other people who might. That's true and I'm all in favor of this kind of release. But that's not really how the business works. It's not as if independent labels can just waltz in and pick and choose the titles they'd like. Typically, a package deal is formed that includes a handful of good picks and a whole lot of duds. And remember what I said before about how much these releases cost? The little guys have a whole lot less money to play with than the big kids. So it's unreasonable to expect that Blue Underground or Severin or even Criterion can plop down X amount of dollars just for the license, then keep throwing money at restoration, production of extra features, manufacturing costs, and whatever else.

So hey, is it too bad that we live in a world where the only way I can get DreamChild on DVD is to specially order a DVD-R through Amazon? Damn straight it is. Am I happy to get it anyway I can? Hell, yes. Now I'm not saying that the studios' MOD programs are perfect. Far from it. So far, I've just been trying to persuade the dissenters to embrace the concept. But the rest of this column is directed at the studios themselves. MOD is a fantastic idea and I'm glad so many of you are embracing it (Paramount... oh, Paramount? Come out to play-yay!!). But it still needs help. And with all due modesty, here are my proposals to help the studios make MOD a viable format.

1. Lower Your F@*%ing Prices

Sorry for the use of cartoon swear symbols there. I don't usually believe in them but since that's gonna be in bold, I thought I'd better be careful. Warner Archive is slightly ahead of the curve on this one. They frequently hold sales and just about everything I've bought from them has been during one of their five for $50 sales. I can handle $10 a title. But between $20 and $30? If you want to start at that price, fine. But sooner or later, you've gotta drop 'em. If something's been available for over a year, drop it down to $15 or $10. If you can get a Blu-ray for ten dollars or less, there's no reason I can't get a DVD-R for the same price.

2. Fight The Future

Earlier I defended the quality of these discs and I stand by that. Every DVD-R I've played has been at least of acceptable quality and I haven't had any problems getting one to play. But there is legitimate concern over how long these discs will last. DVD-R isn't as durable a medium, so it's conceivable that one day the discs just won't work anymore. So to alleviate some of our concern, how about including a code to unlock a digital download of the film with each disc? That way, if the worst happens, we haven't lost everything. I think you'll find more people willing to take a risk on DVD-R if you just provide a little bit of insurance.

3. Tell People What You're Doing

Again, Warner is better than the rest on this score. You can subscribe to a mailing list that tells you when new titles are available, the site is well-designed and has a specific area for both new releases and pre-orders. Everybody else is a nightmare. Sony at least has its own dedicated site but they just toss everything together without letting fans know when they're releasing new titles. MGM and Universal are even worse. MGM's press releases keep saying their MOD titles are available through Amazon "and other online retailers" but does anybody know who those other online retailers are? And I'd assumed Universal had abandoned their MOD program until I started poking around and discovered several new releases, including Paul Newman's Sometimes A Great Notion. It's not like these movies are at the forefront of everybody's mind every day and they're constantly searching for them. Create a well-designed, dedicated site and update people! You will get fans, I promise.

4. Partner Up With Netflix

Or Hulu or somebody... I just said Netflix because I personally already have a Netflix account and I'm selfish. The fact is that most of the movies you guys are releasing have been out of circulation for years. There are dozens and dozens of titles that I'd love to see from all the studios... but I'm not sure I necessarily want to own them. At twenty bucks a pop, there's no way I'll check them out. Even at ten, I don't know that I need the clutter. But if I could just rent them, I definitely would. There are a handful of top-notch video stores left, like Seattle's Scarecrow Video, and if you're lucky enough to live in a town that has one, support it. But for the rest of us, we're out of options. If I stream something I like on Netflix, I'll definitely buy it. This is a win-win for you guys. You get money from Netflix, you get money from me. Everybody's happy!

5. If Something's Just Out Of Print, Don't Go The DVD-R Route

Many years ago, Anchor Bay released Paul Schrader's terrific Blue Collar on DVD. Perhaps you were lucky enough to snag a copy. Well, the Bay's license expired and the disc went out of print, so now if you want it, you've got no choice but to get Universal's DVD-R. That's just rude. Somebody else already expressed interest in it, you clearly don't want it, so just let 'em have it!

6. Don't Just Dump All Your Catalog Titles To MOD

Look, I get it. Eric Red's Cohen & Tate, even though it's a really good movie, probably isn't going to move a lot of units for MGM. Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin aren't exactly big draws at the Wal-Mart. But Richard Lester's How I Won The War? It's the only character appearance in a non-Beatles film by a guy named John Lennon. Perhaps you've heard of him. I think there might be just a little bit of interest in that. It's a weird little movie, I'll grant you, but you've got marketing people who can probably figure it out. There has to be a happy medium between MOD and full-blown DVD and you've got people already on the payroll who can help you strike that balance. Listen to them.

That's all I can think of at the moment but there may be more. The studios are embracing MOD and while there's room for improvement, you should too. The world is shifting into a weird place between ultra-high-def Blu-ray and ultra-whatever downloads. The promise of a world where every movie ever made is available at your fingertips is false. Physical media is still your best value for anyone who truly cares about these films. Ask anybody who has tried to see Looking For Mr. Goodbar over the past couple decades. I finally got to see it on Netflix Instant a few months back but don't go looking for it now, because it's vanished into The Cloud. Digital media needs to compliment physical media. Otherwise, studios can give and take at their own discretion. On disc, it's yours to enjoy when you please. Even if it's just a DVD-R.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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