A couple of weeks ago, William Becker died of kidney failure in Southhampton, N.Y., at age 88. Becker was a theater critic and financier who co-acquired Janus Films, the distribution company that brought many classic films by iconic foreign filmmakers to American art houses, in 1965.
He was also integral in bringing those films to home video as one of the chief executives at the video-distribution company, the Criterion Collection. Criterion would eventually become a trailblazer in including bonus features on its releases – first on laserdisc, then on DVD – in order to enhance the at-home viewing experience. The company introduced features like showing widescreen films in their correct aspect ratio (via the letterbox format), along with bells and whistles like commentary tracks, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, etc. Thanks to Criterion, once DVDs became all the rage in the late ’90s and the early aughts, practically all DVD releases included special features.
Becker’s passing had me thinking about the state of home-video entertainment these days, particularly how the DVD is currently holding up. According to data released at the top of the year from the Digital Entertainment Group, it’s not holding up very well.
In 2014, DVD and Blu-ray sales fell 10.9 percent to $6.93 billion (in 2013, there was an 8.1 percent drop). Subscription disc rentals were down 18.3 percent to $829.7 million, while rentals from stores fell 27.1 percent to $696.4 million. There was also a drop in kiosk rentals, amounting to $1.81 billion but off 4.4 percent.
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Truth be told, the DVD has been on the wane for more than a decade, since the market for physical video peaked in 2004. Of course, over the past 10 years, Netflix, Amazon and others have gone on to provide streaming-video services for people who prefer to watch movies and TV shows without having to leave the house to buy anything.
DVDs aren’t on the way out just yet – they’re still a source of entertainment for consumers all over the globe. But while video-on-demand has made acquiring movies a lot easier, it has also made me feel a bit, shall we say, nostalgic. I remember 15-16 years ago when I brought my first DVD player and immediately rented a couple of DVDs at Blockbuster (“Boogie Nights” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” in case you were wondering), just so I could not only watch the movie in its widescreen format – aka THE WAY GOD INTENDED IT! – but peruse through all the special features and listen to the director/cast commentary tracks. For a budding cinephile, it felt like I was getting the ins-and-outs of how the movies were made, and how movies are usually made in general. Needless to say, I would soon start picking up Criterion releases, which I still have stacks of in my abode to this day.
But with the exception of iTunes, which equips many of the movies they release with additional extras, many video-on-demand services do not offer bonus features for their releases. Even Critierion, which practically has its entire catalog ready for viewing on Hulu, doesn’t include the bells and whistles for their respective films. In a way, we’ve gone back to watching films the same way we (or your parents and grandparents) did when films came out on videotape. Yeah, remember those clunky things?
I recently spoke with N.C. State University film studies professor (and avid Criterion collector) Marsha Gordon about the rise of video-on-demand and the decline of the DVD. Much like all these hipsters out there buying vinyl LPs, Gordon says there will always be purists who will opt for DVDs.
“Yes, DVDs are in less demand than they were prior to streaming, and there are some people who could care less about if they have the ability to play something any time they want to – Internet connection or not,” says Gordon. “And others are happy to watch a feature on their tiny smartphones. But others will want an object they can own to accompany the virtual image, and will also appreciate a quality image and a curated collection. Criterion has carved a nice niche for themselves in this arena.”
So, while many of you youngsters hit your laptops, mobile devices and smart TVs for the latest new releases, some of us old fogies will continue to get up and leave the house once in a while, just so we can get a little something extra in our home entertainment. William Becker would’ve wanted it that way.