Though DVD sales are down, current movies are still guaranteed a DVD release. But for anything made earlier, collectors may be out of luck. Most of the studios have trimmed their schedule of classic movies on DVD to almost nothing; 20th Century Fox recently eliminated its Fox Classics website after cancelling plans for unreleased classics like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Even the prestigious Criterion Collection has cut back the number of classic foreign movies it releases, and brought out a much-derided current film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to make extra money. George Feltenstein, a senior vice-president at Warner Home Video (which still has some classics scheduled), says that “most of the studios have pretty much said ‘Screw it, we’re out of here, we’re not going to do this.’ ”
Even before the recession, studios had to cut back due to the closing of many retail chains that used to stock their products; Feltenstein says, “If the economy of the world had not deteriorated, our release schedule would still be less than it was.” But older movies are particularly vulnerable because the cost of restoration is growing, and their fan base is shrinking. It used to be that TV broadcasting built a market for old movies; Humphrey Bogart became a cult figure after his death, thanks to TV. But today, the only station that shows old films is Turner Classic Movies. And DVDs can’t sell based on the purchasing power of TCM viewers alone.
Because classics are a niche market, they were the first to go when chain stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy decided which movies they wouldn’t stock; Feltenstein says that many chain-store buyers “think an old classic movie is The Silence of the Lambs.” And though the high-definition DVD format, Blu-Ray, is seen by some observers as a possible saviour of home video, it actually is making things worse for classics. Warner released a few popular titles in the format (including Casablanca) and found that, according to Feltenstein, “classics are having a tough time on Blu-Ray. New films do great, but people don’t know how great old movies can look in this format.” Warner will try again later this year with Blu-Rays of titles like Gone With the Wind and North By Northwest, but for now, Blu-Ray is another thing to squeeze old movies off the limited shelf space in stores.
It’s not as if studios have simply run out of movies worth releasing. Many of the greatest movies of the ’30s through the ’50s are unavailable on North American DVD, like Leo McCarey’s comedy Ruggles of Red Gap starring Charles Laughton, or Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels with Rock Hudson, often considered the best adaptation of a William Faulkner novel. But such titles don’t have the name recognition that would win them a spot on Best Buy shelves. And during the DVD boom years, some studios may have made matters worse by spending lots of money to release movies that were old, but not classic. A “Joan Collins Collection” featured several movies the Dynasty star had made for Fox in the ’50s, offering mostly mediocre films for a high price. Feltenstein thinks that “irresponsible releases” contributed to the collapse of the market: such discs “did terribly and caused the retailers to return the product.”
With stores turning them away, old movies may need to find a home online. Warner Brothers recently unveiled the “Warner Archive,” an Internet catalogue allowing U.S. movie fans (not Canadians, yet) to order burn-on-demand DVDs of obscure titles starring the likes of Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Cary Grant. The discs and transfers are not always up to the highest standards, but they offer important films that stores wouldn’t stock, like The Shopworn Angel and Three Comrades, two romantic dramas by cult director Frank Borzage and almost-forgotten movie star Margaret Sullavan.
If this idea is imitated by other studios, classic movie releases won’t be as great-looking as they used to be; Feltenstein says that while the response to the archive “has been extraordinarily positive,” there are some complaints from fans who have been trained by DVD to “want everything now, and everything in the best possible quality.” Still, most movie lovers seem like they’ll be happy to get these films in any form. The writer of the popular movie blog Self-Styled Siren approves of the archive idea, because the most important thing is to keep old films in circulation. “These movies can’t live for a general audience,” she says, “if they’re circulating like rare baseball cards.”