Thursday, September 25, 2008

NOT FADE AWAY: DVD is Dead - Long Live DVD

I wanted to re-publish a page from a now extinct web site. This eulogy is around 13 months late. But with the advent of Blu-ray, not advent, but product re-launch as the winner of the HD disc format war, I find myself wondering how long this platform will last. Will it make serious inroads into home entertainment.

DVD in 1998 was a BIG LEAP for consumers. The discs were cheap to produce, they could be viewed in portable players and laptops, and the improvement in picture and quality from VHS tapes was immense. Initially, the purists and videophiles decried the new format...the image would look too "compressed" and "digital" compared to their beloved Laserdiscs. (remember them?).

The Zoetrope DVD lab mastered our first DVDs in 1999. Our first title was a not widely known cult film called Fando y Lis by the Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowski followed quickly by Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Tucker, The Man and His Dream and The Conversation.

By 2001, there were dozens of DVD review websites, fan sites...everyone writing on those sites was now an expert in image quality, sound quality, and the true "director's intention." Wine-tasting like adjectives began to proliferate in these earnest reviews "...the new transfer features rich burgundy reds...full enveloping Dolby sound with an edgy bite..." (I am not kidding.)

By 2002, $199 DVD no-name DVD players were available. And as the consumer economy continued to thrive despite the dot com bust, everyone was upgrading their aging 25" glass CRT televisions to 42" flat Plasmas or LCDs or even digital projectors.

Early HD adopters were trying out all kinds of early-adopter stuff: JVC had an HD "D-VHS format," and in the Summer of 2003, Cablevision launched their ill-fated VOOM HD satellite service which survived for less than 2 years, but programmed a vast range of films and other HD content to the few thousand subscribers that had signed up.

Meanwhile, a fierce ego-driven battle of titans kept a viable HD Disc from consumers: Sony and Pansonic were behind the eventual "winner" the Blu-ray Disc. Toshiba backed the loser, the HD-DVD. The movie studios changed alliances so many times it became impossible for consumers to choose one.

But in that interval, most consumers who had just spent $700 to $2,000 for their new large HD-capable screens found that by hooking them up to their plain old DVD players, movies looked pretty darn good. Without something to compare it to, their library of standard definition DVDs when presented on big wide-screen flat panels with scalers essentially LOOKED LIKE HD.

Back to where I started: here is a reprint of the last web issue of The DVD Journal from August of 2007:
Wednesday, 29 Aug. 2007

Dimming the lights: On August 26, 1997, Digital Video Disc made its unofficial debut, with Warner Home Video placing 61 titles in nationwide release after a six-month trial period in test markets. Sony's flagship DVD player at the time, the DVD-s7000, cost $1,000; entry-level models reached the marketplace several months later with price-tags around half that, which still wasn't cheap. The nascent format faced several challenges — not all Hollywood studios were on board with the new digital media, while video-rental chains would not clear out a portion of their VHS shelf-space for the shiny new discs. However, thanks to a passionate group of early adopters, home-video divisions at Warner and Sony, the release of movies on DVD without the traditional "rental window" applied to VHS, and retailers stocking discs at affordable prices, consumers began crossing the digital divide. Since then, DVD has changed not just the way we watch movies, but how we think about them.

It's hard to understate the impact that DVD has had on our movie-consuming culture. Just as a lot of us will someday (even today) explain to young people what the world was like before personal computers or the Internet, we have to make an effort to scan back to the mid-1990s, when the idea of feature-length movies on CD-sized discs was a holy grail of film collectors. Prior to 1997, the condition of feature films on home video was sorry indeed. VHS tapes offered poor transfers compared to today's viewing standards, while film collectors hoarded hard-to-find movies captured from rare, late-night TV screenings. At the time, Laserdisc was the cineaste's choice, although the format was expensive, unwieldy, and sometimes subject to degradation thanks to the infamous "laser rot" that plagued more than a few collections. Folks who didn't have Laserdisc players and deep pockets could purchase some movies on VHS with widescreen transfers, but they came at a premium price. And then there was videotape itself — bulky, non-indexed, and liable to warp, break, and degrade, it simply was not durable enough to satisfy film collectors.

Looking back, we see there simply is no comparison between 1997 and 2007. Today, it's not only possible, but affordable for the average consumer to own an excellent personal film collection and home-theater equipment. It can even be done "on a budget," as it were. Compared to the pre-home-video era (basically, at any time before mass-market VCRs), the transformation is nothing less than astonishing, and it's worth thinking about. It was not that long ago that only the very wealthy could afford home theaters and actual prints of films for private screenings. It would require not only a large room, but a separate, muffled projection room as well, and somebody to run the projector (recall that famous scene in Sunset Boulevard, for example). You couldn't have a setup like that and, say, live in an apartment. DVD has made movies accessible to everyone, not just reclusive movie stars. This is one time when the movies may have gotten smaller, but they also got better.

As of this morning, The DVD Journal is ceasing publication. DVD first reached store shelves ten years ago this week, and this website went online with its very first DVD reviews nearly a year after that. Since then, we've posted almost 4,000 DVD reviews, watched the retail sheets for the best upcoming DVDs, and hopefully steered a few folks into renting or purchasing movies they otherwise might have overlooked.

Compared to many websites, very few writers have contributed to the Journal over the years, with a core group of around ten based in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. The editor would like to thank all of them — it has been a privilege to be their first reader every week, and to be associated with a talented group of film critics who also happen to be good friends. Our own world has changed in the past decade as well, with marriages, children, new homes, career changes, and various other things that happen to sensible people when the subtle business of adulthood creeps up on them unawares.

The writers would like to extend thanks to everyone in the home-video industry we have had contact with over the past decade, from the hard-working publicists who do their best to get products out in advance of street-dates, to the miracle-worker technicians who have done the most challenging, and most important, job of all — restoring classic films to the best condition possible, allowing us to enjoy them at home, and forever. For many, this was the one true promise of DVD, and we rarely have been disappointed. We would also like to extend a special thanks to the good folks at The Criterion Collection, who have always set the highest bar for others in the industry to watch, and who got into this business back when Laserdiscs were a niche, and thus made the transition to the mass market with the greatest care, and as little fuss as possible.

For now, we will leave this website online, and while we won't be posting any regular features, all are welcome to return and get a look at a decade's worth of DVD, in review.

Finally, we thank our readers, for we too have been a niche of sorts, happily reviewing movies and posting release news without the need to fling around pop-up ads or hawk particular products to cover our bottom line, or worry about our own "growth" for the sake of raw traffic numbers. We're glad you made the time to drop by. We had fun. We hope you did, too.

—The Editor

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