Master Discs

Christmas 1999 will probably go down in cinema history as the moment the digital video disc came of age. By the end of last year more than 5.4 million DVD players had been sold in the U.S., and as of early December 2000 that figure had topped 13 million. This past June DVD owners had more than 9,000 titles to choose from, and according to the Web site DVD Demystified, the DVD player is “the most successful consumer electronics product of all time.” But as anyone can tell from browsing at Tower or Borders, the DVD boom has brought a tidal wave of shoddy releases that ignore the format’s extraordinary potential as a tool for film study and preservation. Many Hollywood studios simply take the digital master of an existing video release and dump it onto disc without restoring the sound, the picture, or even the film’s original aspect ratio. And while dual-layer discs (which store information on both sides) can often accommodate photos, documentaries, production notes, various subtitle options, and audio commentary, many current releases offer only one option: “Play Movie.”

At this point the high-water mark for DVD is the Criterion Collection, sister company of the legendary foreign-film distributor Janus Films; among its carefully restored and scrupulously supplemented discs are such classics as Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Though Criterion is based in New York, its sales, marketing, and advertising, as well as Janus Films’ video releases, are handled here in Chicago by Home Vision Entertainment, a small company that takes up the top floor of a three-story office building on Ravenswood near Montrose. Criterion oversees the creative content of its releases but works closely with Home Vision in acquiring new titles; their joint catalog also includes cult favorites like Sisters, Gimme Shelter, and Carnival of Souls.

“We’re in the business of good films that sell,” says Adrianne Furniss, president and CEO of Home Vision. “We’re not in the business of bad films that sell or good films that don’t sell. Everything we do has been informed with this sense of it being ‘a classic.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be old, but by acquiring and releasing it we feel that it’s going to withstand the test of time.”

That sort of commitment runs in the family: her grandfather, William Benton, became a vice president of the University of Chicago in 1937 after retiring from a successful advertising career. In 1943, when the university’s trustees were reluctant to accept the gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica from Sears, Roebuck, and Company, Benton put up the necessary working capital and became Britannica’s owner and publisher. In 1957 he published the 52-volume Great Books of the Western World, and before his death in 1973 he spent $30 million creating Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 15th edition. (He also represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, introduced a resolution in 1951 calling for the expulsion of Joseph McCarthy, and was subsequently defeated for reelection.) Furniss’s father, Charles Benton, started off as a production assistant and salesman for the encyclopedia’s educational films division, but by 1968 he’d used the company’s film component to establish Home Vision’s parent company, Public Media, Inc.

This summer, emboldened by the exponential increase in sales of DVD players, Home Vision decided to take the plunge and start producing its own discs. To oversee the effort Furniss has hired Sonia Rosario, a former programming executive for Columbia Pictures Television with an extensive background in children’s educational programming. Home Vision hopes to release 18 to 20 discs in 2001, including a series of BBC documentaries on architecture and visual arts, several Merchant-Ivory dramas, and an update of Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, the series adapted by New York’s WNET from the 1984 book by Abba Eban.

“Once the player universe hit 12 million, we thought, this is here to stay,” says Furniss. “We also feel like we have films with which we can be compatible with Criterion but not be Criterion. We’re their major distributor, we’ve been there from the beginning; we want to go out with materials that don’t necessarily compete with them. We have in our library, for instance, a Liv Ullmann title, and we have in our joint library another Liv Ullmann title, so it makes sense for us to work with her on the two films at once. The Merchant-Ivory stuff, same thing–this is going to require a huge effort working with both of them and the people associated with their productions. It just makes more sense for one company to do that.”

Asked what percentage of the production budget goes for supplemental materials, Furniss says there’s no hard-and-fast rule. “We can get materials from the BBC for their titles that cost me nothing except transferring and authoring and compressing it. If I want to go out and get a documentary, I may have to buy the rights to it. If we want to create a graphic element, a timeline, that’s something that we’ll do in authoring and compression, and it doesn’t really cost us in terms of content. It can range from very little to a lot, and obviously only what the market can bear.”

The market for Home Vision’s library is narrow indeed compared to the number of people lining up to buy Gladiator on DVD, yet the company will have to maintain a high level of quality to live up to its partnership with Criterion. Steve Riforgiato, vice president of sales and marketing for Home Vision, admits that Criterion’s $29 and $39 list prices far exceed the $19 or $24 price tag of most discs, but its commitment to restoring the filmmaker’s original vision doesn’t come cheap. “The price point for Criterion is in the movie,” he says. “It’s literally in looking for materials, finding it all–missing sound, having to go back to the lab in France and find the 30 seconds that’s missing. All sorts of detective work has to be done. They’ll search quite literally for years; they’ll have things in production for a long time until they find the right documentary that goes with it, the right missing piece.”

Larger DVD distributors seem to base their sales model on their past experience with VHS, but Riforgiato argues that the greater storage capability and navigability of discs makes them much more attractive to collectors, the sort of people who bought laser-disc players in the 80s before that format dead-ended. He estimates that Home Vision does about half its sales through dot-coms (its biggest single account is Amazon) and about half through superstores like Virgin or Tower, plus a handful of distributors that service mom-and-pops. The biggest struggle has been convincing retailers like Target and Best Buy to stock what they perceive as overpriced discs. “The problem with home video has always been that it’s like what Hollywood does now: they try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s a real shock to these people when they realize there’s an upper demographic–whether it’s economic or intelligence or what have you–that really will collect a $40 movie that has subtitles.” Like Criterion, Home Video hopes its discs will appeal to what Furniss calls the “film school in a box” mentality, though the average filmgoer may be happier with a box of popcorn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.