One too many

Warner Bros. has chosen to release Blade Runner in seven tiers spread over three formats – DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray – and it’s probably the most overly complicated cross-format release on home video at one time.

The studio’s decision to support all three formats is, for specific format-loyal consumers, probably the most appealing stance in the current high-def [HD] format war; it’s also smart, but with deep pockets, it’s clear the demise of one HD format would affect the major studio less than an indie label who decided to delve into the HD world by supporting what might later emerge as the doomed format, and finding their inventory cluttering delete bins, or idling as year-end write-offs due to a demise in sales.

I’m not really sure if that happened with the original DIVX DVDs, but a friend picked up Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie when that dum-dum format was as good as dead, knowing the film – at the time unavailable on standard DVD because Universal was being stubborn – could be had dirt cheap, so I could have an antique of sorts, and a sample of the studio’s idiotic attempt to circumvent rental shops.

There’s some irony in how Universal regarded DVD as an opportunity to achieve more control over rental revenue via mostly blah full screen DIVX releases, whereas Warner Bros. and New Line, for example, sensed that DVDs could become the ultimate collector format for the film fan, and respectively released superb – and loaded – widescreen editions of Mars Attacks! and The Matrix, for example.

Unlike Universal, which remains HD-DVD exclusive, Warner Bros. is quite committed to both HD formats. Either they’re richer than Universal, or the losing format would basically become a great tax write-off, offsetting the surge in sales of the winning format.

In using Blade Runner as means to appeal to every type of consumer – the average fan, the collector on a budget, and the HD fan and collector with deep pockets – they’re also asking merchants to set aside more shelf space for this singular title (a grating problem for smaller indie stores who regularly have to allot space to another wave of useless reissued, re-branded, titles that just aren’t necessary.)

A remastered edition of Blade Runner? That’s a genuine New Release deserving retail shelf space. Warner Bros. reissuing Logan’s Run and The Omega Man in new alpha cases? Not a New Release, and not deserving hype, regardless of the new cover art. It’s also interesting that The Last Man on Earth, the first version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel, was previously double-billed with Panic in Year Zero as part of MGM’s Midnite Movie series, and while still in print, it’s been reissued by the label with the same extras as a single disc for a smidge less, but with cover art mimicking the new Will Smith version of Matheson’s novel.

(In fairness, MGM’s double-billed edition came out in Canada, was allegedly pulled in the U.S., and was subsequently released in the U.S. and Canada without a kerfuffle. Point: It’s maybe a dollar more than the new reissue, but comes with a second and equally fun cheesy B-film, which the genre fan would probably prefer for the extra buck.)

What’s annoying about the Blade Runner tiers is that the 4-disc mid-price edition on standard DVD aimed at the ardent fan and collector with a budget lacks the golden egg – the workprint version on Disc 5 that’s in the big grey lunchbox. (I know it’s a replica of the Voight-Kampf gizmo, but it looks like a lunchbox.)

While Warner Bros. released special ‘tin’ editions of Forbidden Planet and King Kong (1933) with toys, lobby cards and other trinkets, the same DVDs could be bought for about half the price of the tins; they were the same collector/fan/movie buff editions at a fair price, and anyone wanting the assorted toys could dig deeper into the wallet.

In the case of Blade Runner, the only way to get the 5th DVD on standard DVD is to plop down double the cash for the lunchbox, or buy the non-lunchbox HD edition that’s just a few dollars more and contains all 5 DVDs.

In the case of older back catalogue titles like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Grand Prix, these titles are actually cheaper on HD-DVD than standard DVD, so the tiered Blade Runner scheme may be another attempt to dangle an even better carrot in front of film fans that are tempted to take the HD plunge, and just needed a modern classic as bait - one with what’s arguably one of the best collection of visuals and digital sound mixes perfectly suited to test the home theatre; if any movie could play silently on the wall as gorgeous wallpaper, Blade Runner is it.

For a while now, the studios have been wasting their time releasing mediocre comedies (Wild Hogs, RV) on HD in a silly attempt to appeal to what – the average filmgoer? The action fan who figures The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is just as sexy as 300, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Crank on HD? The family with a flexible budget, happy to spend more on an HD of Norbit than buying or renting it on standard DVD so as to treasure every nuance in HD?

Perhaps it’s best that the big studios are the ones poking around in the dark to see what works, because it allows indie companies to watch for patterns, listen to the ire of fans, and hear from merchants as to what junk is being returned to distributors because no one wants to touch it. It may not even be a worry to smaller labels as to what format is poised to win, but rather, ‘What pattern is favourable to us so that we can test the waters without losing money and satisfy the target audience we also need to treat with respect.’

The HD editions of Blade Runner do that, but the leap collectors and fans have to make to gain the complete release on standard DVD is, well, kind of insulting, because you wonder if a year later, or 5 years later for some unnecessary anniversary edition, whether that fifth disc will come out again. (It is a perfect way to purge warehouses of unsold and overrun copies…)

Way back in 1999, when Warner Bros. released The Exorcist in a 25th Anniversary Special Edition, the film was treated to tiered editions because the studio wasn’t quite sure what would work between established VHS collectors, and what type of fan was part of the new DVD consumer body. So you had the single VHS edition; a limited boxed VHS edition with an extract from a making-of doc, plus a CD, lobby cards, a book, and senitype; and the DVD release in a snapper case, with the disc containing a commentary track and the full making-of doc.

If the DVD was aimed at collectors, why were some of those extras ferried to VHS?

Well, the 2000 DVD replaced the 1997 barebones DVD, which was authored with the 5.1 mix on the full screen side of the disc. (Whoops.) The VHS editions obviously disappeared into oblivion, although the goodies from the limited VHS box were apparently ported over (repackaged?) in a DVD Collector’s Set in 2001.

Then the theatrical cut was deleted soon after the expanded & clumsily branded The Version You’ve Never Seen (aka the Whiny Writer’s Cut, or The Version Friedkin Said Wasn’t Necessary A Year Ago Until Scruples Became Optional) was released in 2000. That became the de facto edition until a recent anthological set in 2006 timed to the DVD release of the cruddy prequel films brought the theatrical cut back from Revisionist Purgatory.

If this all seems petty, well, in part it is, but it’s also example of how some movies are kicked around, suffer through patently ridiculous incarnations, and are awkwardly handled when there’s greed, and when the studios are hedging bets because they really don’t know what will happen when new formats are being sold in the midst of fickle consumers – and that latter possibility is what’ll make fans a bit more cynical and mistrustful of the labels than they already are, though I think we’ve already reached a limit, and have our noses shoved against the plaster ceiling at this stage.

Way back among the first DVD releases, a few smart producers decided to put out a handful of definitive edition for that time, figuring a two-tiered edition was just wasteful; DVD was the elite format over VHS and laserdisc, so why offer anything less than the best? Blade Runner is admittedly an exception due to the various incarnations since its release, but studios and indie labels ought to rethink a release strategy when you can count the versions on two hands.

Part of the problem is due to the demise of VHS and laserdisc, and standard DVD being less affected by the massive quality jump it offered over those obsolete formats; even under the shadow of HD, standard DVD remains an affordable and attractive choice for the average consumer & heavy collector.

Keep the available options to consumers simple and fair, and (almost) everyone will be happy. Loose your way between the transition towards the next dominant video format, and in the case of The Exorcist, we'll have to endure a dum-dum: two film versions spread over six editions on two home video formats within three years (1997-2000)... a faint echo of the five film versions spread over seven editions on three formats that are on shelves now.


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