Criterion’s big C goes interactive and archival

Criterion has just remodelled their website into a more streamlined and interactive portal for their huge archive of classic, foreign, and contemporary films, as well as vintage archival materials, such as essays from laserdisc releases (which so far begins with Roger P. Smith’s essay from the Citizen Kane laserdisc).

The new site design emphasizes bigger spaces between graphics and text, whereas the prior design combined (what seemed to be) a bit more information within a narrower page width. Some titles include streaming trailers or a large still, but there’s still the standard tally of film credits, DVD specs, and special feature contents.

What’s new and novel to the site is Criterion’s decision to offer streaming video of select films, which will reportedly open up to include offline viewing as well in 2009. The $5 fee allows one to watch the film as many times as one wants for a week, and the $5 can be applied as a credit towards the purchase of the film you watched, either on DVD or Blu-ray.

This is perhaps the most intriguing attempt by the label to further exploit its valuable/invaluable catalogue of films. First there was the special edition laserdisc, then SE DVDs, then the bare bones Eclipse series that brought idling classics back into wide distribution, and now the opportunity to watch the film on your PC or Mac.

While the streaming will be restricted to the territories to which Criterion has the rights (making some films unobtainable, except as import DVD purchases for those outside of the U.S.), it solves a dilemma that’s quite common to film students: where the heck can one get that film needed for an essay, a research project, or one part of a class’ viewing list?

In big cities with rental shops catering to the astute – in Toronto [T.O.], there’s Bay Street Video, Queen Video, and Suspect Video among the top 3 – students have the chance to get the films they need, but due to the cost and sometimes highly eclectic nature of a Criterion film (Michael Bay’s Armageddon ain’t part of that group), it means a class of 20 students have to scour the city and get their hands on the 4 or 5 copies that may exist in T.O. If someone’s late in returning the movie, no one gets the film.

There’s the option to buy the film on DVD, but Criterions come with a premium price. The problem’s been slightly offset with the budget line Essential Art House series, but it’s a new stream that thus far includes just a few bare bones editions of classics, encompassing films such as Grand Illusion, Beauty and the Beast, and Wild Strawberries.

So if the rental is out, the sale copy is sold out, or you live in a town or city where it’s cost prohibitive to get the DVD, and you just need the film for a week to finish your project, the new online streaming option may be a life-saver.

The current selection is very small, but a taste of things to come: Au revoir les enfants, Fat Girl, General Idi Amin Dada, Hopscotch, The Horse’s Mouth, Il posto, Juliet of the Spirits, Lord of the Flies, Overlord, La pointe courte, Ratcatcher, Sans soleil, Solaris (1972), The Spirit of the Beehive, Sweet Movie, Sweetie, and The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

It’s an eclectic mix for sure, but here’s one suggestion to Criterion for the next wave of titles: check out the most used films by fans and students, and start to put those online, because those are among the most vital for school projects, and $5 will be the best money spent by students pulling hairs to meet a hard deadline.

I haven’t tried their streaming feature, but Criterion’s interactive site will undoubtedly give the first participants some forum to critique the process, if there’s any bugs or other technical issues.

But I am looking forward to the reproduction of essays and articles from their prior laserdisc releases, since the contents of those 12” platters sometimes contained unique reference materials (such as script and stills, in the case of Forbidden Planet) that were ignored by producers for the subsequent studio releases.

The real question for veteran fans will be whether Criterion will make available some of those commentary tracks (oh, like The Great Escape) that el cheapo producers refused to buy and port over into their DVD SE’s (and don’t get me started on the recalled James Bond commentaries).

Bruce Eder interviewed *a lot* of filmmakers, technicians, actors, and composers, and those tracks really deserve to be rescued from oblivion. Here’s hoping Criterion’s revamped website (with its simple and informative intro video) will evolve into a major resource, so film fans who’ve only heard of the goodies that appeared on long-dead laserdiscs will get a chance to scour them online, in perpetuity.



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