Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Old Person's and Young Person's Guide to DVD Companies...

Ok, so I am a film, documentary, and television junkie. I have probably close to a thousand DVD's that I have bought over the years. I thus have a lot of experience with DVD's and DVD companies. Here is what I have found.

Criterion Collection. Along with Masters of Cinema the Gold Standard of DVD and Blue Ray Companies. Criterion does the highest quality transfers of the best cinema has to offer. Its packaging is sometimes an art form in itself. Outstanding and informative booklets. Lots of extras with informative content on releases. Stands by its product. I had a bad package for Monsoon Wedding once and they replaced it. Of the almost 500 plus Criterion's I own I have had problems withonly four discs.

Masters of Cinema. Along with Criterion the Gold Standard in DVD's. Highest quality transfers of the best cinema has to offer. Like Criterion MoC does great booklets and puts lots of informative extras on their releases. And like Criterion it stands by its product. I once had a bad booklet which they replaced immediately. Of the almost 100 MoC's I have I have had only three discs arrive damaged.

CBS/Paramount. Mediocre in its transfers. Some like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners are good, very good. Others, like Dragnet, are clearly not restored and are mediocre at best. Purveyor of some very poor to awful packaging. With MGM has a tendency to design packages in which the discs are stuck into very tight cardboard slats meaning that they scratch easily on the way in or on the way out (e.g., Beauty and the Beast). Another thing to beware of with CBS, particularly with respect to their TV releases, is incomplete episodes of TV series. Many of CBS's TV programmes are the shortened syndicated versions (e.g., some episodes of Lucy), some are shortened for some reason that is unfathomable (e.g. Holocaust), some have been cut for copyright issues (usually music the costs of which the megacorporation that owns the television programme doesn't want to pay while the megacorporation who owns the music wants megabucks for). Surprisingly, CBS/Paramount does note that a programme may be cut or doesn't have its original music in tiny print at the bottom of the information on the back of their keepcases. Another problem: CBS/Paramount sometimes puts content on both sides of their discs leading to scratching. Some of their product has limited if any extras. They do stand by their product, however. My Dragnet season one double sided disc one was scratched to kingdom come and they replaced it at their cost.

MGM. Mediocre in transfer quality. Some quite good. Many, most of them, quite mediocre. Purveyor of some poor to awful packaging like CBS where DVD's are stuck into cardboard slats and damaged as a result (e.g., Star Gate, Hitchcock collection). Why do these companies spend tons on box design and, at the same time, stick disc into tight cardboard slats. Can you say very stupid? Variations in number and quality of extras.

Warner Brothers. Clearly and easily the best of the big boy corporate home entertainment companies. Some outstanding transfers with lots of extras. On occasion, normally with TV product, WB produces very poor quality product with double sided discs which easily get scratched and poor transfer quality (e.g. The Waltons). Also on occasion WB releases, inexplicably, widescreen films solely in standard format (Stand and Deliver and Running on Empty), usually they release them in both. Heresy.

LionsGate. Mediocre. Sometimes releases high quality films and TV programmes though in mediocre to fair transfers. Beware of their TV releases. Some contain syndicated versions (e.g., Little House on the Prairie) though this isn't entirely the fault of LionsGate and Imavision, the Quebec company that originally released Little House, since both companies released what they were given by NBC (see below). Caveat emptor: LionsGate doesn't stand by their product. I bought their Mad Men season one which came poorly packaged in a plastic skin that I had difficulty getting off and found it was defective when I finally got it off. They refused to replace this meaning that they don't stand behind the product they produce. Unfortunately LionsGate has acquired some films formerly done by Criterion. Boo. Hiss.

Universal/NBC. Mediocre in every sense of the word. Their Will and Grace release contains syndicated versions of some of the episodes though in decent unrestored transfers. On the other hand their releases of the first two seasons of Beaver were quite good. And then they stopped releasing any further seasons presumably because sales didn't meet their expectations (reasonable or not). Yes Virginia we live in an age in which everything is a commodity with a dollar sign plastered in front of it. By the way, I have been happier with the British Universal Playback releases (including that of the wonderful BBC All Creatures Great and Small) then with US Universal releases.

Shout Factory. Good though not Criterion or MoC. Some great releases in good to excellent transfers. As a company that licenses product from other sources they are prisoners to what they are given by the megacompanies that own the films or TV programmes they release. Their box set of Leave it to Beaver is excellent but contains some versions of episodes that aren't in their original transmission form. Who do we have to thank for this? I think NBC/Universal. Shout deserves credit for their Corman releases, Max Headroom, and Beaver. Shout also responds to customer concerns: they did away with that stupid and unnecessary hard to get off tape (as did Criterion, by the way; European releases have never had it in the first place) at the top of their releases.

Timeless. Mediocre but they deserve extra points for trying. Timeless releases a lot of American television Westerns like the excellent Laredo, the brilliant Alias Smith and Jones, Wagon Train, and The Virginian in decent transfers. Unfortunately, Timeless has also released British and Australian TV programmes like To the Ends of the Earth and The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant in incorrect aspect ratio transfers. Buy these from the UK if you can.

HBO. Generally very good. Some of their releases, like the original box set of The Sopranos and The Wire, are very poorly packaged: the dreaded DVD's stuck into the dreaded cardboard slats. As such HBO is rapidly catching up with MGM and CBS as the DVD company with the stupidest designers.

2 Entertain/BBC. Some excellent releases (Dr. Who, Quatermass). Transfer quality can vary given the condition of the original material. The BBC didn't start to archive and preserve until the 1970s. Some of their keepcases, the ones that have DVD on both sides of the box, have a tendency to lose their discs which, as a result, get scratched while floating around free range in the keepcases. Apparently it requires a Ph.D. in physics to make good keepcases unless you are Criterion of MoC.

I have contacted 2Entertain on a number of occasions about the problems with their keepcases. Sadly, it was a waste of time and energy. Each time I contacted them about their poor quality keepcases I received essentially the same reply: it's not our fault. What I gained from dealing with BBC/2Entertain is this: there is perhaps no more arrogant institution in the English speaking world than the BBC and no institution I know of which has less reason to be arrogant given their poor their poor keepcases. That the BBC is as bad as American corporations like Universal, MGM, and Paramount says volumes about this public institution. I guess we should be thankful that one of the few megacorporations that cares about product, the WB, does some of the BBC's American releases. Someone, after all, has to save the BBC from itself.

ITV. Virtually a carbon copy of BBC/2 Entertain. No difference between the public BBC or private ITV here though I think 2 Entertainment is a for profit enterprise partly owned by the Beeb. That said their restroratons and remasterings of Lean's and Powell's and Pressberger's films are quite nice

On the downside ITV's transfer of some of their TV shows is an absolute and unmitigated disaster. The wonderful Raffles, for instance, was, like so many shows in the 70s shot on videotape. Some gumby at ITV, however, (the same ones perhaps who turned the 4:3 World at War into a widescreen disaster epic) has decided that it was best not to release Raffles in its original form, defacing history in a manner almost akin to what happened to photographs in Stalinist Russia. Instead ITV apparently has chosen to transfer the video portions of Raffles onto film changing the look of the programme, not to mention its contrast, in the process. Americans are the lucky ones here for the Acorn US release of Raffles contains the show as originally broadcast (though I don't recall whether it has the Yorkshire idents and act breaks). Shame on ITV. Who would have thunk (well me because I know that capitalists and commies all love their history whitewashed) that a capitalist corporation would have Stalinist tendencies that led it to, in this instance, change history for economic rather than political reasons.

Acorn UK. Licenses product largely from the Beeb and ITV. Good transfers though the quality varies due to the quality of the original material. Like 2 Entertain and ITV there are problems with discs staying on the spindles of Acorn's double disc sets for the same reasons as 2 Entertain/BBC and ITV. The Foyle's War (great ITV series) complete set had a lot of scratching and buffing problems.

Acorn also has a branch in North America. I have purchased their DVD's of the excellent Canadian shows Da Vinci's Inquest and Intelligence. Both were very good in terms of quality and packaging. Acorn's release of Upstairs Downstairs and the 35th anniversary edition of I Claudius are outstanding in every way.

Channel 4 DVD. Generally good transfers of some great stuff. Channel 4, originally established of offer more innovative fare than the Beeb and ITV, played a major role in the renaissance of British cinema in the 1980s and 1990s and in bringing innovative shows to the small screen in the 1980s and 1990s. 4DVD has released great cinema in good to very good transfers like Bill Forsythe's Local Hero and My Beautiful Laundrette (the US release of this seminal film by MGM is mediocre). It has released great and seminal TV shows like Spaced in a very good transfer. Given 4's support for innovative films and TV programmes, at least at one time, I like to support 4DVD.

Second Run. Not quite in the Criterion and MoC league but close. Great library of seminal Eastern European films (such as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) and documentaries (such as In the Land of the Deaf). Excellent booklets, good extras.

E one Entertainment. Like Second Run not quite in the Criterion and MoC league but close. Great releases in fine transfers of TV shows like the Ellery Queen Mysteries, Sondheim's Evening Primrose, and Studio One teleplays. Nice releases of Canadian shows like Being Erica and Republic of Doyle and classic BBC shows like Anne of Avalon. The problem with Being Erica is the original aspect ratio. Most of the E one season one of Being Erica is in the standard TV ration (4:3) while the British edition on Channel 4 is in widescreen (1:66 or 1:78). The show, as far as I know, was originally in widescreen. Why the standard frame in most of season one of Being Erica E one?

Recently my appreciation for E one declined thanks to their very poor release of the complete series of what is in my opinion the best American television spy show and one of the best American TV shows ever, It Takes a Thief. The remastering is poor. The box the set it comes in is awful. The discs are stuck into cardboard slats though they weren't terribly damaged upon arrival. Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that Universal, the owner of It Takes a Thief, and one of the worst DVD companies in the business, from whom E one licensed It Takes a Thief, is probably responsible for most of the problems with the transfer quality of this set? Because that is the Universal way. Apparently the German transfer of the first season and a half of the show is vastly superior.

BFI: Like Second Run and E1 not quite Criterion or MoC but pretty close. A great library of releases of seminal films (and once upon a time a few TV programmes) from around the world in generally very good quality transfers. Now releasing wonderful combo DVD/Blue Ray packages of great directors like Ozu and Bunuel.

Network. It is hard not to like Network because of what they release. Network by and large re-releases classic British television. They also release the best transfer of the wonderful Canadian show Due South. Most of their releases are not restored but a few, like The Prisoner, are. Since they are simply mastered the quality of the transfers are not always spectacular. But then the quality of the original material is not always particularly good either. Some of the early keepcases were flawed allowing discs to pop off the spindles and get scratched in the case as a result. Recent releases have much superior keep cases. It is nice to see a company in today's world respond to complaints about their product and improve them. Too bad that this is an anomaly in the modern world dominated by take it or leave it megacorporations. Sad that more consumers don't complain about poor product and avoid buying it. But then we live in a gotta have it and gotta have it now Western world, don't we?.

Blue Underground. Cut from the E1, Second Run, and BFI cloth. Very good but not quite the gold standard of Criterion and MoC. Blue Underground releases a lot of "classics" from the European and American gore underground along with art film classics like My Brilliant Career, Newsfront, and the Alan Bennett collection. I did have a problem with the Newsfront keepcase. The disc fell off the spindle and arrived scratched so I exchanged it for another. It had the same problem so I returned it. Blue Underground promised to replace any such occurrence in the future. And they did. When I bought a third copy and the disc was off the spindle and damaged Blue Underground replaced it promptly.

Park Circus. One step down from Criterion and MoC. They recently released Peter Greenaway's Pillow Book in a fine quality transfer.

Optimum. Generally good transfers of some great films including those of the great Godard. Optimum also releases some interesting Asian film and some past and contemporary horror classics. Optimum's Bergman releases are generally excellent.

Arrow. Generally good transfers of some classic and contemporary cinema. Arrow does a good box set of Rohmer's wonderful Com├ędies et Proverbes.

Artificial Eye. Generally good transfers of some classics and some good contemporary cinema. I treasure my two Rohmer box sets from Artificial Eye and have been eying the Resnais box set.

Zeitgeist. I don't own any of their DVD's but hear excellent things about this company that releases highly critically regarded films on DVD.

Raro Video. An Italian company that has just arrived in the US market with several releases including Fellini's The Clowns. Good transfer. Some have complained about Raro quality and lack of response to quality concern issues.

VCI. Generally good and sometimes very good transfers. VCI's release of Joseph Losey's famous noir The Prowler. That disc has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and so looks quite nice.

BFS. What is it with BFS. Their recently released Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, a great ITV adaptation of Defoe's starring Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, BFS's transfer does not appear to do this superb show justice. There is no information on the BFS website about the aspect ratio of the transfer. The original is widescreen (1:66 or 1:78). The BFS transfer is, if Amazon is accurate (not always the case, by the way) 1:33. So if you don't mind missing a significant part of the show buy it. As for me I will stick with the ITV release in the correct oar I purchased some time back and will remain annoyed by the BFS tradition of not telling consumers anything about the oar on the packages or on their website and their tradition of transforming a widescreen film or TV programme into a TV screen box oar. Pathetic and sad. I expect more but I never get it from BFS. In fact, I still haven't figured out whether the BFS transfer of the superb BBC docudrama about Arthur Conan Doyle and his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, one of the inventors of modern forensics, The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle is in the correct oar. There is certainly no indication on the package what the aspect ratio of the transfer is. The only thing I do know is that it is not in the 1:33:1 format Amazon claims. There should be as any consumer respecting DVD company knows. By the way Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle was the pilot for the superb BBC series Murder Rooms which is available in the States from MPI in a good quality and correct aspect ratio transfer.

Mill Creek. Bargain basement quality at bargain basement prices. Some of their public domain unrestored transfers are, however, sometimes more than passable. Their Ozzie and Harriet collection actually contains, in most cases, the original broadcast releases rather than the syndicated versions something which can not be said of the Shout release of the official versions licensed from the Rick Nelson Company. Now releasing some stuff with Shout, megacreator Stephen Cannell (Cannell was too cheap to pony up for music rights so his stuff is absent the original music as it was on the Anchor Bay releases), Freemantle, the British production and rights megacorporation, and NBC/Universal (Howdy Doody).

Echo Bridge. An echo of Mill Creek. Bargain basement transfers at bargain basement prices of stuff in the public domain. Echo Bridge recently cut a deal with Miramax and is now releasing, in generally poor transfers, Miramax product.

Olive Films: Olive Films, an independent producer of DVD's, has recently released a version of the Migenes, Domingo, Maazel, and Rosi realisation of Bizet's great opera, Carmen. On the plus side: the transfer looks pretty good and appears to be in or close to its original aspect ratio. On the down side: the subtitles are in white and yellow and unremovable. Unremovable subtitles are unforgivable as any self-respecting quality DVD company should know. The extras contained on the new restored Second Sight British DVD are absent from the Olive. Unfortunate.I may, after purchasing Olive's transfer of Carmen, never buy another DVD or Blue Ray from this company again. If you have an all region DVD, and every film and opera buff should, get the two DVD Second Sight transfer. You may get the PAL speedup with the Second Sight version and you cannot remove the subtitles, apparently you can on the French Gaumont version, but at least you will have the two extras. So for those of you who do have an all region DVD player you have a choice between the bare bones Olive, the more fulsome Second Sight, and the superior French version. I really wish I had chosen the last.

Let me close this guide with a few more words about packaging. I have noted some of the problems with the fancy box sets put out by MGM, Fox, HBO, and others, those box sets that are gorgeous on the outside but have their DVD's stuck into cardboard slats on the inside. The result of this is almost always scratched discs. There are other problems with DVD packaging in the US in particular, however. WB and HBO originally had these hybrid plastic and paper keepcases that didn't fit well next to the other plastic DVD keepcases on the shelf and occasionally were damaged when one tried to take that security and name tape plastered on, in some cases, three sides of the keepcase. And then there is the issue of what to do when the spindle is damaged in these keepcases since it is not easy to replace a damaged one with one that isn't damaged. But back to the security tape. The security tape, particularly on older DVD's, also on occasion damages the plastic of the keepcases themselves as well. I find this tape along with those black plastic meets metal security devices annoying because they are totally unnecessary. European DVD's manage to get along without either. Kudos to Criterion and Shout Factory for doing away with the tape on the top of their keepcases.

The packaging of DVD's and the fact that many DVD's don't stay on their spindles far too often raises questions about the intelligence of whatever species designs these keepcases. Given that there are so many unnecessary faults with DVD keepcases and packaging has led me to wonder whether DVD companies need to consider hiring PhD's in Engineering to design keepcases. Given the track record of far too many DVD companies at present my answer to this query is yes.

Postscript, 4 December 2011:
Thoughts on BBC/2Entertain and Acorn.UK Product. From my Amazon.UK review of the new Upstairs Downstairs

I give four stars for the show and no stars for the keepcases BBC/2Entertain uses to store their product in. That gives us two stars.

I am going to skip reviewing the show since others have written about the quality of the show better than I could. Suffice it to say that this is more Upstairs Downstairs than Downton Abbey, the most recent semi-rehash of the old Upstairs Downstairs. History and the relationships between upstairs and downstairs have always been at the heart of Upstairs Downstairs and they remain so here. Downton Abbey, of course, has played with these classic elements of the subgenre as well.

Now to the keepcases. No company, in my experience, does keepcases or buys keepcases as bad as BBC/2Entertain (save for Acorn UK, more about that later). It almost seems that the BBC's/2Entertain's lack of interest in quality control for their keepcases rivals that, on occasion, of their transfers and that both express their cynicism about consumers, a cynicism that seems to be the fools will buy anything. Nothing reflects this cynicism more than the Beeb's and 2Entertain's release of Only Horses and Fools in a sliced and diced transfer that no company that cares about its customers let alone any self respecting company would release unless they were cynical or simply operating on greed. And nothing expresses the cynicism and contempt the BBC and 2Entertain must have for their customers than the keepcases they use.

To put this into context. I have purchased over five hundred discs from the Criterion Collection. Only three of the discs have wiggled off their keepcases and been damaged as a result. I have purchased around one hundred discs from Masters of Cinema. Only three have had discs loose in the keepcase and damaged. I have purchased some seventy five DVD's from BBC/2Entertain and fully one-third if not more of the double disc sets have arrived with discs off their spindles and were seriously damaged as a result. The BBC's response to this when I contacted them was to blame Amazon.UK's packaging of product. Interestingly other discs I have ordered and received simultaneously from Amazon.UK, including ITV product, have not had this problem. The only other UK DVD corporation whose keepcases regularly have the same problem as the Beeb, as I mentioned earlier, is Acorn. Not surprisingly Acorn regularly uses the same brand or type of keepcases BBC/2Entertain does for its two disc sets. Will the Beeb and Acorn get this rather obvious connection here, a connection that even someone as limited in deductive powers as the Gumby's could get? I doubt it

One would hope that the BBC and Acorn would recognise this problem and fix it. The BBC has an easy fix. Use the same keepcases you use for the Dr. Who double disc sets. That neither BBC or Acorn switch to these sets I am afraid says something about their sense of quality control and their cynicism about consumers who, I am sure they believe, will buy any piece of crap as long as they feel they have to have it.

By the way, I think that the fact that so many of the DVD products of so many corporations are so bad or at best mediocre says something not only about corporate quality control but also about global capitalism and corporate cynicism in general. It also tells us something about how corporations, via advertising propaganda, have created consumers that so "need" to buy product that many will buy the product regardless of how poor or how bad it is. Ah, life in the modern world of consumer capitalism.

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