A feast of oldies

I’ve just about slipped out of the habit of going to the cinema. First there was the extra cost and hassle of sorting out baby-sitters, and now that I’ve got my life back, I’m more and more irked by the hype lavished on films that simply don’t deserve it. (I only caught up with “The Artist” recently, on a long flight home. What a relief to discover that David Thomson didn’t think it was worth all the fuss.) Besides, where I live, outside London, non-mainstream releases have to search for the very few gaps left by teen-oriented multiplex fare. Now I tend to stay at home and hope that streaming films will be some kind of alternative. A few months ago I signed up to Netflix, but the feeble choice on the menu left me feeling I’d been locked in a Blockbusters full of straight-to-video horror flicks. So I cancelled. I’m on Lovefilm now, although I’ve noticed I tend to use it for watching all those episodes of the “The Larry Sanders Show” that haven’t come out on DVD. Still, the range of movies — especially oldies —  seems decent enough.

I’d assumed that streaming is going to be good for fans of classic films: we’ll have an endless choice of elegantly restored vintage material. Roger Ebert, though, doesn’t seem so sure:

The companies which manufacture and distribute DVDs are in business to make a profit. They invest much of their income in the cost of restoring films, especially classics, so the DVD version usually has better visual quality than any 35mm print you’re lucky enough to be able to see. If DVD sales decline, film restoration declines right along with them.

I was talking about this not long ago with an executive of a respected DVD label–never mind which one. He said Netflix was killing him. For years, when he released a new DVD title, he could count on a certain number of sales in three ways: (1) Direct mail or Amazon; (2) video stores; and (3) a bulk order from Netflix. Judging by the predicted sales, he could judge his costs and cover his overhead.

“Now what’s happened,” he said, “is that video stores are closing, because of streaming. Amazon sales are down because Amazon Instant streams a lot of titles. And people don’t buy if they figure a movie will be streaming on Netflix. Previously, Netflix would buy a lot of titles to service their customers who got movies by mail. But with their price changes, they forced a lot of those customers to choose between mail and streaming. As a result, Netflix needs a lot fewer DVDs in order to be able to offer a title.”

This is all obviously true. What does it mean for us? It means the day is coming when non-blockbuster titles will undergo a sudden income crisis. If you can sell between several hundred and a few thousand physical DVDs, you have a good chance of breaking even. If you have a Tiffany product like Criterion, you can afford the considerable costs of film restoration. When income dries up, those kinds of films become more challenging to manufacture and distribute.

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About clivedav184z

Journalist and reviewer for The Times & Sunday Times.
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