The rights and wrongs of Criterion’s decision to ditch ‘dual format’ releases

Less than a year ago, Criterion Collection CEO Peter Becker took to the label’s official blog and announced their decision to release new titles in dual format editions and not as separate Blu-ray and DVD releases.

I expected some resistance to this announcement, but Becker seemed to pre-empt most criticisms with some cogent reasoning. While dual format editions would mean that Blu-ray consumers, like myself, would end up with a bunch of DVDs that they’d likely never use, this is hardly an issue, and the initiative seemed like a nudge in the right direction for those still using DVD.

Yes. The right direction. I know some might consider this somewhat contentious, but I really fail to see how a higher quality transfer of a film should ever be considered anything but an improvement. Why wouldn’t film lovers move towards the superior image and sound offered by Blu-ray?

I appreciate, of course, that there might be financial considerations when it comes to the decision to buy a film on Blu-ray or DVD, but with the Criterion Collection in particular this seems far less relevant. We are talking about a boutique label offering a curated collection, a series of high quality and arguably collectible releases that already sell for far more than the average price of movies on disc. It seems a little strange that, for instance, a Criterion DVD collector may spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on DVDs each year but balk at the idea of spending fifty dollars on a Blu-ray player.

One could perhaps argue that a collector would then end up spending more on Blu-rays, as they are priced slightly higher, generally with an SRP of $39.95 for the Blu-ray compared to an SRP of $29.95 for a DVD. But Criterion Blu-rays are often more heavily discounted at major retailers than their DVD equivalents, in both ‘flash sales’ and as a matter of course. Take their wonderful release of Godzilla for instance. At the time of writing there is only around five dollars separating the two formats, and Amazon were recently selling the Blu-ray for a lower price than they have ever placed on the DVD.

Becker did make reference last year to DVD releases being important to schools, libraries, and universities. Unfortunately as a UK resident I can’t really speak to this with any authority but anecdotally I can say that I have seen libraries in the UK gradually building Blu-ray sections alongside their DVD sections with apparent success – the discs are rarely available

Criterion commented in their post last year that DVDs accounted for around 40% of their sales and many collectors have taken to the web to defend their decision to stay DVD only, many reporting that they already have a large DVD collection and aren’t keen on upgrading. But who says they have to? Why couldn’t anyone with a large DVD collection simply transition to buying Blu-ray from now on and still keep all their DVDs, optionally upgrading the occasional disc if a good deal comes up or if the desire for the Blu-ray is strong enough? This is exactly what I have done. Blu-ray players do play DVDs after all. It’s not like your DVD collection is suddenly worthless just because you start buying Blu-rays.

I do wonder if this reluctance may sometimes have something to do with the desire for a complete collection with a sense of continuity, as if all of those DVDs lined up in ‘spine number order’ would somehow be tainted by slotting a Blu-ray into the middle. Such a collector perhaps needs to rethink why they’re buying these films in the first place. Doesn’t watching the film in the best way possible trump the aesthetics of objects lined up on a shelf?

I can’t help but feel that Criterion’s decision this week to return to separate releases for standard and high definition is a step backwards for the label and a placating move made to appease DVD consumers. I appreciate that the cost of producing some films as Blu-rays would be prohibitive, and I would never want to lose the kind of releases that Criterion manage as DVD Eclipse sets, but where a Blu-ray is viable, I do rather wish The Criterion Collection had decided to take a stand and actually release only a Blu-ray.

This would undoubtedly piss off a number of consumers and inspire angry comments and blog posts, but how long before those loud protestations turned to quiet murmurs, and DVD collectors finally came around to the idea that a one-off payment of fifty bucks for a Blu-ray player isn’t the end of the world? And maybe, you know, it is actually kind of worth it.

Blu-ray has superseded DVD as the preferred home entertainment format for those who value technical quality in the presentation of films. On the Criterion website it states that,

The Criterion Collection is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.

Where Blu-rays are available, DVDs are clearly not “editions of the highest technical quality” and if DVD continues to limp on in this manner, as a slightly cheaper alternative, then Blu-ray will most likely not be supported by labels like Criterion to the appropriate degree.

Criterion has long been about respecting works of art, focusing on high quality transfers and, where possible, editions proofed and approved by filmmakers. If separate DVD releases remain in the collection they may well have a negative effect on Criterion’s ability to justify some Blu-ray releases. If Blu-ray was more strongly supported, then there’s even a very real possibility that Criterion could justify moving the Eclipse series to HD.

In his 2013 post Becker commented on the cost involved in producing two separate releases for each film. This is now an issue that they will have to deal with again. But why?

If you are a fan of the Criterion Collection and believe that these works of art deserve those promised “editions of the highest technical quality” then why wouldn’t you support Blu-ray? Maybe it’s time to make the jump, vote with your wallet and support Criterion’s dedication to great works of art.