13 August 2009

MY MOST CONTROVERSIAL POST YET! I Take on a Sacred Cow of the DVD World

I hate you, Criterion Collection. Yeah, you heard me, hate you.

There. I said it and I meant it. Oh sure, Criterion is the Cadillac of the DVD industry. A film released on Criterion is always gorgeous or is at least restored to its natural luster. Audio commentary is invariably provided along with tons of special features. Criterion specializes in "important classic and contemporary films." Sounds like the devoted cinephiles dream. What's not to like?

I'll tell you what. $$$$$. That's what.

The Seven Samurai (1954) $49.95, The Lady Vanishes (1938) $31.96, Amarcord (1974) $39.95, M (1931) $39.95, a bag of popcorn $25. Okay I was kidding about the popcorn, but my point remains.

Criterion's prices are fine if you happen to own a diamond mine, but to us Ordinary Joes and Josephines, Criterion has effectively priced a lot of films out of our range. Mine anyway.

I own three Criterion films. One was given as a gift, another I purchased with a gift certificate and the third I took on a second mortgage to buy.

One of the worst things about Criterion is they have a virtual monopoly on the better foreign films. Certainly if you want anything by Bergman, Renoir or Malle, as just a few examples, you're going to be paying through the nose. (Snot a bad idea.) So they're forever putting me in the awkward position of trying to decide whether to buy a beloved film or continue enjoying three meals a day. See why I hate them? I like to eat!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you're saying: you get what you pay for. But when a 90 minute movie costs over $30 it better be able to tuck me and get a glass of water. There are limits for even those of us who spend ridiculous amounts of time and money on movies. That's just it. We already go to the theater (which now costs as much as a baseball game, which now costs as much a really nice restaurant meal which now costs as much as...oh hell, you get the picture) and buy DVDs aplenty. Who can afford to put further strains on the family budget by purchasing a $40 DVD -- with just one movie in it.

Giving credit where it is due I will say that Criterion films are great to rent as in such circumstances they are forced to stand as equals to $15 and $20 films. None of your elitist classism then, Criterion. Also they've taken to releasing some of their films under the "Essential Art House" label. I was thus able to buy Grand Illusion (1937) for under a million dollars and may consider ponying up for The 39 Steps (1935). This collection still offers the same picture quality but with nary a special feature. I guess us poor folk don't merit the extras. So thanks anyway for that, some of your films are affordable.

On their website Criterion offers the following gobbledygook answer to the question of why their DVDs cost more:
Our prices reflect all the resources we put into making each release a special release. Each release has a producer who finds the best supplemental features to help further the appreciation of the film, often producing original content. The technical staff ensures that we are working with the best original source materials and digital masters by performing rigorous visual and audio restoration processes.

Please allow me to translate: we do a nice job with our films and there are enough rich b*tsrards and suckers out there that we figure that justifies our outlandish prices.

Hate you.


Anonymous said...

I guess you missed the sale at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago where all Criterion DVDs were 50% off? I picked up a bunch for $15-20 each. Besides, supply and demand is a factor with their pricing. Many of their titles probably only sell in the low thousands (if that), so expecting a price on par with the latest new release that will sell hundreds of thousands is unrealistic. It's definitely a niche market.

Kate Gabrielle said...

Umm... does "anonymous" work for Criterion, perhaps? lol!

Hey, I completely agree with you (Richard, not anonymous!) Even $20 is a little much for a DVD, in my opinion. The only Criterion I own is The 39 Steps, and only then it's because it's my parents absolute favorite Hitchcock film and we only had a really bad copy to start with.

I tend to avoid buying DVDs unless I know for a fact that TCM will not be showing them in the next four months and I desperately HAVE to watch it pronto!

I mean,$15 or $20... let's see, that can buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, 2 lb of zucchini, a pack of boneless chicken (or 1/2 lb. fake vegetarian chicken if you're me) and a box of minute rice. OR you could buy ONE Criterion movie on sale 50% off at B&N??? Hmm.... I'll have to think about that one..

Goddess said...

Does anyone remember back when VHS tapes first came out, how expensive they were? and then DVD's were expensive as well. The quality of the film is part of the reason I would guess for the high cost as well as the obscurity of the title. I know when our Library buys films they want the Criterion collection, then anyone else. Of course as long as there are chumps willing to pay the price, they will charge what they want. also there are millions of chumps who want the latest "Brat Pitt Flick" and only hundreds who want the Art house flick or the classic black and white film, that also affects the price. Me, I just borrow the criterion film from my library and enjoy it, knowing I didn't have to pay for it...

Kathryn said...

Here's what they say over at the Criterion Web site:

15. Why do Criterion releases often cost more than other DVDs?

Our prices reflect all the resources we put into making each release a special release. Each release has a producer who finds the best supplemental features to help further the appreciation of the film, often producing original content. The technical staff ensures that we are working with the best original source materials and digital masters by performing rigorous visual and audio restoration processes.


In other words, you get what you pay for, Mister!

Rg said...

As a Criterion "chump" I would offer a few pointers.

1) Buy from Amazon, not the Criterion website:

The Seven Samurai ($34.49)
The Lady Vanishes ($16.49)
Amarcord ($16.49)

2)Criterion/Janus films may have a hegemonic control on US rights, but if you invest in a region-free DVD player, you can find cheap foreign editions.

3)Although they can be pricey, Criterion discs are packed with some worthwhile extras. I think a Bergman disc with a Peter Cowie commentary is worth the few extra dollars.

Skitch said...

Actually, Anonymous is right. I took advantage of that B&N sale as well, picking up a slew of films (Ruling Class, Made in USA, Peeping Tom, Carnival of Souls and several more). Keep an eye on Amazon too as they sometimes offer great deals.

If you think about it, the average moviegoer doesn't care about the older films and rarely watches the extras so Criterion IS a niche market. When you see what's popular not only at the box office, but on sales of DVDs, you realize that Criterion, though expensive, is sometimes worth every penny.

That's my 2 cents.

Great, now I only have $39.93 so I can't get a Criterion. ;)

Marcy said...

I love Criterion movies. They're gorgeous, inside-out. They have lovely features. They have booklets that include beautiful stills from the movie and essays written by cool cinephiles.

But I agree, they're so darn expensive that they're almost not worth it. I still need to eat and buy other bare necessities. I just borrow those Criterions from the library and bathe in their gorgeousness for a week. That's fine with me.

What bothers me more is what you pointed out in your entry: If I want to buy a Bergman, Fellini, or a DVD directed by a brilliant foreign filmmaker, I can't buy it in the states with a decent price. I have to buy a Criterion. I guess I can buy a DVD from the foreign markets, but usually the quality is not as good.

Great post about a monopoly in the works...

Anonymous said...

Over here in Asia, we often have the choice of cheap versions of Japanese and French films that Criterion reissues ... but the quality is absolutely atrocious. Wrong aspect ratios, washed out video, subtitles superimposed onto video itself in 2 languages, no chapter stops, and many other annoying stuff.

For the cheap local versions, my guess is the distributor simply transfers the film in their local archive to DVD without any remastering and tweaking.

And Criterion DVDs at local retail outlets are even more pricey than in the US! Much cheaper to order from Amazon.

Juliette. said...

Agreed about the cost-- definitely too much. Then again, a lot of the movies are available in other formats, so it's not as if they're forcing you to buy it. For my favorite films, I'll go with Criterion. Anything else, no thanks.

Have you heard of their Eclipse series, by the way? Much better in terms of price.