The debut last month of Warner Archive Instant, a new streaming video service from Warner Bros., stimulated some strong reactions on Internet movie discussion sites. Costing $9.99 a month, $2 more than the established services, and with an initial inventory of only a few hundred old movies – many of them in black and white and some (shudder) even without spoken dialogue – what kind of Netflix killer was this supposed to be?
Not a very good one, obviously. But that was never what George Feltenstein, Warner’s senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing and the driving force behind the initiative, had in mind.
“As a consumer who has a houseful of old movies on discs and still can’t get enough,” Feltenstein said in a phone interview, “my needs were not being met by the mainstream services. The kind of movies I wanted to watch weren’t there. I thought a lot of people would be like me.”
When the industry was rocked a few years ago by diminishing sales of new films on DVD, it was Feltenstein who found a way to keep his studio’s backlist alive and working. Rather than going through the traditional (and costly) route of retailing mass-produced, machine-pressed DVDs, Feltenstein turned to an alternative form of distribution: the manufactured-on-demand disc.
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Because on-demand discs are recorded on DVD-R discs, a less expensive, if less stable, photochemical alternative to pressed DVDs, they can be produced economically in small quantities, or even on an order-by-order basis.
Distributed through Warner’s own site, as well as through Amazon and other online retailers, the Warner Archive Collection has grown to include more than 1,500 movies and television series, ranging from Rex Ingram’s silent swashbuckler “Scaramouche” (1923) to the 2011 HBO documentary “Saving Pelican 895.”
The instant service represents a logical extension of the Warner Archive Collection into the rapidly expanding world of online entertainment. “We’re positioning it in a similar way,” said Michael Cardullo, the executive director of Warner Archive, “as a way of shining a light on things people otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”
Although the Warner Instant site is still a work in progress, it already features an eclectic assortment that includes art house classics (Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”), B westerns (with Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Mack Brown) from the Poverty Row studio Monogram, glossy star vehicles from the studio era (Bette Davis in “Mr. Skeffington”), ’70s exploitation movies (“Cleopatra Jones”) and a healthy number of complete imponderables (the Kristy McNichol melodrama “Just the Way You Are”).
For viewers equipped with a Roku streaming player, the service also offers the opportunity to stream a significant number of titles to an HD TV in full 1080p high definition. Though I wasn’t able to test this feature (I have a rival set-top box; Cardullo says that support for my brand and other platforms is coming in the near future), it may be worth the price of admission alone. Even though the studios routinely scan their films at high resolutions (2K or 4K) when they create video masters, these much improved new editions go largely unseen by consumers. Relatively few library titles have the commercial heft to justify a Blu-ray release, and cable outlets for this material are few and far between.
Here, though, are wonders like Alfred E. Green’s “Baby Face,” an amazingly sordid pre-code shocker starring Barbara Stanwyck; Joseph H. Lewis’s low-budget masterpiece of film noir, “Gun Crazy”; and John Ford’s magnificent (but starless) “Wagon Master,” streaming in a format significantly closer to their full glory.
“That’s the thing I’m most excited about,” Feltenstein said: “Hundreds of titles in HD that people haven’t been able to see.”
With the entire Warner Bros., RKO Radio and pre-1986 MGM libraries from which to choose, and a vast reserve of independent productions that have entered the Warner library, Warner Instant will not have trouble filling its digital shelves. The plan, according to Feltenstein, is to add 20 or so titles a week, organized into thematic clusters such as the “Forbidden Hollywood” label that Feltenstein created for the Warner Archive Collection’s pre-code films.
What you won’t find, at least for the moment, are marquee titles like “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind.” Those two films, for example, remain under license to Amazon, where they can be bought ($9.99) or rented ($2.99) as digital files.
Films with that level of fame are better suited to Blu-ray distribution, where they certainly can pay their own way. What Warner has built here is not a showcase for established classics but an open field for grazing, giving viewers the chance to sample lesser-known and totally forgotten films without risking $20 on a DVD.
Not every good movie is famous, and conversely, not every famous movie is good. The thrill of discovery remains one of the driving pleasures of cinephilia, and what I’ve enjoyed most about Netflix and Hulu (particularly the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus) is the ability to surf through movies I don’t already know. Now that repertory theaters are an endangered species, local video stores are all but extinct and older films on cable are restricted to a couple of channels, the experience of unfettered exploration has become hard to come by.
Dwindling access to period films has meant a calcification of the official canon, with the thousands of movies that make up this major American art form reduced to a few hundred Oscar winners or major star vehicles. Streaming services hold out the best hope of reversing that situation in a generation, and if the other studios follow Warner’s lead, we could be in for a cinematic renaissance, a rediscovery of the classic texts that might point a way out of our current creative doldrums.
Hey, a guy can dream. In the meantime, I’ve got some more Westerns to watch.