By Jeff T. Dick, Davenport, IA
Just as book publishers introduced print-on-demand as an option to fill customer orders without amassing inventory, the video industry is gradually adopting a similar ancillary business model: manufactured-on-demand (MOD), or “burning” DVD-R discs instead of pressing mass-produced DVDs.
Most of the 2,000-plus MOD titles currently available were not previously released on disc and are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases, with paper-sleeve artwork but no booklets or other inserts. Notably, DVD-R discs should play on all DVD players except for first-generation models from the late 1990s, yet they may not play on other DVD devices like PC drives.
In 2009, Warner Bros. pioneered MOD with a select group of “deep catalog” titles that didn’t economically justify mass distribution. The Warner Archive Collection proved very successful and has grown to more than 1,500 titles. With Deathtrap (the original 1982 version with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve) and Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell, the studio recently dipped its toes into on-demand Blu-ray. The Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993) are next up for high-def on-demand.
Initially offering mediocre video quality from outdated “off-the-shelf” source material, Warner subsequently started remastering its MOD titles for a post-VHS age. And while its on-demand discs are usually no-frills releases—without trailers, commentary tracks, or other extras—Warner has added the occasional bell or whistle (Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970) was the first to include a director commentary). Widescreen movies are shown in their proper aspect ratio and formatted for 16 x 9 TV screens. Closed-captions or subtitles are not offered.
Warner’s vast collection contains many worthy titles, including Ken Russell’s road-show version of The Boy Friend (1971), with Twiggy and a youthful Tommy Tune; The Hanging Tree (1959), Gary Cooper’s Western-genre swan song; S.O.B. (1981), Blake Edwards’s dark comedy about the movie business; Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree (1969), the first Hollywood film directed by an African American; and Dark of the Sun (1968), with Rod Taylor as a commando on a Congo rescue mission. Besides feature films, the Warner Archive Collection also includes made-for-TV movies and television series.
Following Warner’s lead, Sony, MGM-UA, Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Disney jumped on the MOD bandwagon. Lionsgate is the latest MOD convert.
The Sony Choice Collection consists of 340-plus titles mainly drawn from the Columbia Pictures catalog. Titles are generally transferred with the sort of TLC Sony brings to its pressed releases and range from the Golden Age of Hollywood to 1970s/1980s/1990s pictures like Lord Jim (1965), with Peter O’Toole (based on Joseph Conrad’s novel); Oklahoma Crude (1973), with Faye Dunaway and George C. Scott entangled in wildcat oil prospecting; and indie gems such as Housekeeping (1987), with Christine Lahti as an unconventional aunt, and Allison Anders’a Gas Food Lodging (1992), about rebellious teen girls in a small town.
The Universal Vault Series offers some 160 titles, including A Bronx Tale (1993), Blue Collar (1978), Resurrection (1980), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979). Sometimes putting out an MOD title turns out to be a good way to test the waters for a mass release. Such is the case with Sometimes a Great Notion (aka Never Give an Inch), the 1970 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel directed by and starring Paul Newman. Niche distributor Shout Factory recently released it on Blu-ray.
20th Century Fox Cinema Archives holds 135-plus titles and is a fine source for pre-widescreen-era movies but not so much for blurry, cropped versions of CinemaScope films from 1953 onward. Case in point: The Big Show (1961), a circus drama starring Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson. Better choices include golden oldies like The Foxes of Harrow (1947), I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951), They Came To Blow Up America (1943), and China Girl.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection includes 330-plus titles, and while video quality is passable in the main, consistency lags well behind Warner and Sony. A few of MGM’s interesting titles: Paul Schrader’s Vietnam-vet drama Rolling Thunder (1977), the Hitchcockian Still of the Night (1982), and the presidential nomination drama The Best Man (1964), starring Henry Fonda. Forget the lurid title and go for Burn, Witch, Burn, a 1962 British cult classic about black magic, and 1973’s gritty The Offence, with Sean Connery as a cop on a child molestation case.
The Disney Generations Collection offers a scant 15 titles, none of which are remotely essential.
The latest on-demand entry, Lionsgate MOD, offers some worthwhile titles; however, most of them are fairly recent films previously released as standard discs that have gone on moratorium, including Shall We Dance? (the 1996 original Japanese version); Pedro Almodóvar’s High Heels (1991), with Javier Bardem; Citizen Ruth (the Emmy Award–winning 1996 HBO film with Laura Dern); and 2004 foreign film Oscar nominee The Chorus. Don’t miss the British crime picture Brighton Rock, the original 1947 version, with a memorable debut by Richard Attenborough as the cunningly evil Pinkie Brown.
The best selection of MOD titles are found at Amazon (www.amazon.com/neverondvd), but Movies Unlimited and other online retailers as well as library-friendly distributors including Midwest Tape also offer on-demand discs. Prices average about $20 (or less) per disc.