Saturday, October 3, 2009

Criterion Responds to 2009 Criticism

In an unprecedented manner, Peter Becker of Criterion responds to criticism via an email (via .org):

My name is Peter Becker. I'm the president of Criterion. Thanks for taking the time to write in.

You're right to call the Criterion schedule a juggling act, and juggling this year's schedule has been more challenging than any since laserdisc days. I understand some of the frustration you're feeling about the balance of new and classic titles, especially in the later 2009 Blu-ray schedule. Making the Criterion schedule is always a series of impossible compromises, and in the end, some people, some years, are going to end up unhappy. Clearly this was not a good year for you. I'm sorry about that. I know it may not solve anything, but I thought you might appreciate a quick look at some of the factors that came into play with this year's schedule.

For what it's worth, we've spent much more time on classic film this year than our announced schedule shows. The single most time consuming and expensive mastering project in the history of the company was Kobayashi's THE HUMAN CONDITION -- that is, until we started work on Rossellini's War Trilogy, which is still not finished. We had originally hoped to have the Rossellini set ready for October release, then November, then December. Ironically the easiest of the masters, the 2007 restoration of ROME, OPEN CITY, is the one that is giving us the most trouble. PAISAN, which has never been available in a watchable video version, has taken us three straight months of digital restoration, an amount of time and an expense that will probably never come back, but the film will finally, for the first time, look good -- still damaged, but with a beautiful black and white image that will be a revelation to anyone who has ever seen the old tapes and 16 mm prints that are still in circulation. Our tech director is about to make his third trip to Italy on this project, just to try to straighten out the last master, next week.

You also mention STAGECOACH. We never announced it for December, but it's true that we had hoped to release it then. Again mastering turned out to be more complicated than we anticipated. The original negative of the film is lost, and we have been evaluating a number of different elements. We are now working closely with UCLA's restoration team to evaluate all available elements and create a new HD master, starting from scratch. The bad news is that it's taking a long time. The good news is that in the time we've been working on the master, we've had the opportunity to unearth some interesting supplemental materials, so the edition will be all the better for it. That said, it's frustrating that it didn't come out -- the cover's been on the wall of our office for weeks now, and we're looking forward to making it a part of the collection.

Those two big classics that we've been hard at work on were never announced, which helped to give disporportionate weight to the contemporary releases of this fall/winter. I can understand why you would think we were stepping back from classics in favor of more contemporary films, but in fact, the opposite has been true. Our Blu-ray schedule has been heavily weighted toward international classics with THE SEVENTH SEAL, PLAYTIME, WAGES OF FEAR, THE THIRD MAN, REPULSION, 400 BLOWS, THE LAST METRO, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. And when you throw in our DVD schedule with Z, JEANNE DIELMAN, 2 OR 3 THINGS..., HUMAN CONDITION, MY DINNNER WITH ANDRE, the Imamura box, Painlevé, etc., I don't think we pulled any punches or spared any expense where classics were concerned.

Integrating Blu-ray production into our workflow has been challenging in its own right. Adding an existing DVD upgrade is about equivalent to adding a new DVD production to the schedule, at least where our technical team is concerned, and that is where our capacity is most constrained. New Blu-rays released day and date with the DVD editions are marginally more efficient, and many of our customers are avidly urging us not to release DVD-only editions anymore, but each simultaneous release we do is one more DVD catalog classic we aren't revisiting that month. Right now we're struggling to bring our Blu-ray capacity up from one to two a month to three or four. As our capacity increases, it will be easier to keep a balance, but in the meantime it's an inexact science.

The other title that you say you were expecting, but which we didn't officially announce for December, is CHE. It's coming, and as you can imagine there's a wealth of great content getting developed. We wanted to be ready for December, but Steven Soderbergh needed time to reconstruct some deleted scenes, and we were also able, in what we think is going to be a controversial coup, to persuade Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson to do commentaries on both films, but he also needed more time to prepare. In short, it became clear that if we delayed the release a month we would be able to make a much better set. That's a trade we will always make, even if it means we don't get the benefit of sales in the holiday season, and we think that's the kind of decision our collectors would want us to make.

To touch briefly on some of the other things you mention: more Eclipse is a goal for us too. Again, this is a capacity issue. Each disc in a set represents multiple passes for our QC department, and when we're working on large-scale projects like Rossellini, HUMAN CONDITION, or the Imamura box, that has a tendency to cramp our capacity to handle multi-disc Eclipse sets at the same time. Still, we're proud of what we've been able to do in Eclipse this year, but we are definitely looking forward to getting more out next year. As for "two-release months," by which I assume we're referring to December, I've already mentioned that we intended to have STAGECOACH and CHE ready for December as well but we delayed them to make them better rather than sooner. That said, when one of the two releases is a 25-disc set, that also factors in. I'm sorry you don't like the Kurosawa box idea, but we felt that his centennial was an important opportunity to draw attention to his monumental body of work, and so far we've had some very positive feedback from people who have not been as diligently collecting his work as you have.

I don't expect anything I've said will change your mind about our slate, but I hope at least you'll know that we have no desire to dismiss your concerns. We do value feedback from our customers, especially longtime supporters like you, and we hope we'll earn your loyalty again in 2010.

All the best,
Peter Becker



David Blakeslee said...

I'm pretty impressed by Becker's responsiveness and concern for the Criterion fan base (of which I'm one.) I think the criticism over on forum by some members of the Kurosawa box is really misguided and embarrassing. Kurosawa deserves the kind of tribute that Criterion will offer. And I'm fine with them having a "lean" month or two of new releases. There are many great old releases to choose from if someone feels the urge to buy a new DVD! What stands out to me in Becker's comments is Criterion's on-going commitment to top quality releases, rather than cutting corners to keep the new product rolling out according to any preconceived notions of scheduling.

filmbo said...

I agree, Dave. My original assumption was that Criterion was temporarily making due until the recession blows over, but it was nice to hear their output is a result on their doubling-down on two time-intense trilogies.

I haven't been following too much of the criticism at auteurs, but I'm guessing the frustration stems not from Criterion's decisions, but that there aren't more companies that share in Criterion commitment.

Matt said...

I had no idea there was a fan based outcry. I follow their releases closely and had noticed that new titles were being announced slower than usual but I also saw they had Blu-Ray releases and the Art House collection - so I figured their energy was going in that direction. Having worked in preservation I can attest to the time it takes to get films restored and prepared for prime time.