Until now. The recent launch of the Warner Archive Collection could well portend a revolution; it's DVD on demand, a way for Warner (and, one hopes, for every other studio) to make movies available without spending the $75,000 to $100,000 it costs to release an old title into an ominously contracting marketplace. Here's how it works: Go to the archive and browse the titles. Click on the ones you want, and for $19.95 apiece, they'll burn a DVD-R and ship you the movie in a standard plastic case with cover art. There are no extras except the trailer, if it's available; there isn't even scene-by-scene chaptering. But you will get the film, shown in the correct aspect ratio and with a picture and soundtrack of mostly high quality. Virtually none of the movies in this collection has been available on DVD before. Many never even made it to VHS.
So far, there are only 150 titles, but Warner plans to expand the archive by at least 20 selections a month, drawing from the 5,600-odd unreleased titles (including a huge number of vintage RKO and MGM movies) in its 6,800-film library. George Feltenstein, the studio's senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing, says that orders for the films have already exceeded his expectations. When I asked him how many movies Warner ultimately hopes to make available, he replied without hesitation: "All of them. People have asked for these movies. Somebody wants to see the Lupe Velez Mexican Spitfire pictures. There are people who have been waiting for the Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell musicals that Busby Berkeley didn't make."
For movie lovers, this is heaven. Anybody can adequately take the measure of a century of film by leapfrogging across decades, countries, and genres from one masterpiece to another, and this is pretty much how we all do it, Netflixing our way through the Criterion Collection (great, but not for American movies) or checking off Oscar nominees from decades past (great, but only as a barometer of what people thought was great at the time). But movie history is also written in what happened between the great movies—in the ambitious and the mundane, the half-hearted and the forgotten, the unjustly overlooked and the justly dismissed.
My introductory comment was a bit melodramatic. In reality, I'm giddy at this news. Not so much that I'm going to go out and blow a wad of money on these titles (oh, maybe just one or two), but that Warner actually did an incredibly smart thing by offering these the way they are.
It's one thing for a blockbuster movie to be pressed into millions and millions of DVD copies for people to rent and buy. It's another to do the same for movie very few people have ever even heard of. Hell, even the blockbusters get over-produced (witness how many copies of Semi-Pro are in the Blockbuster bargain bins with no one buying them).
So this movie-by-demand direct from the studio is a brilliant idea. They don't go through the expense of mass production but do it piece by piece, which is manageable in the small volume they'll probably receive by folks like me. No, they don't have any extras and they aren't digitally remastered within an inch of their lives, but they are available. That's the point.
It's a beautiful thing.