We’ve referred to in passing the contemporary impact of the boutique home video label a number of times over recent weeks. In our round-up of the highlights of DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2013 we noted the rising importance of companies like Criterion, Arrow Video and Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema imprint in an age in which the major studios are becoming increasingly complacent when it comes to their handling of physical media, with the likes of Disney and Warner releasing problematic editions of their titles, that reinforce the idea that they’re happiest when just throwing their home video releases together with nary a thought for the audience at large.
The boutique label existed earlier than, but really came to fruition with the rise of the DVD. Generally speaking, a boutique label is a small outfit that shows a preference towards lesser known films, many of which stem from a land in which the English language isn’t the first language. A useful comparison might be an independent reissues record label, or a university book publisher. Masters Of Cinema is a subsidiary of Eureka Entertainment, and started life as a collective of websites dedicated to, funnily enough, filmmakers deemed to be masters of cinema. Artificial Eye started life as a distributor of foreign language films in London in the mid-1970s, while Arrow Video (and it’s companion label Arrow Academy) is an off-shoot of Arrow Films. The Criterion Collection, formed in the mid-1980s in New York is considered by most to be the finest purveyor of home video in the world, and is the benchmark by which all other distributors aspire to. It set the example by which every other boutique label follow. Essentially an off-shoot of Janus Films, the legendary distributors of arthouse cinema in the US, Criterion pioneered many of the things that are now considered commonplace in home video distribution, such as the rejection of pan and scan video transfers and the place of the audio commentary, and earned them the moniker of “Film School in a box”.
Criterion started life as a laserdisc distributor. Taking advantage of the apprehensive attitude of the major studios towards laserdisc as a format, Criterion managed to acquire the rights to all manner of notable features, releasing almost 400 titles over 14 years, with the cinematic triptych of Citizen Kane, Hitchcock and King Kong amongst the earliest releases! They were an early adopter of the DVD format too, supporting the medium from 1998 onwards. In the years that followed the name “Criterion” became synonymous with a certain level of quality and attention to detail, inspiring other companies in to action.
While much smaller in size, British label Masters Of Cinema certainly give Criterion a run for their money. 2014 sees the imprint celebrate it’s tenth anniversary, with big things promised for the second half of this year. Masters Of Cinema releases have consistently topped Hope Lies’ end of year polls for three years now, with the precision afforded titles such as Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord resulting in world-class editions of remarkable pictures. A general trend in opinion saw Arrow Video, the UK’s other great boutique label placed ahead of the Eureka label in many year-end round-ups in 2013, and while we wouldn’t personally go that far that isn’t to say that they too haven’t impressed heavily.
One of the key elements in the success of the boutique labels is the surrounding fan cultures that they attract. There are numerous websites dedicated solely to Criterion news, rumours and reviews, while both Arrow and Masters Of Cinema maintain a lively online community of supporters.
The major’s aren’t all bad either. A growing trend, first pioneered by Warner in the US is the manufactured-on-demand service. Here, less popular titles are made available to order from the studio themselves. The Warner Archive Collection, to refer to it by its full title, have a strong social media presence, that is clearly manned by passionate individuals. Sony Pictures, MGM and Disney have since followed suit, while the Warner Archive now exists as an online streaming service, and they’ve also branched out in to Blu-ray production.
One unwelcome side effect of Warner being so hands-on with the Archive Collection is their reluctance to approve of the licensing of outside distributors such as Criterion or Eureka. Last year’s release of Terrence Malick’s Badlands from Criterion is something of a milestone, in that it marks the first time that the label have been granted permission to release a Warner title since the laserdisc days, while the BFI collaborated with the studio in order to put out Hugh Hudson’s otherwise unremarkable Revolution and the very much remarkable The Devils several months earlier.
When one looks to the current home video landscape it’s difficult not to think towards the precedent set by laserdisc. While the choice of aficionados and the Japanese but nary any other soul, laserdisc may initially appear to be a worrying example to cite as a positive, however one might argue that the evolving state of film culture dictates that niche is enough to justify survival now. Large televisions and home projection systems are commonplace, with the home video market now a very different place to how it was when laserdisc came of age.
Ultimately though, it’s the business model of the early days of Criterion on laserdisc that the home video industry of now has to be most excited about. As mainstream interest in physical media flounders, with attention instead further turning towards more convenient streaming options, there sits the prospect that companies like Criterion, Arrow, the BFI and Eureka will be entrusted further with more desirable products. During the golden days of laserdisc Criterion had their pick of the most important films of all time, with everything from The Magnificent Ambersons to Pulp Fiction a part of their stable. If the studios are focussing their attentions on digitally delivered media, then there’s every chance that they will be more open to the idea of licensing their work to external companies for physical release.
We’re already seeing this kind of working scenario take hold. Two years ago Eureka collaborated with Universal as a part of their centenary celebrations, and handled the disc releases of a number of titles. As a result, landmark editions of Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend saw release, while the incredibly lavish edition of Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil remains a highlight of the medium.
By adopting other contemporaneous technologies, such as crowd funding the future the humble boutique label finds itself in a position of unparalleled freedom. The exciting possibilities of such an amalgamation of means was hinted at by Arrow Video’s recently successful Kickstarter campaign, which was undertaken to fund the finishing touches of an upcoming box-set celebrating the work of Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. In return for an upfront donation contributors could secure a copy of the release in advance. When one looks at a title like the recent ultra-limited Late Mizoguchi box-set from Masters Of Cinema it’s difficult not to hypothesise over future applications of such an approach to funding home video. Whose to say that a complete Maurice Pialat Blu-ray box-set might not be funded that way, or a trickier sell like Rivette’s Out 1? The possibilities afforded by digital technology ought to exist as a favourite counterpart to physical media, and not as the Grim Reaper that some would have it seem.