I am not sure what year it was that I saw it, but David Fincher‘s adaptation of Fight Club was released in the year I turned twenty-one. That year brought on a lot of embarrassments, dramas, and things I just dearly wish I could have taken back. But it was also the year I began to take my faltering first steps into home cinema. Somehow, I also managed to bluff my way into a gig reviewing test samples of the DVD-Video medium. It was strictly an amateur job or hobby, with the only real compensation being free discs. But it opened my eyes to a lot about not only how home video and its delivery media worked, but also how that side of the film industry worked.
As I type this, I am in a very cramped little housing maybe a handful of kilometres from the place I grew up in. But that is irrelevant. What matters is that I am now sitting, a bit awkwardly, in a new home, and watching a new Blu-ray Disc of Blade Runner on the fifty-inch television I bought a couple of years ago.
Ah yes, Blade Runner. The film that became my first purchase on the exciting new media that offered progressive pictures and lossless audio. The film that most accurately describes the reality “high functioning” autistic adults generally find themselves in without even trying. The film that was like a kiss of death to a number of companies that paid to be advertised in it. The film in which Rutger Hauer and Brion James each earned ten Oscars (each) that they have yet to receive one of.
First, the bad news. Labelling aside, the disc on which Blade Runner is presented on in this new 30th Anniversary Edition is pretty much identical to the one it was presented on in the original three-format release. Oh, there have been some very minor changes. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that makes Vangelis‘ score seem even more masterful is now the default. But without that little change, the two discs are otherwise identical where content is concerned. Even the setup between discs is pretty much the same, save for one thing. The Final Cut is presented on a disc of its own, and the other three “official” cuts (US theatrical, European theatrical, and “Director’s”) are on the second disc. What is different is that for this new iteration of the release, Warner Brothers chose to put the Workprint edition and all of the extras including the enormous Dangerous Days documentary on a third BD.
Look, I could go on all night about Blade Runner itself. It is literally one of the most visionary films released during my lifetime, and not merely because of its unintentional connection with a present-day societal nightmare. Although it does make the mistake of setting itself in a specific year, it presents a very well-realised vision of what our world is likely to look like if something is not done real soon to address the increasing overpopulation problem. (Idiots who try to review films should take note that it was not a “passing trend” to paint the future as bleak. Science fiction authors and filmmakers have known for some time that industrialisation and unchecked growth are going to lead to serious consequences. The only thing they have been mistaken about is exactly when this will happen.)
In an introduction that is included on the disc containing The Final Cut, director Ridley Scott states that it is his favourite version of the film. I agree wholeheartedly. The “Director’s Cut” that was released in 1992 was, for reasons to do with scheduling, assembled without much of his input or supervision. Consequently, many scenes in the “Director’s Cut” that went on just that little bit too long due to the inane voiceover being excised without recutting to account for it have been properly trimmed in The Final Cut. Shots on which the crux of the story rests are now better-framed, and so on.
Whatever else we say about The Final Cut and the “Director’s Cut”, I think we can all agree that regardless of which theatrical release we speak of, they are both a good deal better. Say whatever else you will about Ridley Scott, but he does not design his films for morons. And for my lifetime (likely longer), he has had a continual conflict with both financiers and parts of his audience as a result of that. Prometheus is another good example of that. Whilst the second half of Prometheus disappointed me, it did not do so anywhere near to the extent that the people moaning about how it did not carefully spell things out for them did. But that is neither here nor there.
So, at the end of the day, is this 30th Anniversary edition of Blade Runner worth it? If you already own the five-disc limited edition set that was released back in 2007 and are not a fan of the film to the extent that I am, then probably not. If you are a fan of the film to the same extent that I am, or you do not already own the (very nice) five-disc briefcase edition I just spoke of, then knock yourself out. However, if you are a fan of the film to the same extent that I am, you will also be disappointed by a couple of things. Number one, nobody in the disc authoring process thought to make the more-desired changes to the disc. Specifically, the lack of a full menu system that originally made me so nervous about the BD-Video format has not been rectified.
By now, I am sure that some people are wondering. If there is essentially no difference between the bits on the disc (and without verifying the file structure, I cannot be completely certain, bear in mind), why rerelease it in the first place? Is it just another greedy cash grab on the part of the studio? Well, yes and no. Regardless of all else, you must understand something before you moan about “greed”. No business, no matter how noble it tries to pretend it is, is driven by anything other than profit. That is why in spite of thirty years of savage deregulation to just about everything you can imagine, the pharmaceutical industry (aka “big baad pharma”) happens to be the single most regulated industry that has ever existed. Because when your product range includes things like synthetic hormones that can kill patients very painfully in the event of major overdose, people tend to watch you very carefully.
The entertainment industry’s products are nowhere near that powerful or important as those of the pharmaceutical industry. That means that, for good or ill, governments the world over tend to be a lot less tight-arsed in regulating them. And in spite of only having what amounts to slightly more than four and a quarter percent of the world’s population, America has a film industry that is the richest, and most widely-known, in the world. Approximately twenty years of heated-phase deregulated competition has shrunk the number of competitors in the industry substantially, and with that the variety as well as quality of product. Two features of deregulated competition are relevant here. One, there is a perpetual elimination of the weakest competitors in the market, even when only strong ones remain. Two, until all but one or two competitors have been eliminated, and sometimes even then, the name of the “game” is not prosperity but rather survival.
Under these conditions, it makes sense that there would be frequent rereleases and repackagings. In order to understand that, it is important to understand how discs in any format are made. In one very lengthy article, the process of taking the source files, putting them into the final formats they appear on-disc in, mapping out how they will appear within the disc structure, and making a master based on that map, was explained. One feature I remember very clearly from that article is the price of a singular glass master. A glass master, for those who do not get it, is basically a big glass disc that the machinery of the disc pressing process uses as an order concerning what dips to put in what part of the disc surface. In the case of a two-layer disc, each disc consists of two glass masters. That is per disc. So a five-disc set as the True Blood series tends to consist of will consist of ten glass masters. Bear in mind that this figure is from an article in 2000 or 2001, but the price of each DVD glass master quoted was six thousand dollars. Even assuming that the price has gone down a bit, as opposed to going up as one should expect the case to be for a higher-density format like BD, let us quote five thousand as a place to start our feet.
That season boxed set of True Blood or Game Of Thrones you just purchased, in a nutshell, represents about fifty thousand dollars worth of glass masters. In an interview with the then head of the disc-planning branch of what was then Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, I was told that the bosses always had a policy of putting the feature, “added value”, and the whole shebang, on a single disc if it “makes sense” to do so. The price of glass masters reveals the sum of the reason why such policies exist.
How is this relevant to why discs are rereleased or remade? Well, it is like this. Home entertainment departments in all studios base their decisions concerning what to release and when on huge tables of sales figures, cost figures, and numerous manipulations of both. The glass master, for example, is but one of many figures used to calculate the cost of making each disc. Whilst it is true that the costs of making a music compact disc can be averaged out at mere cents, I doubt it will surprise anyone to know that the costs of making a DVD-Video or BD-Video are exponentially higher due to the increased complexity of both formats. Hence, when the original release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut was brought to BD, the accountants tallied up how many BD-Video players there were in circulation at the time, how many could be expected to be in circulation a year from now, what percentage of the owners could be expected to be fans of Blade Runner, and what price each disc had to sell for in order to break even.
In 2007 and 2008, the number of players in circulation was low. Maybe in the hundreds of thousands at most. Sure, the number of players exploded at a rate that had DVD gasping in shock, but the point here is that when Blade Runner: The Final Cut was released on BD, it was limited to an edition of 103,000 sets. Whilst I do not know how the numbers were split, this total was also split between DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and the now largely forgotten HD-DVD format. Hell, for all I know, it could have been 103,000 in each format, which when you consider the fact that Blu-ray Disc compacted five or six years of DVD’s growth in sales into its first year, is pretty staggering.
Also worthy of note is that in spite of the high disc replication costs and relative permanence of the user copy, home video has from the get-go proven far more profitable to the studios than theatrical exhibition has done since the advent of television. In today’s business model, theatrical exhibition is essentially a parasite only given the time of day in the interest of “audience generation”. That is, the studios exhibit the film in theatres in the hope that people who watch it there will enjoy it enough to buy it on disc for themselves, buy it on disc for a loved one, or tell people they know to do similar things. But whatever else they might tell you, the film industry is not the glamorous, exciting, manic business that it used to be promoted as. It is a cut-throat industry where squeezing the last drop of blood out of a dead body is often simply thought of as a survival mechanism.
And that is kind of the point here. Even for a relatively strong, big-name player like Warner Brothers, rereleasing titles periodically in the hope that enough people who have not already bought them will bite this time is not about greed, but mere survival. Film studios are an expensive business to run, and whilst thirty dollars for a forty-odd gigabyte disc might seem expensive to us, the film studios would not even see it as a whole second of rent/land tax, electricity, or other constant expenses.
Getting back to what I was saying about how accountants tally things up, every release of a disc basically begins with a few questions. How many discs can we expect to sell within a year this time? How many discs can we afford to press? How many discs do we need to sell before we turn a profit? And on and on it goes. When the answers to the questions are what the decision-makers like, a run of discs get pressed. Discs are a lot cheaper to press when they are pressed in lots of millions, even tens of millions, and Blu-ray Disc got to the point of making such a pressing run profitable a few years ago now, so when A-list titles that turned an on-paper “profit” are being readied for home video release, millions of Blu-ray Discs are made.
In a documentary about the film business as it existed in the early 2000s, one analyst stated, in no uncertain terms, that it would be more profitable for the people in the film industry to not make films. That is, if they just withheld the budgets they put into each feature film, stuck it in the bank, and waited, at the end of the year they would have more money than would be the case if they made the film. This, needless to say, suggests two things about the film industry. One, that in spite of the low profit margin, the people who finance the making of films do so because they enjoy the art. Two, that the gigantic corporate collusions who pony up most of the cash do so as a tax write-off. Like a lot of possibilities in the creative world, it is just as likely to be both, or either.
Of course, the dynamics of independent filmmaking, and A Nightmare On Elm Street did start out as a very independent film, are different. A commentator in one documentary about the life and art of Ed Wood described Wood‘s approach as wanting to get in, shoot the film as cheaply as possible, get it into distribution, and collect the greater share of the loot that such an approach entails in the event of success. The first two Nightmare films followed this formula, and made New Line Cinema enough money that it could stand as its own studio, its association with Warner Brothers notwithstanding. But make no mistake about this. The real money in the film industry is made at retailers like JB Hi-Fi or K-Mart. And at the retail level in today’s world, that means that independent companies, who by nature deal in much smaller amounts than the conglomerates, are at a big disadvantage.
Look, all of this is just a little ramble from which you, my audience, can take what you will. However, there is one specific point I want to end on. Yes, distributors of prerecorded music and visual media have a way of rereleasing product over and over. But instead of berating them for this and moaning about how it is another greedy ploy to make you buy the same product over and over, stop and think about it for a while. If the business could survive or make better profits without resorting to this trick, you would think that they would do so.