Posted by David Kalat on May 21, 2016
For the benefit of those of you who don’t spend your free time lurking on silent film message boards, there’s a new 5-disc Blu-Ray set of Buster Keaton silent shorts coming from Kino International and Lobster Films on May 24th. This set includes newly restored versions of all of Keaton’s short films—and we’re not just talking his solo shorts (which have been on Blu-Ray before, and from Kino no less) but also the run of Roscoe Arbuckle shorts which co-starred Buster. All that, and the home video debut of the newly discovered alternate cut of The Blacksmith featuring footage never before seen in the U.S.
And this news has been met with… hostility, skepticism, and resistance. And therein lies this week’s story.
The crux of the complaint is a practice called “double dipping.” Supposedly video companies knowingly release inferior quality products first, and then after that market has been fully exploited, release an upgraded edition to coerce the existing customers to pay a second time (or more) for the same product. In this way, the argument goes, video companies enrich themselves by cheating their own best customers, who are left feeling crummy either way: either they feel gipped at having paid multiple times for a single purchase, or they opt out of the later editions but are left with the inferior versions.
Now, it’s no secret I used to run a DVD company, and I remain friendly with several DVD labels both big and small, so I have a very different perspective on this question. And frankly, I think the whole “double dipping” argument is nonsense. In fact, I think it’s three different kinds of nonsense. And here’s why:
Nonsense #1: You are not the only customer
My arguments against the “double dipping” complaint are applicable to pretty much all circumstances, but for convenience’s sake I’m going to use the Buster Keaton discs as my point of reference here. And I first saw Buster Keaton in 1976, at a pizza restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. I managed to collect some Super 8mm and 16mm copies of Keaton films in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was scattershot and pricey. Christmas 1984 was a big year, when my parents ponied up for a motherlode of Keaton movies on Betamax from Video Yesteryear. I treasured these things, but I was also keenly aware of their limitations—poor picture quality, terrible soundtracks, wrong projection speeds, you name it.
In the early 1990s I started collecting the first round of Kino VHS editions, a substantial and eye-opening upgrade. By the mid-1990s I had acquired a laserdisc player, and treated myself to the laserdisc editions of The Art of Buster Keaton. That same set was later released on DVD, but I skipped that round to focus on editions from other countries—Spain, Italy, England.
For a time, the definitive collection of Keaton’s short films was the box set from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema in 2006—but it is available in DVD only, so Kino’s Blu-Ray version in 2011 had an edge in the high-definition department. The new 2016 box set promises not only overall quality upgrades, but additional content.
So… where does the “double dipping” kick in? For many of the most vociferous complainers on the message boards, the irritation comes from having bought the 2011 Blu-Ray and now finding it rendered “obsolete” a mere five years later. But for anyone with the 2006 DVD box, the 2011 Blu-Ray was a double dip. For anyone with the Art of Buster Keaton DVD set, the 2006 set was redundant. And the Art of Buster Keaton hadn’t changed in content since its first release on laserdisc and VHS in 1995. For that matter, you could rule out the entire Art of Buster Keaton collection as “double dipping” on anyone who’d tried collecting the films on actual film stock…
Every release duplicated in some parts material that had been released before—and unless you stopped the clock back in the 1960s or something, every single release could be construed as a “double dip” of sorts. But in that time, new audiences were born, came of age, discovered the genius of Buster Keaton, and started collecting his films. Meanwhile, technical standards improved, new material was discovered, and home video technology advanced. The consumers upset over alleged “double dipping” make no allowance for anything that happened before they boarded the bandwagon, nor any allowance for the existence of any new audiences who might wish to join the party after they did.
Nonsense #2: Niche market video companies barely break even most of the time
At this point, I need to veer away from the specifics of marketing Buster Keaton movies, but I trust you’ll forgive. Back in 1997, I started work on a restoration of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess. It took the better part of a year and cost substantially more than I’d budgeted, but I released it in 1998 with great pride—whereupon it floundered. The overall marketplace for DVDs in 1998 was still small and embryonic; my distributions channels were imperfect; my business partners and I were not on the same page. I lost money on the endeavor, but continued to believe it had an untapped audience.
Years later, I discovered I’d accidentally omitted an entire scene from my version. I also wanted to redo the transfer in 16:9 using 21st century technology; I had some new bonus features I hadn’t been able to include the first time; and I had a better distribution system, not the mention how good that system looked at the very peak of the DVD boom. So I produced a new edition of Ganja & Hess, and it went on to be the second biggest hit of my DVD-producing career.
Was it a double-dip? You bet it was! There aren’t that many Ganja & Hess fans in the world for me to think the second edition could succeed without getting some of my 1998 customers to return. But what else was I to do? There was no way I could have afforded to produce the 2006 edition if I hadn’t already accomplished so much in 1998 already, and if I’d left the 1998 edition alone then that’s thousands of additional fans who’d have been denied a chance to enjoy the film.
Something similar happened with the 1922 Dr. Mabuse. I had lobbied hard for that Fritz Lang classic to be given an early DVD release, and I worked with David Shepard and Image to get that project treated well in 1999. A few years after it came out on DVD, though, Transit Film in Germany recovered and restored additional footage that was not previously available. Image’s 1999 disc was as complete a version as had ever been released in the US to that date, but it was “obsolete” almost immediately.
There was a highly vocal minority of consumers who advocated a “boycott” of the Image disc to “force” the company to reissue the thing in its complete form. This was a decidedly self-destructive stance to take. Far from “forcing” Image to discard the first pressing and “upgrade” it with the additional footage, the result was to eventually force Image to abandon silent films altogether. The consumers most invested in high-quality silent films on home video helped destroy one of the principal channels by which silent films were released on home video.
Nonsense #3: You get what you pay for
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Buster Keaton films in actual theaters many times—a real treat for a guy born towards the end of the 20th century. I’ve seen The General no less than 5 times theatrically—along with theatrical screenings of Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., Battling Butler, and Steamboat Bill Jr. I hope it comes as no surprise to you that these screenings are not free. Not only did I have to pay for my own ticket, I usually went with others—friends or family members. Add in additional tickets, parking, and snacks for several guests and seeing a Buster Keaton movie could cost upwards of $50-100. This is actually how these films were meant to be seen—Buster never imagined any of his audience might have the option of purchasing a copy of his films to watch alone, at home. No one comes out of a theatrical screening of The General thinking they get to take any aspect of that experience home with them—aside from happy memories and a pocket full of receipts.
The first home video revolution in the 1980s was predicated on the idea that video stores would rent titles to users. It isn’t until we get to 1995’s “Art of Buster Keaton” that owning a set of Keaton films is even a serious possibility. Of the entire history of Buster Keaton movies, only 20% of that time is it even an option to own his short films as a package. And let’s be clear—what you get for your money is a copy of a work of art that is the intellectual property of another party, who have the legal and moral right to control when and how often copies are circulated.
Yet somehow, some of the consumers who purchased one or more of these late era packages have concluded that their purchase price entitled them to own the best possible edition of those films, regardless of whether that “best” edition existed at the time of purchase. I have read online rants by consumers who seem to genuinely believe they have been ripped off because several years ago they bought a disc, and now a different media company has invested in making improved digital masters from what are in some cases newly discovered or newly restored film elements.
And, for that matter, no quantity of “double dipped” releases disqualify or invalidate your existing copies. If you’ve bought a prior edition of Keaton’s short films (The Art of Buster Keaton on VHS or laserdisc in 1995 or DVD in 2005, the Eureka DVD box in 2006, the Kino Blu-Ray in 2011), you still have that, and it’s still every bit as awesome as it was when you bought it. The new version is better in some ways, but it also requires a new purchase—so it’s a simply value proposition for you. If you think the improved picture quality, the new cut of Blacksmith, and the chance to get the Arbuckle/Keaton collaborations on Blu-Ray is worth another $50, then Kino will happily take your money and exchange it for those movies. But if those additional features aren’t worth another $50—then don’t buy it. That’s simple. Why this needs to be controversial is beyond me.
Personally, I’m getting the new set. But as my description above shows, I am not a typical customer so my decisions are for me alone. If you don’t think the set is worth it, just skip it and do something else with your money. You’ll certainly be in the majority of human beings in not buying it—the grand total of purchasers won’t even register as a rounding error when compared to the population of the planet.
I wouldn’t expect to be given admittance to an art museum for free, or the opera, or the orchestra. Appreciating the arts isn’t free. We get to choose what it’s worth to us. Buster Keaton is dead, and he won’t be making any more films. Finding a “new” or newish version of one of his old films is as close as we’ll ever get to getting new Keaton films. That’s worth something. I know what it’s worth to me.
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