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Buster Keaton vs. Double Dipping

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.

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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:

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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.20037

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

12 Responses Buster Keaton vs. Double Dipping
Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2016 12:14 pm

Heh…I did buy The Art of Buster Keaton on laserdisc, then the individual Kino releases of his films, which included shorts as bonuses (and there are people who complained about the box set being double dipping, because it had the advantage of the slimmer cases which take up less room), and the first blu-ray of his collected shorts. And yes, I’ll probably grumble a bit about getting this new collection, but considering I have a couple of framed portraits of Buster hanging up around the house, there’s really no question about getting it, if only to support the efforts of those who continue to improve on preserving and restoring his work, and discovering new treasures.

Mind you, I may opt for the UK Masters of Cinema edition of the blu-ray, as I believe it includes a couple more extras than the Kino edition, and costs about the same (for me anyway, with the exchange on the Canadian dollar). And now I find out I also have to upgrade my copy of Ganja & Hess to boot! I think it’ll be worth it though.

And I can always donate my previous copies of the Keaton shorts and the Arbuckle/Keaton collaborations to my local library.

Posted By Lyndell : May 21, 2016 5:22 pm

You may say, Where in the world is this person coming from?, but if this holds no interest for you, my great hope is that you would pass this request to someone in the industry who would do something about it. Here it is: Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten made LO SCOPONI SCIENTIFICO [The Sientific Cardplayer] in Italy (or Spain?). What I’ve read about it makes me think it is a good film. Couldn’t someone make this film available on DVD in the U.S.? Even if it doesn’t get subtitles or whatever, I would give a lot to see and own this film. I’m as great a lover of Bette Davis as you are of Buster Keaton! The only version available is one that only works in Australia—please, please bring it to us Americans. Isn’t there some way to get the original version or the Australian (probably English-ized) version onto DVD for us. Please help or pass to someone who can, if you would. Thank you!

Posted By Emgee : May 21, 2016 7:22 pm

It’s a shame they found that extra footage of Metropolis , cause that meant i had to buy it on dvd AGAIN! Those dvd companies are shameless.

Posted By George : May 21, 2016 8:19 pm

David Kalat said: “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.”

Exactly. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy anything. DVD sets aren’t something that people need to have, like food and shelter or health insurance. They’re just ENTERTAINMENT. Something that’s nice to have, but it really isn’t necessary.

Most film buffs I’ve known are not wealthy. They’re not Karina Longworth, who has an A-list movie director for a boyfriend. Seeing film fantatics dropping a small fortune for “restored” versions of movies they already have (or for some extras) leaves me shaking my head.

Posted By George : May 21, 2016 8:25 pm

Emgee said: “It’s a shame they found that extra footage of Metropolis , cause that meant i had to buy it on dvd AGAIN! Those dvd companies are shameless.”

No, Emgee, you didn’t have to buy it again. If you think the DVD companies are “shameless,” don’t give them your money.

As for me — with more than a thousand discs in my collection, the last thing I need is more DVDs. I’ve been putting them in binders to free up some space in my apartment. And I’ll be passing on this latest Keaton collection.

BTW: Most of Keaton’s silent output can be viewed for free on YouTube, in better copies than I watched as a kid on 8mm.

Posted By Emgee : May 21, 2016 8:32 pm

I might have been joking

Posted By Tom S : May 22, 2016 3:32 am

I have no real complaints about Kino putting out another set of the Keaton shorts- though it would be nice if they put out one that had the Keaton and Arbuckle ones separately, so I had a little less overlap- but I don’t really understand why they dropped the excellent commentaries (including some from the author of this article!) from the previous set.

That said, it makes buying the Masters of Cinema version of the set that much easier, so I’m not complaining- I’ll just keep both!

Posted By Sweeney : May 22, 2016 2:26 pm

I like to think the majority of people who would be looking into a Buster Keaton set, of all things, would be less irritated at making the decision to buy them yet again and more interested in hearing whether or not it would be an actual upgrade. I’m fine with the previous Kino blu set- the Arbuckle shorts don’t speak to me enough to reinvest- but for the Keaton proper shorts (the real meat of his short film output), I’d like to know if Lobster’s restoration offers an improved way of seeing them. So far, all the reviews I’ve seen have claimed this new set is great, but I’m getting the impression the the restorations aren’t substantially better.

Posted By robbushblog : May 24, 2016 1:45 pm

I thought it was apparent that Emgee was joking. Maybe that’s just me, but I digress…

I think “double dipping” by a company is usually fine. Disney may be abusive of the practice in some cases. They released SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS on Blu-ray twice within 3 years for no reason other than offering a digital download with the purchase. They also released SLEEPING BEAUTY halfway short of their typical 10-year window to capitalize on MALEFICENT, but that’s understandable (despite MALEFICENT being complete garbage).

I think double dipping is more of a personal thing than it is an indictment of a company. I got THE KILLERS and ACE IN THE HOLE on Criterion DVD literally a week before each was announced for Blu-ray. I decided to stick with my DVDs of each. No harm, no foul. Seeing as how this new Buster set offers additional features, I can’t say it would be terribly inconvenient for a real Buster fan to get it. It’s going on my Christmas list.

Posted By mac : May 26, 2016 2:16 pm

There are two kinds of people in the world:

* Those who complain.

* Those who get annoyed at those who complain.

I don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Kalat’s P.O.V. However, I get the impression that one of his points is shuddup and don’t rock the boat.

If Image Entertainment (a lot of whose DVDs are in my movie collection) was “forced” into abandoning silent movies because of a “self-destructive” minority of malcontents, I would rebut, IE made the wrong decision.

If you — as a merchant — are so delicate and sensitive and easily swayed by customer opinion, get out of the business.

For me, Lyndell’s response touches a nerve.

Yeah, okay, if better elements or an improved restoration of Buster Keaton movies (many of which are in my movie collection) have been found or is now available, by all means put a new release on the market.

But, w-hy-y-y are some movies continually and eternally being fussed over while SO MANY other movies either get short shrift or ignored altogether?

I love Buster Keaton. But, where is The Tod Browning Collection (including “The Thirteenth Chair” and “Miracles for Sale”)? Why no official release of the 1966 action-adventure “The Trap” starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham? Why can’t I own a Blu-ray/DVD copy of the British-South Africa western “The Hellions”?

Posted By Michael : May 28, 2016 6:02 pm

There are two types of people:

* Those who complain.

* Those who get annoyed at those who complain.

I don’t disagree with most of Mr. Kalat’s perspective. The gist of his second point, however, seems to be shuddup and don’t rock the boat.

If the message that Image Entertainment took from “a highly vocal minority” of “self-destructive” consumers was abandon silent movies, IE’s interpretation was wrong . . . and telling of its mindset.

IMO, merchants who are so delicate/sensitive/unreceptive to consumer criticism and “outrage” should get out of the business.

Lyndell’s response strikes a chord with me. Yeah okay, if better or found movie elements are discovered or if a major film restoration was performed, go ahead and issue a new release.

I love Buster Keaton as much as the next BK fan, and I intend to purchase the Kino Classics-Lobster Films collection.

But, w-h-y-y-y are some movies constantly, continually, eternally being fussed over when there are SO MANY other movies that either get short shrift or are entirely ignored? Where is “The Tod Browning Collection” (including “The Thirteenth Chair” and “Miracles for Sale”)? Why hasn’t there been a U.S. (or region-free) Blu-ray/DVD release of the 1966 action-adventure of “The Trap” starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham? How come I cannot buy a home entertainment disc of the 1961 British-South African western “The Hellions”?

Forget double-dipping! In the cases of many movies, I’ve never been able to single-dip!

Posted By George : May 28, 2016 10:42 pm

Michael: The studios and DVD companies “constantly, continually, eternally fuss over” the movies they perceive as having commercial potential. These are generally well-known movies with famous stars. There are also legal issues which keep some films from being released on DVD in the U.S.

I’d also love to see DVDs of those Browning films you mention, but Warner, which controls the home video rights, may feel they wouldn’t sell enough copies to justify the expense. It’s still absurd that you can’t get copies from the fan-targeted Warner Archive. You’d think that THIRTEENTH CHAIR, with Bela Lugosi teaming with Browning two years before DRACULA, would have some commercial value.

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