The problem with catalogue Blu-ray releases

Why are older films being shovelled onto Blu-ray with no obvious upgrade, and full asking prices? Something, argues Simon, needs to be done…

With the DVD market bringing in decreasing revenues for the major (and minor) movie studios, the rise in the unit sales of Blu-ray discs – with the premium prices they attract – has come just in the nick of time for many.

Granted, DVDs still make an enormous amount of money, it’s just that the market has been in decline for the past year or two, and for DVD publishers used to bathing in the riches that the discs have provided over the past decade, the mere hint of the end of the party appears to have come as something of a shock.

It was predicted, then, that once the ill-fated HD DVD vs Blu-ray high definition format war of a couple of years ago was over, and once the industry could rally behind one format, that we’d really see HD discs coming into their own. That we’d get to see the full benefits of high definition, and be compelled to fork out extra to watch our movies that way. And to an extent, that’s been the case. The Blu-ray releases of films such as Up and Star Trek, for instance show just what can be achieved when someone out there really, really bothers.

Where the problem has been, though, is in the catalogue Blu-ray market.

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There are many of us, we suspect, who have a list of films we’d love to see get a proper, all-singing high definition upgrade. In many ways, it harks back to the early days of DVD, when learning that one of your favourite older titles was getting the digital treatment had many of us scouring the online stores to see when we could get our pre-order in (back when there was a price advantage to pre-ordering – remember those days, too?).

The problem we’re increasingly seeing with Blu-rays, though, is that there’s not enough being done with the high definition releases to justify the upgrade. Even the crappiest DVD transfer was usually a sizeable jump from the VHS copies many of us had on our shelves (although that was a rule with exceptions, to be fair!), yet, if you’re forking out full price for a catalogue Blu-ray title, you’ve surely got the right to expect something impressive to justify the premium over the cost of the DVD.

In some cases, we’re just not getting it.

Take the recent release of Waterworld on Blu-ray. In spite of the presence of an extended cut of the film on DVD in the US, and in spite of it being a film with a hell of a story behind it, we got a picture and sound upgrade (albeit hardly a dramatic one), and not even the porting over of extra features. We also got the theatrical version of the film alone. It was a feeble effort, and it’s not alone.

We’re losing count of the number of Blu-ray releases now that seem content to slap together a slightly better transfer and not a fat lot besides. Appreciating that the original source material doesn’t often allow for a great deal more than that, these are nonetheless films that are nonetheless being chosen for, and sold as, an upgrade over the DVD versions many of us already have, and they’re simply not cutting the mustard.

If it’s not possible to deliver a proper upgrade to an older release, it simply shouldn’t be attempted. It’s as simple as that.

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The treatment of extra features is woeful in cases, too. If we’re lucky, we get the DVD features carried across, but they’re presented exactly as you’d find on the earlier release. There’s often no attempt to present them in high definition, and it’s when you then look at the DVD release, that’s often less than half the price, that you begin to wonder why you bother supporting such lazy cash-in releases.

What’s particularly disappointing is when the big blockbusters, that you can’t help but feel would look great on Blu-ray, also get short shrift. The transfer of the Blu-ray release of Gladiator, for instance, attracted criticism to the point where it’s rumoured that a new version is being considered (no doubt we’ll have to pay for it again for the pleasure, too).

More recently, the box set of Lord Of The Rings – even before you get to the argument of only the theatrical versions being included – has been released, and the quality of the transfer has come in for some debate. There certainly seems to be a raft of opinions that suggest – and we should be clear and say we’ve not seen the discs ourselves yet – that the picture quality on Fellowship Of The Ring isn’t quite up to the standard you might expect. To be clear, the views appear to be that it’s a good to very good transfer, but not a knockout one.

The problem? It should be. We didn’t notice a budget price tag attached to the discs, and these are being billed as a chance to enjoy one of our favourite movie trilogies in the best resolution possible for the home. The end result might not be matching those words to the levels we could reasonably expect.

And that’s symptomatic of the increasing problem with catalogue discs as a whole, and also the reason that our enthusiasm for some new releases is being tempered. Because from what we can see, in at least half of the cases we’ve seen of catalogue discs, you’re simply better off sticking with your DVDs. The difference in picture and sound quality isn’t as pronounced as you’d hope and expect, and at least that way you seem to get the better collection of extras too. You just get a fairer deal.

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There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, with Paramount’s transfer of Zulu a cast-iron example in how to treat an older film visually. It also proves that, should sufficient resources and efforts be deployed, it is possible to improve films notably for their high definition debut, and it only increases the frustration when another shovel-load of releases turns up with laziness stamped through their core.

Appreciating that there are many who remain unconvinced by the idea of upgrading a collection to high definition anyway, catalogue releases do Blu-ray no favours whatsoever when they’re treated with the levels of disdain we’ve been seeing in such quarters.

At the very least, if a studio is going to put out a Blu-ray disc at full price, the least we’d expect is a meaty picture and sound upgrade, and any extras that appeared on DVD transferred across (ideally with an upgrade of their own).

The problem is that should be the starting point for a catalogue release. More often than not, though, we can’t even bank on getting those boxes ticked. And bluntly, that really isn’t good enough.

It boils down to this: if studios want us to pay for a full price high definition upgrade to our films, and many of us are willing to do so, then they need to provide compelling reasons to do so. Carry on offering a shiny new box and a token effort inside at best, and those disc revenues will continue to disappoint. And this time, you won’t be able to pin it all on piracy, either.