- The Criterion Collection in the New Home Video Market:An Interview with Susan Arosteguy
The Criterion Collection was founded in 1983 in order to release selected canonical films on laserdisc, a format that allowed for ped- gogical bonus features such as still frames, making-of documentaries, and audio commentaries by filmmakers, critics, and scholars (Crowdus 48). Expensive and cumbersome, laserdiscs appealed primarily to a niche audience of cinephiles and academics who were attracted to the format's superior picture and sound as well as its ability to hold special features. Criterion is perhaps most important to the video industry as a pioneer of "special edition" releases. Its 1984 laserdisc of Citizen Kane (1941), which included storyboards and script comparisons, is often cited as a progenitor of today's fully loaded DVD sets, which typically feature hours of elaborate bonus features (Neapolitan 46). By partnering with art cinema distributor Janus Films and licensing Hollywood hits from their respective studios, Criterion was able to release a fascinating mix of foreign film favorites (Breathless, 1960), Hollywood hits (Singin' in the Rain, 1952), and more obscure titles (Robinson Crusoe on Mars, 1964).
By 1998 Criterion had branched out into the DVD format, which quickly supplanted the laserdisc in the collectors market and exploded in popularity. Today, approximately 70 percent of homes have a DVD player of some kind (Snider). When contrasted with the laserdisc's ultimate 2 percent of market penetration, it becomes clear that Criterion today must contend with a vastly larger and different customer base than it did in the 1980s and 1990s (Scally). Criterion discs are no longer the sole property of the elite: whereas laserdisc collectors were paying upward of $150 per disc, the average Criterion DVD can be purchased at a discounted price from online retailers for approximately $25. Despite the changes in the video industry, Criterion has maintained a release schedule that mirrors the variety of the laserdisc collection, with films ranging from Armageddon (1998) to The Seventh Seal (1957) to David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), which was critically acclaimed but barely released outside the festival circuit.
The expansion of the video market has also elicited discussion about Criterion's role in film culture. James Kendrick argues that through the eclecticism of its releases the collection has actively fought against "restraints of politics, taste, geography, and time," although he admits its bias toward auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman (137). Indeed, one could argue that the Criterion Collection privileges the European and Japanese art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s at the expense of other national cinemas, genres, and eras. While marketability is certainly a factor here, Criterion has been able to achieve success with obscure titles through a combination of high prices, savvy promotion, and a loyal fan base, many of whom have enough faith in the Criterion brand to purchase titles sight unseen. This allows the company to make a profit off niche-market films like Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which sold fifteen thousand copies on DVD (D'Alessandro 5). While Kendrick is right to point toward the collection's remarkable variety, it could be argued that the company could even more vigorously introduce titles from underrepresented eras and nations in order to broaden the canon it has helped to create.
The Criterion Collection has come to symbolize quality in home video, but the industry is rapidly changing as DVD becomes the most profitable stage of filmmaking for the major studios. The days of studios lending to third parties classics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) are over. Criterion must also face the challenge of a new era as the mainstream appeal of DVD broadens. In a time when studios are releasing their own fully loaded DVD editions of classic films and when college dorm rooms are populated with Criterion editions of 1998's Fear [End Page 32] and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion's all-time best seller, surpassing Seven Samurai ) and Chasing Amy (1997), Criterion must navigate through expanding consumer markets and competition from much larger companies if it is to continue its remarkable success (D'Alessandro 5).
Addressing these issues is Criterion...