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  • Editor’s Introduction
  • Jan-Christopher Horak (bio)

I'm the first to admit that DVDs have made my life easier, especially in terms of teaching film and media history courses at university. And in the future we can certainly look forward to digital technology opening up the whole archive to researchers and students. As anyone who has been a faithful reader of The Moving Image knows, more and more of the "film" reviews in these pages are dedicated to DVD releases of classic films that have been restored by our colleagues. Digital technologies are rapidly supplanting analogue media of all kinds.

But while DVD technology offers unlimited technical possibilities of information retrieval for the next generation, films made available through DVD technology are at present, with few exceptions, a function of the marketplace. And the truth is that the numbers of films that are commercially available keep shrinking rather than expanding, at least in relation to the sum of all moving images produced. While we were in an analogue world of videotape, it was still economically feasible, given the relative low cost of analogue tape, for major multinational media companies and smaller specialty distributors to place older historical films in the market. And while there were many titles that were not available, both the Hollywood majors and specialty companies mining the public domain field offered a good representative of titles from the silent period as well as from the classic Hollywood era. Now, many of the titles from the back catalogs that a major motion picture company used to offer on VHS have disappeared with no plans in sight to release them in digital form.

The initial cost of digitalization has at present upped the stakes considerably. The result is that fewer films from the first fifty years of the medium are available on DVD [End Page vi] than was the case with VHS. Essentially, the latest blockbusters and a few classics are hawked by the Hollywood majors, who of course are more interested in generating substantial profits from titles with wide audience appeal and recognition than gambling on titles perceived to have smaller audiences.

Almost every other type of cinema is forced into the margins of the market or eliminated altogether. What remains is a reified Hollywood canon, which excludes box office failures, silent films, documentaries, independent films, politically hot topics, and so on. For example, of thousands and thousands of films produced worldwide between 1920 and 1929, less than two hundred titles are available presently on DVD (in 2002 approximately one hundred titles were available). If we break down this informal list by year, we see that the year 1927 takes the prize with twenty-six titles, while 1923 offers a mere eight. Of those twenty-six titles from 1927, 57 percent are American, i.e., Hollywood films; the rest a smattering of English, German, Russian, and French. Why are even silent masterpieces such as The Big Parade (1925), Underworld (1927), Noah's Ark (1928), or Lonesome (1929), all formerly available on VHS, not being released on DVD, to say nothing of the many titles not at the top of the film canon?

Now, if you think the situation improves in the sound era, you are mistaken. These are the rough figures I came up with, broken out by year of initial film release, for DVDs available commercially in the United States in September 2005 through one of the largest Internet distributors of "specialty films"—in other words, a distributor who actually specializes in historical films: 1931 (22 titles), 1935 (42 titles), 1940 (66), 1945 (64), 1950 (65), 1955 (90), 1960 (112), 1965 (129), 1970 (163). While these figures represent a 66 percent increase over September 2002, the numbers are still paltry, especially if we subtract [End Page vii] nonmainstream American and foreign films: for the year 1970, mainstream American media companies have to date released a mere forty titles on DVD, or less than 24 percent of all 1970 titles available.

The transnational corporations who control moving image media distribution worldwide have little interest in distributing silent or black-and-white films for which they still control copyright, because the perceived market of consumers interested in such...


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