The Criterion Collection show us why physical is still best

James Oliver

In a time where more people are watching films on demand, Jonathan Turell, CEO of the Criterion Collection, tells us why physical releases still matter.

The way we watch films at home is changing. Whereas once we relied on VHS and, latterly, DVD, many people today prefer streaming or downloading. Physical media, we are reliably informed, is on its way out.

But perhaps we shouldn't dismiss physical media too quickly. As we've seen with the resurgence of vinyl records, there are still folk who favour a handsome object over digital files of zeroes and ones. The same is true of movies and the UK still has some of the very best DVD and Blu-ray labels in the world. What's more, an already impressive market is about to get more impressive still.

This month sees the launch in the UK of The Criterion Collection. It's a name that will already be familiar to many film buffs; the American Criterion is the gold standard of video labels. Their immaculately crafted special editions boast high technical standards and carefully chosen, well-thought out extra features.

King Kong
King Kong, a title in the Criterion Collection. Image via Movie Morlocks

Jonathan Turell, CEO of Criterion, was in Britain to launch the collection. “It seemed like a natural extension,” he says when asked about the company's Atlantic crossing, “we know we have a following here.”

One of the reasons that Criterion is so revered is because of the company's history. It's not going too far to say they pretty much invented the concept of the special edition.

The first ever commentary track, for instance, was on Criterion's Laserdisc of King Kong (did you know the crowd scenes at the end are actually shots from the New York premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights? I didn't, until this interview) and the first director's commentary was Michael Powell on their Black Narcissus.

“Michael Powell came into my office, near the end of his life. I showed him some movie on laserdisc and his eyes sparkled and he said, 'imagine what I could have done if I were younger and had this technology…'”.

 

 

“We don't just put stuff on the disc because it's available: it has to tell a cohesive story.” 

 

 

They were early adopters of DVD and Blu-ray but although the medium has changed, the standards certainly haven't: “we're true to the movie,” says Turell, “we try to present them the way the directors wanted [us] to see them, we try to be true to our audience and not disappoint them.” This extends to the extra features.

While some labels bung on anything they can find, Criterion are more discerning, looking to illuminate the film rather than fill the space: “We don't just put stuff on the disc because it's available: it has to tell a cohesive story,” says Turell.

It happened one night
It Happened One Night, a title in the Criterion Collection. Image via Emmanuel Levy

That commitment is etched into each of their first six UK releases: Speedy, It Happened One Night, Only Angels Have Wings, Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Grey Gardens and Tootsie. Each is packed to the gunnels with commentaries, interviews, documentaries and short films.

Such care has made Criterion a uniquely trusted label: “I'd say we've been a little bit lucky but we've also been true to the brand, and to the fans. One of the things we've built up over time is this idea of trust. People have not necessarily heard of every movie we release but we have built up enough trust that people will say, 'even if I haven't heard of it, I trust them, I'll go buy this.”

 

 

“We have the luxury of defining 'important'. So we get to put in anything we want.”

 

 

What's more, Criterion has always displayed eclectic tastes: even though they have a goodly number of Art-House classics on their books, they're certainly not above releasing the odd B-Movie or two: Fiend Without A Face is as welcome in the collection as L'Avventura. Their mission statement says they're about 'important classic and contemporary' films but, as Turell notes, “we have the luxury of defining 'important'. So we get to put in anything we want.”

“The first rule of the company is that someone at Criterion has to stand up for the movie. Someone has to say, 'OK, when everybody's throwing tomatoes at us, I'm going to raise my hand and say, it belongs in the collection because…' If no-one's willing to do that, we won't release the movie.”

Tootsie
Tootsie, a title in the Criterion Collection. Image via IMGUR

Back in the laserdisc days, Criterion's releases were sometimes said to be 'film school in a box'—indeed, directors like Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) have spoken of how they learnt their craft, in part, from the extras on Criterion Laserdiscs. Time has changed since then, of course, and technology evolves.

But Criterion remains committed to giving their customers the definitive editions of some of the finest films ever made, and that's why their arrival in the UK is to be so celebrated.

Physical media is in more robust health than trends for streaming and downloading might have us believe. Long may it remain so.

 

Browse the Criterion Collection in our online entertainment shop

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Feature image: CEOs Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell