Repertory cinema, the charmingly arcane practice of people gathering in a movie theater to watch a 35mm print of an older movie, seems, like so many things, to be on its way out, eradicated by DVD.
The most recent sign is the upcoming closure of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s rep film program, a decision decried by many, include, most eloquently, K.A. Westphal, who notes that the $100,000 the program has reportedly been losing the museum each year is still “less than two-tenths of one percent of the Museum’s $74 million annual operating budget.” He also takes on the “Why can’t you just get it on DVD and shut up?” problem — but he’s assuming DVD will be there to pick up the slack.
Unless it isn’t. Two weeks ago, Maclean’s issued a gloomy prognostication about the future of classic films on DVD: there isn’t one. “Older movies are particularly vulnerable because the cost of restoration is growing, and their fan base is shrinking.” The recession has shut down divisions like Fox Classics, and the future will probably look more like Warner Archives — older films on demand, with lower quality traded for greater access.
To combat the doom and gloom, The Playlist has a chat with Criterion CEO Jonathan Turrell. Turrell confirms that Criterion’s sales are down too, though less than most people’s, and that parts of the recession actually work to their advantage — they can snap up titles studios would once want to keep for themselves. While shelf space is getting cut for most DVD titles, Criterion’s brand means they’re hanging steady — Borders, for instance, cut their overall DVD shelf space but expanded their Criterion section.
None of that solves a fundamental problem. If rep cinema is fading, DVD is supposed to pick up the archival slack; keeping 35mm prints in circulation may be of no financial benefit to big studios, but keeping a back catalog available and in usable shape is. But is the DVD industry is also struggling (hopefully more a temporary recession casualty), then that’s no longer true. Time was — in the teens and ’20s — when studios would routinely destroy their old prints and movies because they couldn’t conceive of them as art and didn’t see any business value in them. New restorations and prints are the beast repertory cinema feeds off of.