When physical media takes advantage of the film collector

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In the digital age, we remain fully supportive of owning physical copies of films – but do studios take advantage of fans and collectors?

Here at Film Stories we’ll champion physical media to our dying days, but the film studios are fully aware of this section of the consumer market. It’s not unknown for them to take advantage of the die-hard physical film and video game collector.

Who doesn’t love a film box set? A collection of your favourite films, a plethora of bonus material taking you behind the scenes of the most memorable moments, all bound together in the most beautiful packaging and usually with a hefty price tag attached!

I’m sure most of us have upgraded our favourite films as technology has improved. For example, I’ve owned Star Wars on VHS, VideoCD, Laserdisc and Blu-ray!

But what about when film studios entice us with tasty extra morsels that encourage us to buy our favourite films in the same format again and again?

The idea of a collectors set of films goes back to the physical media days of the VHS cassette. The most basic set would simply be a reissue of the existing cassettes housed within a simple cardboard box.

At the other end of the scale for example, there was the special edition release of the Alien trilogy as it existed in 1992. A collection of films, bonus content and physical items that an Alien fan couldn’t resist. The contents couldn’t be found elsewhere.

The set included the aforementioned Alien trilogy, a copy of The Making Of Alien3, three badges, A4 art cards and a credit card sized pass which gained you free, queue-jumping access to the Alien War experience that was then situated in the bowels of the Trocadero Centre in London. All housed in a black plastic briefcase which was moulded to resemble a Facehugger gripping on very tightly.

Even in the early VHS days, films were still reissued to create market awareness and to try to get the public to purchase them, even if there was no difference to the film on the cassette.

Take the original Star Wars trilogy before George Lucas started to make his alterations to create the Special Editions. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi were each released on VHS around three to four years after their respective theatrical run. In the early 1990s, the trilogy was released again, but this time in widescreen format.

A few years later, the films were released again – but this time with a new interview with George Lucas. These were advertised as the last time the original films would be available on VHS. The next two releases on video in the following years would be the ‘Special Editions’.

Star Wars A New Hope

Disney were also up to their own marketing tricks, but it didn’t involve multiple releases. Instead, they simply told the public it’s now or never. Released as part of the Walt Disney Classic Line in 1992, consumers were told that the restored theatrical edition of the 1940 film Fantasia would only be available in stores for a mere 50 days. The tactic worked. Stores received over nine million pre-orders on VHS cassette alone, with a further five million sales during the 50 day window.

Once the jump was made to DVD, the marketing trend started to become more common. However, the format was new and it needed to find its feet. The first DVDs weren’t even ready for widescreen televisions which resulted in poorer quality pictures for those who had made the expensive visual upgrade at the time.

As a film collector, this new format was exciting. Better picture and sound quality, and it would theoretically never degrade no matter how many times it was viewed. You could jump to any point in the film and it didn’t need to be rewound once finished.  Plus, these shiny new discs now could also include behind the scenes and promotional bonus content which made you feel like you were obtaining more bang for your buck.

As time passed, technology improved and film studios would sometimes reissue the same titles but with improved film transfers. Another chance to pick up your favourite film in better quality. Whilst this was a semi regular occurrence as time went on, a natural progression of the format, Sony made a big push around 2013 of their Superbit format.

The idea behind Superbit was that a DVD was only used to hold the movie with no bonus content of any kind, therefore maximising the picture and sound quality, allowing the digital information to fill out the entire storage space available on the disc. Upon closer inspection this did make a difference, but only to those with very large televisions or projectors. Sony were optimistic though and released just over 50 of their most successful films on this format.

Sony tried again with a similar approach to Blu-rays around the time 4K discs were entering the market. They rescanned in some of their most popular films in 4K and then downsized it to HD for release on standard Blu-ray. The new releases, labelled as ‘4K Remastered’, were also tweaked to look better on 4K televisions, especially Sony Bravia models. The issue here was that unless you were tech savvy, the packaging gives the impression that you’re purchasing a 4K copy of the film without having to upgrade your viewing equipment.

In another example, what if the film studio had discovered the much-rumoured deleted scenes from the archives? Or a documentary has been created with new interviews with the creative team from your favourite film?

The Bruce Campbell film, Army Of Darkness, was released in the US alone at least six times on DVD. Universal Studios issued the first bare bones DVD of the film with no bonus material. It was then licensed by Anchor Bay who released the film a further five times, at least. This was helped by the fact there are two different cuts of it – each with very different endings. At least one set contained two discs, featuring both cuts, whilst other releases contained either cut and seemingly new extras upon each release.

Bruce Campbell as Ash in Army Of Darkness

Don’t forget that the same film can be owned by multiple studios across the world. It wasn’t uncommon for each studio to hold a different quality copy of the film in the archives. This was one of the many reasons why film collectors like to have multi-regional capable DVD players. It allowed them to import DVDs from across the globe. A DVD from Asia could look better than the US release because of the higher quality of the film print.

But it wasn’t just the bonus content or the quality of the film that changed, so did the packaging! Studios liked to help promote the release of a new disc title by releasing it in the most elaborate packing that was related to the film, regardless of how much storage space any of us had. 20th Century Fox for a while enjoyed the idea of releasing busts, statues of heads. They released the heads of Sonny the robot from I, Robot, the Predator, and a monkey from Planet Of The Apes. These were naturally all highly priced limited editions and the discs for the films were stored in trays and draws at the base of the statue.

In a similar vein, Warner Brothers released a very special edition of The Matrix trilogy back in the day. Arriving in a metre-long cardboard box, inside was a model of the Nebuchadnezzar, Morpheus hovering submarine-like craft from the real world of the future.

Who has space for this kind of stuff on their DVD shelves?

What if your favourite franchise has extended editions and even continues after a hiatus of several years? Case in point, The Lord Of The Rings saga. The original Lord Of The Rings trilogy was announced on DVD to be coming out in theatrical and standard editions. These were eventually upgraded to Blu-ray and then again to 4K. The same happened to The Hobbit trilogy when that was released on home media formats. Some fans hedged their bets and decided to wait for the ultimate box set containing all versions of all six films. Warner Bros did eventually release a set for an eye watering $800!

This 31-disc set contained everything that had been released before and one new disc of exclusive content, the collectors hook to get fans to buy the films again. The discs were housed in faux leather books that also contained concept art from the films and it was all housed on an ornate wooden shelf apparently designed by Peter Jackson himself.  Ironically, if you could forgo the one exclusive bonus disc, you could purchase the rest of the set individually for less than a quarter of the asking price.

The video game industry has also been releasing large box sets of material goodies to help promote their latest release. This usually includes a large vinyl statue of the main character, for example. Recently, Sony may have gone a little too far. They have just announced two large expensive box sets for their upcoming release of God of War: Ragnarök for the PlayStation 4 & 5.

Both collector sets include various physical items that feature in the new game, including a mini reproduction of Mjolnir in the more expensive of the two. What does seem to be rather strange is that both sets include a rather fetching steelbook case adorned with beautiful artwork, but there’s no physical game inside, just a code to redeem it digitally.

Are they just taking the mickey now?

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