Whatever Happened To Criterion's Laserdisc Extras?

A proposal on how Criterion might be able to re-release some of their orphaned LD work.

By , Columnist

Image Entertainment has set Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King for Blu-ray release on November 8. Ordinarily, I’d be ecstatic about this news. I love the movie and I’ve held out buying it on DVD for years, waiting for Sony to come to their senses and give it the special edition treatment it deserves. But the fact that Sony has licensed it to Image means the Blu-ray isn’t likely to have any bonus material whatsoever.

What makes this particularly frustrating is The Criterion Collection already produced a terrific special edition of The Fisher King years ago on laserdisc. Laserdiscs were never a priority for the major studios. They simply weren’t profitable enough to bother with. This allowed Criterion to license big titles from the majors. The Criterion laserdisc collection included such heavyweights as Citizen Kane, King Kong, Pulp Fiction, and even the first three James Bond movies.

Then DVD came along, killing not just the niche laserdisc market but also the mainstream VHS. Studios realized there was money to be made, lots of it, by releasing Criterion-style special editions themselves. This left Criterion with a wealth of bonus material, particularly audio commentaries, but no movies to release them with.

Occasionally a studio will license Criterion’s commentaries for their own releases. A commentary recorded by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader for the Criterion laserdisc of Taxi Driver finally resurfaced on Sony’s Blu-ray edition. But more often, studios will simply record new commentaries, leaving Criterion’s work locked in a vault.

So what can Criterion do with these orphaned extras? One option may be a line of budget-priced or manufactured-on-demand DVDs called Criterion Supplements. These would be discs collecting the already produced bonus material to films Criterion no longer has the rights to, such as The Fisher King. But while I’d support such a release, the market might not support it and the legal logistics might make it impossible.

But one thing Criterion could easily do is focus on their audio commentaries. These could be released as downloadable MP3 files via iTunes or Criterion’s own website. There are certainly enough of them to make it worthwhile. In addition to Gilliam’s Fisher King commentary, Criterion has David Cronenberg on Crash, Sydney Pollack on Tootsie, Barbra Streisand on The Prince Of Tides and many others.

With minimal effort, Criterion could release these along with syncing instructions for say, $2.99 a pop. There you go, Criterion. I just gave you a brand new revenue stream. If you feel the need to thank me, I’m sure we can work something out.

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Adam Jahnke has been writing about film since age 13, when he began foisting a self-published newsletter on friends and family (copies of which are now mercifully lost to the ages). In 2000, he joined the staff of the highly respected DVD website The Digital Bits, where he continues to serve as columnist…

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