Hollywood is always looking for new ways and new places to sell its movies. In 1982, Paramount’s Barry Diller, one of the smartest men ever to run a Hollywood studio, told me that the decisions he and the other studio heads were then making about new technologies – basic cable, pay-cable, satellite television. Pay-Per-View, videocassettes and videodiscs – “will dictate the makeup of this industry 20 years from now.”
Most of those technologies had a good ride, but, 30 years later, a digital world has swept many of them away. DVDs and then Blu-rays replaced videocassettes and videodiscs, and DVD sales have plummeted as people download and stream digital content online. The same people are pulling the plug on their expensive cable and satellite contracts, angry that they have to swallow – and pay for – dozens of channels they don’t want in order to get the channels they do watch.
And several studios, led by Warner Bros., have found a consumer-friendly way to earn some extra money from the thousands of old films, television programs and mini-series in their archives. MOD (Manufactured on Demand) lets customers order a single DVD or 20 different DVDs that are burned especially for them, many them remastered.
Warners tiptoed into MOD in March, 2009. Three years later the studio has 1500 films and television programs available, many of them never released on DVD or VHS because too few people would have bought them to make it financially worthwhile.
Now Warners has taken the next MOD step. For this holiday season, Warner Bros. offered its first two MOD films on Blu-ray – “Deathtrap” (1982) a cat-and-mouse mystery starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, and the 1962 musical, “Gypsy” with Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose and Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee.
Starting next February, Warners intends to make one or two more of the old films in its library available on Blu-ray MOD each month. First up in 2013 are the Coen brothers’ satire of big business, “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) starring Paul Newman and Tim Robbins, and Peter Weir’s “Fearless (1993) with Jeff Bridges as the survivor of a plane crash. Both movies were box office failures with “Hudsucker” grossing $2.8 million and “Fearless” grossing $6.9 million but should sell on demand to followers of the directors or stars.
In the spring of 2011, Sony became a WB partner, with 150 Sony “Screen Classics by Request” titles, many of them westerns, available through the Warner Archive Collection, while Universal moved into MOD in 2010 with Amazon.
Among the films that the Warner website is currently featuring from its scores of pre-1986 MGM films are the steamy pre-Code 1932 movie “Red Dust” pairing Jean Harlow and Clark Gable and “The Canterville Ghost” (1944) starring Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien. The studio’s own stars — Bette Davis as a schoolteacher in “The Corn is Green” (1945) and Humphrey Bogart as a carnival owner in “The Wagons Roll at Night” (1941) — are available for $18.95 each.