Today the incredibly popular Warner Archive Collection (WAC, or "whack" as it’s known around the studio) celebrates its sixth birthday. A pioneering initiative in which deep catalog titles from the Warner Bros. Film Library are released on DVD through a manufacture-on-demand (MOD) process, the Warner Archive Collection concept was discussed for a number of years before launching in 2009. The strategy behind WAC was to be able to make available to the public the countless titles from the world's largest entertainment archive--covering film, television and animation--that might otherwise never see the light of day. Noted movie historian George Feltenstein, who is also Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog, Marketing, was there from the beginning and was happy to share his insights about Warner Archive’s past, present and future on this special anniversary.
This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Warner Archive Collection, which is no small feat in this transitory period in entertainment, so congratulations on that accomplishment. Can you tell us a little bit about how this Warner Archive initiative came about?
GF: The origin of the Warner Archive Collection started as an idea from Jim Wuthrich, who is now the President of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment for the Americas. At the time he was involved with what was called the Online Group and the nascent digital initiatives of the company. During this time in the early 2000s, over a four or five year period, Jim and I would have these casual conversations about his idea for somehow releasing the deeper catalog in a way that made financial sense.
It was sometime around 2005/2006 that he came up with a clear idea of doing manufacturing-on-demand, and that Warner Bros. would manufacture-on-demand DVDs for deeper library titles that could not find shelf space at traditional retail. So it would be an incremental initiative, we’d make more of our library available, make consumers happy, and this would also to some degree thwart piracy.
Once you had the top-level approval, how long did it take to launch the program?
GF: I began programming a group of 100 films, in which we would use the masters that existed within the library and make them available through our own website and make them available through this MOD process. We looked at various manufacturers that had the capability to do this and we finally settled on one.
We were supposed to launch in 2008, but it was such a massive thing to do, because we were going to launch on opening day with 100 titles, that we didn’t actually launch until 2009, and, by that time, our launch number was up to 150 titles. These were all feature films and we used existing masters, but we held true to one very important factor and that was that we wanted to ensure that we would preserve the original aspect ratio, so that any widescreen films would be presented in widescreen. At that time, our releases had templated packaging, templated disc menus, so we were not replicating what would be sold at retail in which there would be customized packaging and enhanced content and things like that. We had very modest expectations.
We launched with a big bang on March 23, 2009 with Debbie Reynolds making a promotional appearance on the Today Show announcing the birth of this new Warner Archive Collection initiative and I did an online chat on the Home Theater Forum which is a major destination for film enthusiasts to discuss the home video market, and with that the Warner Archive was up and running and off to a great start.
At the time of the introduction of the Warner Archive Collection, was there backlash voiced by some people online about the MOD model or the manufacture-on-demand process?
GF: Initially, there was trepidation among some people who perceived that because we were doing the manufacture-on-demand process that the discs were somehow like a DVD-R that you’d make on your own computer, but nothing could be further from the truth. Actually the cost to make our DVDs on demand is ten times the cost of making discs in bulk at our traditional manufacturers. However the savings are that when you sell a disc with MOD, you don’t have to worry about returns. Returns have been the bane of the home video business—as they were with the record business years before—where you could possibly end up with warehouses filled with unsold product.
So what was appealing about the Warner Archive business and continues to be appealing about it six years later is that there are no returns. We manufacture discs that are sold to the consumer. So, yes, there was some trepidation among a very small percentage of consumers about this new initiative, but 99 percent of the customers were thrilled with the content and very excited to finally be able to own these films that would have otherwise never been released.
What’s interesting is that now other studios have moved into this MOD model as well.
GF: Well, I’m proud to say that Warner Bros. has always been the leader in making changes in the entertainment industry. We were the studio that had the first motion picture with synchronized sound—first with Adventures of Don Juan that had synchronized music and sound effects and then The Jazz Singer in 1927 being the first feature film with dialogue, and of course sound revolutionized the industry. The introduction of the DVD was a Warner Bros. initiative and that revolutionized the industry. Manufacturing-on-demand was also a Warner Bros. initiative and all the other studios eventually followed our lead of the Warner Archive and got into that business. At least we had it all to ourselves for the first year or two.
Fortunately our Warner Archive Collection has continued to grow, which has enabled us to broaden our offering so that we can address our fans who are interested in different things. So we can continue the filmographies of the stars associated with our library, like making sure that all of the Bette Davis movies are available or all the Jimmy Cagney movies are available. And also focus on things like the rare and hard-to-find cult films, and that’s why our business has grown each year.
As we hit our sixth birthday, we're now at over 2,200 releases. We expanded from just feature films to also include television movies and miniseries, and animation collections."
One thing that is amazing about the Warner Archive is the incredibly aggressive release schedule…
GF: As we hit our sixth birthday, we’re now at over 2,200 releases. We started by releasing 20 to 30 titles a month, and then 20 to 30 titles a week at times. We expanded from just feature films to also include television movies and miniseries, and animation collections. A vast majority of our titles become profitable very quickly, and as we became more successful we worked with our Creative Services division and improved our packaging to make it indistinguishable from traditional DVD releases and we were able to eventually move to dual-layer discs which allow for a lot more content and that is what enabled us to make television series available.
How much work goes into cleaning up these older films and television shows?
GF: One of the crucial things that happened about a year after we launched was that we started working directly with Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI) and we set up a different workflow than had been traditionally used at Warner Bros. that enabled us to reinvest our profits in the business to create more product to be made available.
There were a limited number of titles in the library where we could use the existing masters and just pull them off the shelf. By working with MPI, this opened up a whole world of titles to us and we would not have the business we have today if it were not for the excellent staff and talented people at MPI who created new masters.
The Warner Archive has also moved into the area of Blu-ray. How are the decisions made as to how much restoration is ultimately done on these releases?
GF: Everything is determined title by title. One of our biggest successes last year was a DVD title, the 1936 version of Show Boat, which we own because Warner Bros. owns the MGM library up through 1986, and that 1936 version of Show Boat is something that people have been wanting on DVD forever and it required a lot of work and a lot of money for us. Of course our budgets are much smaller than traditional home video, but we spent a lot of money and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to release Show Boat last year and it was a big success.
So not everything we release are the niche titles or movies that you’ve never heard of. We have titles that have been major award winners and big box office successes that for one reason or another are not released in the main home video channel, and that’s what makes the Warner Archive Collection so special.
As far as our Blu-ray activities, that started in late 2012 where we were going to release one or two titles a month, and, just to be clear, those are not manufacture-on-demand. We manufacture our Blu-rays through our regular manufacturer because there is no way currently to do recordable media effectively in the Blu-ray realm. We started the Blu-ray initiative with Gypsy and Deathtrap, and I think we currently have close to 20 Blu-rays available.
This year’s Blu-ray schedule is going to be highly accelerated. We’re going to have a lot more Blu-rays coming out. We just announced 42nd Street will be coming out in April, which is very exciting and that’s a new restoration. Last year we had a lot of Blu-ray activity with things like Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Great Race, The Picture of Dorian Gray and one of the great film-noirs Out of the Past, because people are asking for more film-noir titles. That’s another thing, a lot of people think that Blu-ray doesn’t make a difference with these black-and-white films, but, boy, does it ever make a difference, so there will be a lot more of those.
We’ve found economic efficiency in being able to release Blu-ray in a very profitable manner, which is very difficult to do because Blu-ray has to be perfect, and, again, MPI came to our rescue in allowing us to be able to do that. So while we don’t have an abundant Blu-ray release schedule, each one that we do release is very carefully chosen and that’s been very rewarding.
You also have your own streaming service for the Warner Archive Collection, when did that come about?
GF: Our streaming service is the brainchild of Mike Cardullo, who is now the Vice President of the Warner Archive Collection and is responsible for the business end of things. Mike and I are partners in these celluloid activities, shall we say. He felt that there was a hole in the S-VOD (Streaming Video On Demand) ecosystem because you won’t find our classic or rare films in places like Netflix or Hulu. By having our own streaming service, which people can try for a month free of charge, they get a chance to sample a lot of the titles that we offer on Warner Archive DVDs.
Our streaming service is available on PC, MAC, and with Roku and the iPad you can stream it through Apple TV, which allows you to stream it in 1080p and a lot of the titles there aren’t available in Blu-ray and won’t be because of the cost involved with that. So it provides customers with an outlet to see these things. It’s all about content availability.
How important is fan input to what you’re doing with the Warner Archive?
GF: It’s extremely important. What has distinguished the Warner Archive from our competitors is that we have a direct line of communication with our consumers through our Facebook page and our Twitter feed and our Tumblr page, where people can ask us questions. We also do a free podcast each week which are available on iTunes. We really listen to what our fans want and try to build our schedule around what fans want and what will be profitable to the shareholders at Time-Warner, because we’re accountable first and foremost to the profitability of the company.
That’s been the main task throughout my career: to balance the passion I have for the importance of these films with the need for profitability. With the Warner Archive, we’re extremely focused on cost controls and still giving the consumer an excellent product, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
Later this afternoon, we’re completing our plans for the year and looking at next year and we have some really exciting things that are in the works for the future. I can say that one of the things that has been very successful for us have been “series films,” like we put out all 48 of the Bowery Boys’ movies, we put out all 16 of the Andy Hardy movies. We’re going to be releasing more of those and a lot more film-noir. We’ve even released things that were never even listed in databases of some of these libraries because, back in the day, people didn’t think some of these things had any worth, like all the Monogram Cowboy releases and those have been very popular for us. So we intend to continue with collections like that and more of the classic television series that need to completed. People have wanted Spenser: For Hire with Robert Urich for years, and we released the first season of that last fall and it was hugely popular, and we’ll be announcing the release of Season 2 shortly.
It’s all about finding these fan bases, where people are excited about things like the animated series the Go-Bots, or they’re passionate about silent movies or horror or cult films from the Fifties. So we’re always trying to hit all these targets and release things for everybody. That’s really what we try to do.
With more than 2,000 releases to date, have you been surprised about the popularity of any particular titles?
GF: Yes, I have. The first film that comes to mind is The D.I. with Jack Webb. That’s been one of our bestselling titles. I think anybody who grew up in a military family and had to deal with a Drill Instructor had to buy this movie for their dad or for themselves or whomever. It’s been a humungous hit and I never would have expected it. It was a modest hit during its theatrical release in 1957, but people really wanted it and it’s been a big, big title for us. I would say that was the biggest and most pleasant surprise.
Because I’m so familiar with the library and sold a lot of it previously on VHS, Betamax and Laserdisc while I was at MGM, I kind of have a sense of what will do well and what won’t do well, so we judge our spend accordingly. The break-even point is very low if we’re using an existing master and then there’s films like Show Boat where we spent months and months working on it and we were profitable within six months.
How is the choice made between what title comes out through Warner Archive versus the traditional home video channel? It was a bit surprising to see the Blu-ray release of Yankee Doodle Dandy come out through WAC.
GF: You’re right, a lot of people were surprised by that, but one of the things with Blu-ray is that you’re also relying on international sales to contribute to the cost of creating that Blu-ray. Yankee Doodle Dandy is very popular in the United States, but not particularly a blockbuster outside of the U.S., so the sales projections didn’t really support Yankee Doodle Dandy going out on Blu-ray on a global basis. With something like The Great Race, which we also released on Blu-ray last year, there are people who love that movie, a very large cult following and it was a tremendous success for us.
Our primary focus has been movies released between the 1920s and the 1970s, with a few from the '80s and '90s. The TV side is very different, because we’re releasing the third season of Hart of Dixie, which is a current show on The CW. We’re also releasing The Dakotas from 1963, which ran for a half-season on ABC before it was pulled off the air because there was a murder in a church scene that freaked everybody out and so the series didn’t continue. Yet 52 years later there are fans who want The Dakotas on DVD and we’re giving it to them, and we remastered it. We’re also releasing Childrens Hospital which airs on Adult Swim. TV miniseries do great for us as well. Some of our bestsellers are Scruples with Lindsay Wagner and The Deliberate Stranger with Mark Harmon.
What would you say has made the Warner Archive initiative so successful?
GF: We have a very small team of dedicated people. We run this business like it’s a worker’s cooperative, like it’s a little general store and our livelihood depends on it. There’s that much passion and care behind this business and I think that has allowed us to grow and prosper like we have.
With the sheer size and magnitude of the Warner Bros. Library, we have a lot to take care of and a lot to be proud of and the Warner Archive Collection allows Warner Bros. to maximize all aspects of this incredible library. While Warner Home Video will handle the major classic motion pictures like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, which get the big budgets and are available in mass retailers, we’ll put out the Humphrey Bogart movies like The Big Shot, which he made between The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Most people haven’t heard of it, but Bogart fans want to own it, so that’s what it’s all about for us and we’re thrilled to hit our sixth birthday this week, and we’re looking forward to many, many more years and many, many more releases.