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FORMAT WARS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The winner of the format wars today is streaming, and the most recent disc format is 4K, but nearly 12 years ago it was all about Blu-ray, so I wrote this column to look at the pros and cons of the ever-changing viewing (and listening) devices. These musings were published in the Deseret News on March 7, 2008.

And the winner is Blu-ray — the official next-generation DVD format, now that its high-definition competitor HD has capitulated.

It’s the future of home video, requiring us to eventually purchase new Blu-Ray disc players, like it or not.

And each studio will now scramble to re-release its high-end catalog — again. But many films will go missing, if the large number of titles released on VHS that never made it to DVD is any indication.

Persnickety fans who love hi-def’s crisp, clear, enhanced picture and have the disposable income to keep up with every new entertainment upgrade are in chatboard heaven. (Just give it a Google and see.)

But they aren’t nearly as giddy as greedy corporations that can once again gouge consumers with yet another new version of the same old movie they’ve already purchased on VHS, Betamax, laserdisc and/or DVD.

Not to mention the retreads … er … reissues that inevitably follow — Special Editions, Collector’s Editions, Ultimate Editions, each with a new featurette or audio commentary or booklet or postcard photos.

 

And if you think that’s an exaggeration, you haven’t been paying attention.

Think of it in terms of the various music formats we’ve been subjected to.

Heavy 78 rpm single records gave way to lighter 45 rpm singles and larger 33-1/3 albums — and somewhere along the way, cumbersome reel-to-reel tapes (although the latter never really caught on with the masses).

In the 1970s, various stereo systems came along (quadraphonic sound anyone?). And 8-Track tapes — which would sometimes switch tracks in the middle of a song! (To this day when I listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” album on CD, I half expect a fade-out and fade-in in the middle of “Car on a Hill.”)

Then along came cassette tapes, although early generations were not as satisfying as later improvements. But you could record your old LPs and create what we now call “playlists.”

Then came CDs, although there are purists who swear the sound has never matched vinyl records. Plus, fans of the aesthetic value of album covers were dismayed to see them shrink so that artistic detail was pretty much lost.

Now it’s digital downloads (try enjoying the cover art on your thin, skinny iPod).

But for music buffs, the real downside is that a surprising number of recordings from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have never been released on cassette or CD. And probably never will be. (Just best-ofs, which include only a sampling of songs from AWOL albums.)

Oh, you can find the originals on vinyl in used-record stores or on eBay, but unless you have access to a record player — anyone remember those? — you’re out of luck.

     

OK. Back to movies.

Until the cable/home video boom of the late 1970s, movie buffs who wanted to see golden oldies had to rely on the whims of local television stations, and the butchers … er, editors … who spliced in commercial breaks.

Suddenly there were movies for rent or purchase, and even more could be recorded from TV — including uninterrupted classics if you had the right premium cable channels.

But tapes — especially rental tapes — would show signs of wear after awhile. And sometimes there were outrageous glitches. (The initial studio release of the Jack Lemmon comedy “Good Neighbor Sam,” was a 130-minute movie transferred to a 120-minute tape; it was simply missing the final 10 minutes!)

Laserdiscs were better, offering much higher visual quality. But they were also more expensive, lacked recording capability and the viewing experience was interrupted when, halfway through a movie, the disc had to be flipped over.

So tape won out. But there were two kinds, each requiring its own player: VHS and Betamax. Fans insisted that Beta offered higher quality, but in the end VHS won the battle … if not the war.

After a couple of decades, DVDs arrived, with lighter, thinner packaging, sharp widescreen transfers, the ability to contain longer movies on a single disc, etc.

     

And now, just one decade later, here comes high definition. It does look great, even spectacular on such films as “Cars” and “Transformers.” Although, with serious films — you know, the kind with stories and conversation — you might be a bit distracted by close-ups when skin blemishes are obvious or nose hairs can be counted.

Actually, I’m fine with Blu-Ray, and happy to report that Blu-Ray players also play regular DVDs — a genuine comfort to those of us with large DVD libraries.

And I’m resigned to the fact that regular DVDs will soon be phased out in favor of Blu-Ray. Actually, with the short shelf life these days of all things technological, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But as someone who really loves movies and their vast history, it saddens me that this undoubtedly means even fewer vintage titles will make it to home video.

And I am NOT going to buy “Star Wars” again.

EDITOR’S ENDNOTE: And, of course, I did buy ‘Star Wars’ again, three years later when the ‘Complete Saga’ Blu-ray box set appeared on shelves. But I have so far resisted 4K. Also, vinyl-record players are back in vogue. Who saw that one coming? And DVDs are still with us, though a lot of vintage movie titles remain missing in action, nowhere to be seen on disc or streaming.