Warner Tries to Keep Up With Technology—and Beat Bootleggers—With On-Demand Archive

Even in the age of Netflix and broadband, anyone who watches movies at home has found him- or herself wanting to watch something that seemingly just can't be found—"Availability: Unknown" as Netflix styles it. In an era of rapid access to everything, that seems downright perverse. But the fact is that Americans are buying fewer DVDs (sales were down 13 percent last year, from more than $10 billion in 2008 to $8.7 billion in 2009) and the growing but still modest revenue from video on demand, downloading, and streaming ($1.63 billion all together in 2009) just barely evens up the loss. While it isn't tough to find a Blu-ray copy of Avatar, more marginal titles are suffering as studios let them fall out of print or hold off on issuing them in the first place. After all, thousands of film nerds may want to see a certain film, but if the studio that owns the rights isn't confident it can sell, say, 20,000 DVDs (a typical profit point on an older title), it's a money-losing proposition to prep and manufacture them. And the studios have obvious reason to be less confident these days.

Warner Brothers has come up with a way to mine the riches of its vaults without overextending itself. In March 2009 it launched the Warner Archive program (wbshop.com, click on "Warner Archive"), which offers burned-on-demand DVD-Rs and downloads of hundreds of titles (and more each month) from the more than 14,000 items in the Warner catalog, everything from silent shorts from the 1920s on up to the 18 episodes of the Rufus Sewell-starring CBS television series The Eleventh Hour from 2008. The titles made available don't boast the kind of extras and bells and whistles that standard releases do (and WA only recently started "remastering" the source material), but a sampling of releases makes you want the other studios to hurry up and get with the program.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a prime example of the kind of thing that's perfect for a no-frills WA release. A TV movie from 1973, it features Kim Darby as a young corporate wife who moves into an old mansion and insists that the handyman open up a sealed grate in an old fireplace, unwittingly releasing gnarly looking little demons which then do their best to drive her mad. The film is genuinely creepy enough that it fostered a small cult following through its original airing, late-night rebroadcasts, and, in more recent years, bootleg versions traded among fans. (Beating bootleggers seems to be a key inspiration for WA.) Its script, acting, and directing haven't aged well, and neither has the print used, based on the faded colors. But the DVD image is surprisingly crisp and clean, and those little demons with their raspy little whispers are still genuinely creepy.

Warner Archive is also an excellent way to ensure that a bizarro artifact like Dusty and Sweets McGee doesn't continue to languish unseen. Directed by Floyd Mutrux, the 1971 film uses a mix of real people, actors, improvised monologues, and scripted situations to create a post-Aquarian portrait of heroin addicts on the streets of Los Angeles. The cocky, mulleted, muscle-car-driving dealer is an actor (former child star Billy Gray) but Clifton "Tip" Fredell is an actual ex-con, and his spiels about stealing to support his dope habit bear the appropriate ring of truth. Much of the film focuses on pretty young hippies playing themselves as they lounge around, bicker, hustle, and get high, footage that's far more compelling than the desultory attempt at a plot Mutrux grafts on. Perhaps what's most striking about the film is Mutrux's use of nighttime cruising scenes scored to doo-wop tunes playing on the radio, two years before George Lucas did the same in American Graffiti, set in Southern California in the early ‘60s. Watching Dusty is like seeing what the little brothers and sisters of Lucas' goodie-goodies and greasers got up to just a few years down the road.

Concert film Urgh! A Music War seems like the kind of title that could attract 20,000 takers for a legit release, but the WA version is welcome. Released in 1981, it features a song each from a host of "new wave" and nominal punk acts of the moment, a dragnet that pulls in the likes of future stars the Police (who, as suddenly rising stars, get to play two songs), the Go-Go's, the Dead Kennedys, and X. It also means you get ample stage time from the likes of Invisible Sex, Athletico Spizz 80, and the histrionic John Otway, all now forgotten, and with good reason. Most of the rest falls somewhere in the middling middle but the best sequences here—Gang of Four's tensile take on "He'd Send in the Army," a sweaty Andy Partridge bellowing XTC's "Respectable Street," a slamming "Uncontrollable Urge" from Devo—are well worth the price.

Oh, yes, the price. The Warner Archive titles are bare-bones, but not budget: Single-disc titles typically go for $19.95, downloads for $14.95. But none of the discs viewed for this column suffered from any substantive image quality issues—they certainly beat boots, which often don't cost much less—and WA specializes in titles that those looking for them will be happy to have in any decent form at almost any price.