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February, 2002

by Michael Jacobson

With the new year well underway, it’s time once again to update our semi-annual Studio Scorecard.  This is where we take a look at all of the major DVD producing studios, rank them in order of prominence, and talk a bit about what each one does best, and what each one can improve upon.

I first started this feature almost four years ago when I was a reviewer at DVD Movie Review, and it has followed me through subsequent assignments, and has stayed with me since the launch of DMC.  I’ve gotten some nice emails about it over the years, and I certainly hope this continues to be a feature you find useful and entertaining…most of all, though, I continue to humbly hope that for better or worse, the studios take both the good and bad comments to heart…it’s not about negativity here; it’s merely about trying to get each company to do the best it can possibly do with the format for the consumers!

For starters, though, let’s take one look back as we update our semi-annual Studio Scorecard.  As a point of reference, we’ll start by recapping the last rankings:

  1. Criterion
  2. Columbia Tri Star
  3. 20th Century Fox
  4. New Line Cinema
  5. Anchor Bay
  6. Buena Vista
  7. Dreamworks
  8. Universal
  9. Artisan
  10. Paramount
  11. MGM
  12. Image Entertainment
  13. Warner Bros.
  14. USA Entertainment

Lights, camera, action…welcome to the Studio Scorecard for 2002:

1.      CRITERION COLLECTION

Big Plus:  The cinema lover’s best friend
Big Minus:  Price         
Gotta Have:  Wild Strawberries, Rebecca

For my money, nobody does it better than Criterion.  Not only do they release some of the most important (and possibly unprofitable) titles that film history has to offer, but they usually get full restoration efforts and a terrific package of extras to boot!  Other times, they take other studio’s half-hearted releases and turn them into monumental special events, like their stellar double disc of Rebecca .  That double disc special edition of Traffic coming out later this year looks like another prime example.  True, Criterion discs generally cost a little more, but what’s that old saying about getting what you pay for?

2.      COLUMBIA TRI STAR

Big Plus:  The original anamorphic champion
Big Minus:  Full frame inclusions
Gotta Have:  Final Fantasy

Columbia Tri Star remains consistent with their audio/video quality, and continue to deliver top notch discs for both new releases and catalog titles.  Final Fantasy won the coveted DMC Award for Best Overall DVD of 2001, and remains a prime example of this studio in their glory.  If only they’d stop wasting valuable disc space by including so many full-frame transfers with their titles, their quality of production could soar even higher.

3.      NEW LINE CINEMA

Big Plus:  Infinifilm series
Big Minus:  None, really
Gotta Have:  Blow

Since the inception of DVD, New Line has always been a top five studio, and they continue to produce some of the best special editions for the money.  Their DMC Award winning Infinifilm series continues to lead the pack in that category…you can lose yourself for many hours in a title like Blow or Rush Hour 2.  Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring should be a monster title later this year.

4.      20th CENTURY FOX

Big Plus:  Dynamite double discs!
Big Minus:  Going to start releasing full frame/pan&scan  titles
Gotta Have:  Star Wars Episode One, Planet of the Apes (2001)

Once upon a time, Fox drug its heels in getting on the DVD bandwagon, but after a shaky start, they’ve been a top five studio ever since.  The highly anticipated release of Star Wars Episode One was worth the wait, and one of the best looking color DVDs I’ve ever seen (and a DMC Award winner).  To become more consumer friendly, they’re beginning to release lower priced, single disc versions of some of their hit double disc special editions; that’s a good thing.  Deciding to re-release some widescreen titles as full frame or pan & scan?  Very bad idea…widescreen is the format of the future, and we don’t need any more consumer confusion than is already out there.

5.      ANCHOR BAY

Big Plus:  Best studio for fans of classic and cult horror
Big Minus:  Buy fast!
Gotta Have:  Evil Dead: Book of the Dead  

Anchor Bay remains a personal favorite of mine because they’re the best studio for fans of horror and cult films.  Most of us would be happy enough just having some of these off-the-mainstream titles by Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and others, but Anchor Bay always delivers extra, with restored anamorphic widescreen presentations, some of the best 5.1 remixes on the market, and a plethora of extras to go with them.  Their limited edition discs are crown jewels…my double disc copies of Halloween and Army of Darkness are still amongst my most prized possessions, and their new Evil Dead: Book of the Dead release is even better…just act fast, or forever hold your cash!

6.      MGM

Big Plus:  Most improved studio; library of classic titles
Big Minus:  Still some anamorphic inconsistencies
Gotta Have:  Mad Max, The Princess Bride

MGM has slowly but surely gotten better over the years…after initially being a prominent bottom-dweller on our list, the studio now barely misses the top five.  Though still a bit inconsistent on anamorphic offerings, they’ve gotten better in that department, and their continual release of classic titles from their library is a benefit to every film fan.  Recent special editions of titles like Mad Max and The Princess Bride more than make up for past miscues.  Remember, guys, keep thinking anamorphic transfers…you’re almost there!

7.      BUENA VISTA

Big Plus:  Continuing to improve
Big Minus:  Frustrating re-release policy
Gotta Have:  Snow White, Tron

It would be easy to bear a grudge against the Disney companies for continuing to make me buy the same damn titles over and over again…can you say Hercules, Peter Pan, Mulan, everybody?  Less desirable titles get rolled off the shelf time and time again, while we wait for The Lion King, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and others.  But this studio surprised us all with their stellar release of Fantasia as a box set the year before, and they did so again last year with one of their best offerings to date, Snow Whitea title that raised the studio’s bar for restoration quality and excellent features.  Their re-release of Tron is a smashing success, too…just PLEASE let it be the last time I have to buy that title?  Please?…

8.      PARAMOUNT

Big Plus:  Getting better features-wise
Big Minus:  Those damned annoying warning screens you can’t skip
Gotta Have:  Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Paramount climbs a couple of notches by continuing to improve in the features department, and for releasing more and more classic favorites like Beverly Hills Cop and The Bad News Bears movies.  Lara Croft: Tomb Raider shows what this company is capable of when they pull out all the stops!  But seriously, guys…it’s time to retire those damn white-on-black screen etching warning screens that we can’t skip past.  You’ve made it worse instead of better by throwing in the MPAA rating screen, too.  Not good.

9.      DREAMWORKS

Big Plus:  Guaranteed audio/video quality every time
Big Minus:  Small library of titles
Gotta Have:  Shrek

The only reason Dreamworks ever slips on our list is because of their youth…they put out great DVDs every time, but they have far too few!  They are arguably the most consistent studio in terms of audio and visual quality…you can expect the best when you pop in one of their discs, because the best is always what you get.  Shrek was one of last year’s best, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of the prime releases of this year so far.  But come on, Steven…how about a commentary track?  We’d love to hear from you…

10.  UNIVERSAL

Big Plus:  Collector’s and Ultimate Editions
Big Minus:  Can’t change audio tracks on the fly
Gotta Have:  American Pie 2, The Fast and the Furious

Universal slips a little just because they’ve been surpassed by others, but they’re still one of the top studios when it comes to delivering special edition discs…just no more “Collector’s Edition” today, “Ultimate Edition” tomorrow discs, please (i.e. The Mummy, American Pie).  And their usually commentary tracks lose a bit of luster when you can’t access them on the fly while you watch…that’s been going on long enough; it’s time to address that issue.

11.  ARTISAN

Big Plus:  Major titles
Big Minus:  Minor and not enough titles          
Gotta Have:  Requiem for a Dream

Artisan made the map with The Blair Witch Project a couple of years ago, and they have parlayed that reputation into a few quality disc releases.  Requiem for a Dream was a straight four star sweep at DMC, and took home a DMC Award for Best Menu Screens.  Their only real problem is too few A-list titles, while bombarding the market with worthless direct-to-video movies nobody’s ever heard of.  Even then, a less than desirable title like Soul Survivors gets red carpet treatment from this studio.  And at least we can finally look forward to a better and anamorphically enhanced version of the Dune miniseries this year.

12.  IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT

Big Plus:  Silent films
Big Minus:  Quality and features inconsistencies
Gotta Have:  The Who Live at the Royal Albert Hall

Being a silent movie buff, I have a soft spot in my heart for Image.  This studio has delivered some of the best movies from the voiceless era, including this year’s release of an all time favorite of mine, Earth.  But this studio isn’t all silent…check out one of the best concert DVDs on the market, The Who Live at the Royal Albert Hall , for a gorgeous, packed disc with a 5.1 soundtrack that will peel the paint off of your walls!  But how about retiring those awful snapper cases, hmm?

13.  WARNER BROS.

Big Plus:  Pricing
Big Minus:  Consistent in only one area:  declining prominence
Gotta Have:  Dirty Harry

Warner seems to be striving for the bottom spot on our list, and I have news for them…it’s definitely within their reach.  While their re-release of Dirty Harry was one of last year’s high points, I continue to wait for a sign from them that they’re willing to battle back for their once prominent top spot.  By releasing only full a full frame version of Willy Wonka initially, they rubbed a lot of DVD lovers the wrong way.  Then they intentionally undershipped the widescreen version of Cats & Dogs in an attempt to prove the absurd and untrue fact that family titles sell better in full frame or pan & scan.  These are not the actions of a consumer friendly studio.  One can only hope that the upcoming release of Harry Potter will be a better moment for them, but considering it’s going to be a double disc “special edition” with NO commentary track and NO making-of documentary, I wouldn’t bet on it.

14.  USA ENTERTAINMENT

Big Plus:  Making lesser known but great titles available
Big Minus:  Small library of titles
Gotta Have:  Traffic

Though their title list is far too small for USA Entertainment to be considered a top DVD studio, they’ve at least managed to insure fans a few great titles like Nurse Betty and Traffic .  Quality-wise, they’ve shown some improvements in their short history, but overall, the studio simply needs more titles and discs with more quality features if they want to really win the hearts of DVD fans.