Ed Driscoll

How Criterion Paved the Way for DVD

The next time you pop a DVD into your player and ogle at all of the bonus features and interactive menus, give some thought to where those features came from.

In 1980, Bob Stein was supporting himself as a waiter but he dreamed of being at the forefront of a technology revolution. Visits to the public library turned up articles on a new technology called the optical videodisc (soon to be known as the laserdisc). “I read until I got interested in something. And I got interested in this,” Stein says.

Four years later, Stein bought the laserdisc rights to two classic films — “Citizen Kane” and “King Kong” — and hooked up with Janus Films, a distributor of classic and offbeat films, with the hope of releasing Janus’ content on laserdisc.

Naming their nascent venture after a NASA deep-space probe, Stein and his Janus partners formed the Voyager Company to distribute interactive laserdiscs. The new company dubbed its classic films division the Criterion Collection.

Pushing the Technology Envelope

For Stein, the laserdisc had several elements that at the time were rarely taken advantage of by mainstream Hollywood studios. First, its original CAV (Constant Angular Velocity) format could display 24 frames a second, meaning that a film could be stopped and each frame individually examined. Second, because laserdiscs originally had a stereo analog audio track, and later, a stereo digital audio track in addition to the analog track, there were multiple audio tracks available on the disc. Those analog tracks could hold an optional audio commentary or two. And finally, the laserdiscs could be chapter-encoded, making it possible to click to certain spots before, during or after a movie. (At the time, most mainstream films on laserdisc didn’t bother with chapter encoding.)

Unlike today’s DVDs, in the mid-1980s letterboxed films were a rarity, but Criterion pushed letterbox into the mainstream by becoming the first company to fully commit to the format. And it did this in spite of being flooded by letters from viewers, who wrote: “I think my disc is defective. I can only see a third of the picture!”

Criterion Helps DVD Hit the Ground Running

Thanks to Stein’s efforts, the laserdisc had a new lease on life as a vehicle for film buffs and scholars who could study films in a format close to original celluloid. In fact, Criterion emerged as a better format because of ancillary features such as trailers, documentaries, still photos, audio commentaries, and anything else Criterion could include.

Douglas Pratt, who began writing The laserdisc Newsletter (now The DVD-laserdisc Newsletter) in the mid-1980s, told me that in 1997: “When DVDs enabled interactive home video to reach the mass market, all of the home video companies were able to hit the ground running, using what they had initially learned from Criterion. The home video companies themselves are filled with people who like movies and are attracted to collector’s editions, and there is a certain amount of vanity appeal for the filmmakers that encourages them to participate in creating the programming. When aspects of it caught on with the mass market — particularly the inclusion of deleted scenes — it helped to define home video as being the true end-product of the production of a motion picture.”

By creating discs that contained both the movies and related interactive elements, Criterion had answered the question: “Why should I buy a laserdisc player? It can’t record!”

And in so doing, Criterion paved the way for that DVD player in your den.

(From my February 2004 Electronic House newsletter.)