Warner Archive: A Model for the Future? by Jerry Whitworth
When animation fans want to see their childhood shows come to DVD to add to their collection, often one of two scenarios play out: a limited release by the owners of the material (holding the rest of the series hostage depending on sales of the first release) or a release of horrendous quality from a licensor of the material (sometimes even illegal bootlegs using VHS transfers make it to stores). Of course, such is not always true but is often enough to cause headaches for fans. Warner Bros has shifted to another tactic which seems to be working for the company. In 2009, Warner started the Warner Archive Collection producing DVDs made on demand using unrestored footage of its extensive film library sold directly to the consumer (cutting out the middle man in brick-and-mortar stores, thus slashing costs). Warner had previously operated the Looney Tunes Golden Collection beginning in 2003 followed by the Hanna–Barbera Golden Collection, later the Hanna–Barbera Classic Collection, beginning in 2004 (with The Flintstones: The Complete First Season) followed by the DC Comics Classic Collection the next year (with Batman: The Animated Series – Volume Three) making older series available in stores. These lines would be folded into the Warner Archive the year of its creation with titles like Yogi’s First Christmas and The Flight of Dragons added to its made on demand catalog. It should be noted, the Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection began release in 2004 and in 2011 the Tom and Jerry Golden Collection began release which at this time continues to be produced for in store sales. Lets take a look at the pros and cons of the Warner Archive Collection and what it could mean for the future of home video release.
Likely the biggest boon to come of the Warner Archive, which can be inferred from the introduction, is that we get the release of titles that otherwise would not have been available. A good example of this is SilverHawks. The first half of the first season of SilverHawks was released to stores however it seems sales did not merit a release of the rest of the series. With the advent of the Warner Archive (Warner Bros owning the rights to Rankin/Bass’ catalog, save The Last Unicorn), the last half was made available to consumers on demand. A similar situation played out with The Jetsons and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. Likely the series most enjoying the Warner Archive treatment are Scooby-Doo clones like The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, The Funky Phantom, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Inch High, Private Eye, Jabberjaw, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, Mister T, and Speed Buggy (Warner having acquired Ruby-Spears’ pre-1991 library). Action series like The Centurions, Challenge of the Gobots, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, Dragon’s Lair, Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles, The Herculoids, Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor, The Pirates of Dark Water, Sealab 2020, Shazzan, Sky Commanders, The Space Kidettes and Young Samson, SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Valley of the Dinosaurs are also featured as popular releases. Numerous Flintstones and Yogi Bear films/specials have seen publication. Animated series are not alone as Legends of the Superheroes, Shazam!, Wonder Woman 1974 film, and the second season of Superboy have also seen release. Though, there are a number of issues to arise with the Archive.
Arguably the greatest issue with the Warner Archive releases is the quality. Made using the highest quality records of the individual films and series, the DVDs are certainly better than standard quality but fall short of high definition. Generally, animated series released to stores are digitally remastered, with scenes painstakingly cleaned up to make the most of high-def media. As can be inferred, this process is expensive and denotes why companies are as selective as they are about what programs are chosen for the process. And while fans can live with under high-def releases, the real issue here is the emergence of Blu-ray. The home media market has pushed to transition to Blu-ray for several years, so far as releasing films with both Blu-ray and DVD discs as a means of trying to coerce the public into adopting the newer technology. And while consumers have been hesitant about upgrading their players, as time marches on they’ve none the less started moving towards it. This causes two problems with the Warner Archive as it is today: the amount of disc space on a Blu-ray is more than five times that of an average DVD and the expectation of high definition content with a Blu-ray purchase. The former means a five DVD set could fit onto a single Blu-ray disc which is significantly less impressive when trying to sell a set for a large sum of money. The latter means playing a Blu-ray disc on a high definition television will, by evolving standards, look terrible by comparison. In essence, the market is phasing out a great opportunity on many companies’ parts to make fans happy while making money for a minimal investment. It should be noted, DVDs do play on Blu-ray players. While quality is the biggest issue, there are others.
Disney has maintained a longstanding tradition with its media releases (especially with its animated films) that allows them to drive up the market for its products. The company’s tactic is to produce a video item for the home market but to later suspend publication indefinitely until they feel a re-release would be profitable. Because of the control they maintain on the product, they undoubtedly sell less copies than otherwise but can charge higher fees than if they left a title in circulation. In other words, they create their own market for release rather than leaving it up to the consumer (which could be good or bad, but as Disney continues to do it, they must feel confidant it works well for the bottom line). Warner has adopted a similar, perhaps even more devious, tactic with the Archive Collection. Though DVDs are made to order, Warner can at any time suspend publication (perhaps ever) of a title. This provides a limited window in which consumers can obtain an item, which in turn often means Warner can price gouge its audience. In the modern field of the DVD market, consumers often wait for a release to go on sale after being made available for a while but Warner’s tactic makes it that waiting for a sale could mean missing out on certain titles. As there is a minimal investment in providing made to order DVDs, charging exuberant prices for them because it can be taken away at any time makes for quite an unsavory maneuver (making the company appear more greedy than fan friendly). This issue is compounded by the fact few venues offer Warner Archive DVDs, the Warner Archive website and Amazon the only sources readily known to me at present. So fans can get their DVDs of classic animation, just at a premium. A rather minor note on my part, but not on that of others, is the minimalist effort of Warner Archive releases means very basic DVD menus and no special features.
What makes the situation generated by Warner interesting is what it can mean for the future. Recently going past its four year anniversary, Warner Archive seems to be doing well. More series continue to be generated from the retailer, recently giving consumers the opportunity to decide upcoming titles using polls on Facebook. Time will only tell if other companies will follow suit. A good example is the series Gargoyles from Disney. Generating a cult-like following with its showrunner Greg Weisman attracting the attention of many consumers today with series like Spectacular Spider-Man and Young Justice, Gargoyles saw release of its first season and half of its second season. Time and time again fans have requested the second half of season two be released only to be told sales of the last collection didn’t do well enough. A similar program to the Warner Archive at Disney could mean the release of the rest of that show’s series. Further, the rest of season one as well as seasons two and three of Darkwing Duck could be issued. Not to mention seasons three and four of DuckTales. And the third volume of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. And the last three seasons of Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. As can be distinguished, various series remain open ended for release from Disney. There remains no significant release of the Aladdin and Mighty Ducks individual series to date for that matter. An entire article on this website has been dedicated to yet released Marvel animated series (Disney having acquired Marvel in 2009). Companies like the Cookie Jar Company, Shout! Factory, Visual Entertainment, Urban Archipelago Films, and Image Entertainment are just a handful of companies bringing animated series of the past to DVD and could all likely benefit from a service like the Warner Archive process.