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The Criterion Collection

A Conversation with Peter Becker,
President of The Criterion Collection


When home theater enthusiasts hear the name Criterion Collection they instantly think of the highest quality presentation of films. For 15 years, Criterion has been providing fans with the best quality classic films on DVD and laserdisc, and their well-earned reputation is second to none. In fact, Criterion pioneered the special edition format that we've all come to love, enjoy and expect. Today, every major studio is doing special edition discs. But no one does it as well, or with as much dedication, as The Criterion Collection. Just ask any DVD special edition producer out there today -- they would all site Criterion as the standard they strive to meet.

Criterion itself is represented by a team of the medium's best producers of special edition discs. Each has their own favorite and because of it, the Collection is diverse, eclectic and probably the most rounded group of films on DVD that you can find under one label. From Suzuki's poetic Tokyo Drifter to Warhol's Flesh For Frankenstein to recent hits like Armageddon, pretty much every genre is represented, with more on the way. It would take forever to talk with every member of The Criterion Collection about what they do. With any luck, the Bits will feature interviews with a number of the different producers over there in the future (we're working on something even now). But first, we're proud to present our chat with Criterion president Peter Becker...

Todd Doogan - The Digital Bits: Peter, when did you start working with Criterion?

Peter Becker - The Criterion Collection: I started about six years ago. The first discs that I had a hand in on the laserdisc side were Silence of the Lambs, Robocop, the original edition of Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The last big title before I started was probably Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Doogan: When did Criterion come into existence?

Becker: A fellow named Bob Stein started the ball rolling. He saw some potential on laserdiscs, particularly when it was connected to a Macintosh which led to the Voyager CD-ROM line as well. Bob wanted to do some interesting stuff with laserdiscs, particularly because they had still frame capacity. He saw it really as a merging of a film in a book. Bob was very interested in the capacity of still frame and fairly early on -- also in alternate sound tracks -- and he commissioned a few of them and got things going. He needed films to work on, and he couldn't seem to get any Hollywood studios interested in what he wanted to be doing, so he came to New York to meet with Janus Films, which has to be one of the larger privately held film libraries in the United States. That was how Criterion born.

Doogan: When did Criterion come up with the idea of presenting the film image in its original widescreen format?

Becker: Letterboxing was virtually unknown at the time. Criterion was certainly the first company to make a commitment to present every film in its original aspect ratio. We made that commitment very early on, right when we started in the early 80's -- 1984 or so. We started with Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- that was the first scope film that we did. It had a letterbox on it and letters poured in from people saying, "I think my disc is defective, I can only see a third of the picture." It's amusing now, but letterboxing was something that people said the public will never ever buy; they don't want the picture smaller on their television set, they wanted the picture bigger. They want to see the faces. And there are still people who feel that way. We just felt that it was important right from the beginning to make a commitment to presenting films as filmmakers wanted them seen, and that meant respecting their framing. And it meant respecting the composition that they had established in the first place.

Doogan: Criterion seems to really invest in its special editions. It has to be expensive, both financially and time-wise, to do the work you guys do.

Becker: There are certainly easier ways to make DVD's, and there were easier ways to make laserdiscs. You don't have to go scour the world for elements every time you want to do a transfer. The pleasure of working at Criterion, is the pleasure of being able to do it right. We're working in a company where the first principle is that you have to respect the films that you work on, and then you have to make the best possible discs you can. Our goal is to make a disc that is the closest thing we can to a film archive for the home viewer. We never talk about "added value" around here. The whole phrase just sticks in my craw. The idea that you're adding extras to increase sales is just bogus. That's a waste of time, I think. In fact, we are finding that there are large audience of people out there who will, as a result of the work that we do, take chances on films that they might not otherwise have looked at.

Doogan: What would you say is the overall mission of Criterion and the producers you have working there?

Becker: Our mission is pretty broad as far as the kinds of films that we want to present. What we insist on, is that all of them be worthy of our attention. We really do see ourselves as a label, and we want to be as broadly appealing as possible. We would like to meet as many new friends as we possibly can. But we also see ourselves to some degree as representing a constituency of our viewers who do trust us, who do trust our judgment, and we do regularly get letters from people who are saying... you know, "I bought this picture on the strength of the Criterion bar, and I'm not disappointed." Or occasionally, "I don't understand why it's in the collection." But even that very question indicates something about the work that we're doing. The fact that somebody could say "I don't understand why that's in the collection" is a little indicator that there's a mission, that there are criteria, and that the Criterion Collection has reasons for everything we put out -- different reasons in almost every case.

Doogan: All that process, and all those steps, explains the price point issue that people have sometimes with Criterion --

Becker: Yeah. The price-point issue is actually pretty simple. We're an independent company. We do a very specific kind of work, and the main price-point difference is tied up in this question of added value. I mean, the added value concept is "we're going to put something on this DVD that we're going to give you for free, that we think is going it sell more units if we put it on there" -- we don't really look at it that way. We look at it as we're going to approach this film, we're going to determine at the outset whether we think it is a strong vehicle for additional study and for supplemental treatment. Most of the films that we do are full-blown special editions. The cost of creating those materials is substantial, and we have to ask the marketplace to share in that cost. This is what we do, and it's -- that's just it. When we put out a fairly standard edition, they tend to have a fair retail price, which I think most people are not, in the end, having to pay because of the discounting in the marketplace. But our SRP is $29 to $39, generally. And then when we go to a two-disc set, we'll have to go to $49. When we go to a three-disc set, we'll have to go to $59. And we'll try to be as stable and predictable about that as we possibly can. When there's a large amount of supplemental content or a reasonable amount of supplemental content, we will keep the price at $39. When it's a fairly straight edition, we'll bring them in at $29. And as far as I can tell, that puts us essentially 10 bucks above market.

Doogan: Was it a bit complicated jumping in after all the other studios?

Becker: When our first DVD's came out in March of 1998, which was exactly a year after the initial rollout, we were grateful for all that work that had been done. There was something of a marketplace to release our stuff into and also we had to be sensitive, honestly, to our laserdisc customer base. And one of the questions was, "should we abandon laserdisc and run for DVD? Or should we hate DVD, because it's jeopardizing laser?" There was an awful lot of discussion going on there. And our first concerns about DVD compression were enormous. We were used to looking at an uncompressed video signal, an analog. One big, fat analog signal, which when it was clean was gorgeous and when it was noisy, it was noisy. And we worked really hard on making sure that our pressings were as clean as they could possibly be. In one case, toward the last year of laser when the plant started getting a little bit more frantic and worrying about converting over to DVD and so on, we started to see some messy pressings. I think we caught it with the Shine disc. I think there was a lot of discussion about whether DVD was going to be able to be as good a laserdisc. And I think our concern was that we didn't want to be in DVD until we felt we could make it as good or better.

Doogan: What's your opinion on sites like Ebay and how much some of the Criterion discs are going for in the secondary market? How do you feel about that?

Becker: I think it is certainly gratifying to see that some people really value what we do very highly. I don't know how else I could interpret it. I wish that it weren't the case, but titles occasionally have to go out of print. Given that they do, I think it's incredibly flattering and it's sort of an honor to see your work valued.

Doogan: Sure.

Becker: It's not like the auction environment is the place that DVD, in principle, belongs, and we'd love to keep them freely flowing out to the customer base and so on. But occasionally, things do go out of print and, you know, someone asked us, " Why did you put it out if you thought it might go out of print?" And the answer to that one is simply because we DID have a few years left on our license when we started working on it, and we felt the DVD marketplace would be a better place with our Killer edition in it than without it. And so, you know, we put it out. I hope some day we'll be able to issue it again.

Doogan: The Killer, 400 Blows, Salo, This is Spinal Tap... what's the story on each of them? Why did they fall out of the Collection? Was it all because it was the tail-end of the license, and you guys thought maybe you can extend it and put it out just in case?

Becker: We were probably still working on extending, or on renewing, or renegotiating. We never like to see anything leave the Collection or go out of print. A lot of film libraries have changed hands in the last few years -- a lot of distribution is consolidated, and every major company has different corporate strategies for itself. We've had working relationships with almost every studio in Hollywood at one time or another, but always when it made sense for the studio. And at any given time -- if it doesn't make sense to a studio, or they feel that there is some reason that they don't want to be licensing, or they don't feel it's an important initiative for them to start developing these things themselves, whatever -- then there's not much that we can do or say about that. There are other cases that are just as simple as competition in the marketplace, or whatever. Only one of the titles that you mentioned is one that we actually, you know, lost rights to a competitor company [The 400 Blows], and that was very painful for Janus. Honestly, we've been very dedicated to Truffaut for a long time. My father (William Becker, founder of Janus Films) was very close friends with Francois himself for a long time.

Doogan: Fox-Lorber -- not to throw stones -- but how could Criterion lose to Fox-Lorber's DVD's collection?

Becker: There are many variables that go into someone's decision. I would like to think that everybody can see the quality of the work that we do and recognize it, and will take that into account when they make their decision as whether or not they're licensing to us and working with us on a continuing basis. But there are occasionally times when that is not the sole or even primary concern, and there are times when money makes the world go around.

Doogan: What was up with the rumors that went around about Michael Bay pulling a bit of clout to get the Armageddon disc out from Criterion.

Becker: Armageddon was actually an extremely easy, straightforward thing. The back-story on the whole Disney working relations has been very smooth. It was very smooth all through our laser life -- I think we did about 16 or 17 titles on laser with Disney and Miramax. Among those was The Rock. When The Rock came up the first time, that was going to be a monstrous amount of work, and we approached it with a little bit of trepidation. Michael really wanted to see it happen and so we said, "okay, let's do it." We hadn't done a major action film like that before... well, we had done non-traditional action films...

Doogan: Like Spartacus. Sparacus is kind of an action film. An epic, historical, spear-through-the-belly action film, but an action film none-the-less.

Becker: Not really though, I mean only in the same way that Henry V or Passion of Joan of Arc is an action film. What Michael does is a very specific, very current, modern brand of adrenal entertainment, and we'd never really done a movie like that before, and we didn't really know how to approach it at first. We started to realize that we had to approach it on its own terms. I don't know if you remember The Rock LD box, but inside the insert, there was a quote from Jerry Bruckheimer that basically said that there's a difference between a megablockbuster and other kinds of film. A movie like that comes out swinging for the fences. It's a whole other style of filmmaking, and it was interesting for us. We approached it with, like I said, a bit of trepidation.

Doogan: Were you guys fans enough of The Rock that you consider it a modern day classic?

Becker: We are. Honestly, within the staff, we had mixed opinions. That's often the way it is with modern stuff that we do with current films. It's much harder to argue about the merits of a film when it just comes out in the theaters, than it is 40 years later, after it's stood the test of time. It's a lot easier to argue the merits of Seven Samurai now than it probably was in the 50's.

Doogan: I have always thought that The Rock was the perfect brainless action film. Because it's perfect in that sense, I think it's good enough for me to have a Criterion edition.

Becker: Well, you know, I think the key to it is that the edition itself has to be a good edition, and I'm very proud of what we did on The Rock. I'm very proud of what we've done on both of Michael's films. And we couldn't have done it without him, and that's part of what our whole way of working is. We really try to take our leads very strongly from the filmmakers themselves and the people involved, trying not to leave any stone unturned. The story on The Rock is essentially that Michael really did wanted to do a Rock Criterion laser, and he made that known to the folks at Disney. The folks at Disney called us and said, "Do you want to do it?" We asked if we could think about it overnight, and we had a long, knock-down, drag-out about it. When it was all over, you know what? We actually did want to do it. This was a pretty exciting project. And from then on, we didn't really look back. We had a great time, and it was a huge disc, not in terms of sales so much in the laser market, although it was strong, but in terms of content. When Michael made Armageddon, he called us while he was shooting at one point and just checked in with us along the way. There was a whole bunch of back and forth between us subsequent to The Rock, and when it came time for Armageddon to go to home video, the only issue with Disney was being able to work out arrangements to be able to do it on DVD as well as laser at that point, because we were converting so much of our work to DVD.

Doogan: Did you expect, and were you ready for the people who said, "Ooh... Criterion is selling out doing Supercop and The Rock"? A lot of people said that you guys had sold out.

Becker: Criterion is an on-going living collection. And every decision we make just sort of adds to it, slow. I don't think the identity of the collection as a whole is really defined by, or limited by, any single title in the collection. For some people, the archetypal Criterion Edition might be The Red Shoes on DVD or laserdisc -- either one. Different people may have a different idea of what Criterion is supposed to be. For many people, Criterion is supposed to be The Seventh Seal and Seven Samurai. And for me Criterion is all those things. We aspire to present films that are the finest possible examples of what they are. It has to have original voices, and in some cases, be films that have been championed by a trusted member of our production staff, who said, "Listen... I really, really feel it's important to work on this."

And you know, Seven was such a title originally. It was something that one of our key producers here wanted to work on. I worked very closely with David Fincher, and at the time that we did Seven, we were a little bit concerned about it because here it was, this commercial success, and it had a somewhat lurid and sensationalistic plotline and it was graphically, if not violent, at least it showed the graphic aftermath of violence. It was a very disturbing movie. I think every time you do something, it's always easier to go back and feel confident when you're going back. It's an odyssey. It's 50 years later and the British Film Institute is naming The Third Man the number one British film of all time. You don't have any doubts about that -- nobody is going to ever get on your case about having done it in The Criterion Collection. It's going to be a great DVD. It's a great film. The Rock, on the other hand, is an important contemporary film, if for no other reason than so many people saw it and that it is an excellent example of the body of work that Simpson/Bruckheimer have created. They have a really dedicated audience in the United States. And you know, in this case, Michael Bay is now a Criterion director. He will, if he wants to, work on his next film with us -- we have a working relationship there, and we would certainly look forward to working with him again. He has been very interesting to work with -- I think we've learned a lot working on his discs. I certainly learned a lot more about special effects working on a Michael Bay disc. I think there was probably more special effects related information on Armageddon than there's been on anything that we've done since... God, the original Ghostbusters disc, Blade Runner, Close Encounters -- stuff like that. You know. I think that's a great disc. It's a throbber as they say. So as far the short answer to the sell out question goes, I can't remember anybody ever really telling me they thought Criterion had sold out with a straight face.

Doogan: What about Supercop?

Becker: I had wanted to work on a Jackie Chan film for about four years before we did Supercop, and I hadn't been able to secure rights to do Project A or any of the other Jackie Chan films that were coming out of Asia. We had the Miramax relationship, and Supercop afforded us the opportunity to work on a Jackie Chan film, and that's what it really boiled down to for us. We saw an opportunity to make available footage that was missing from the version that was released in the theaters in the United States, but we weren't able to integrate it into the film because of the remix of sound and there were all kinds of complicated issues on Supercop. The sound had been beautifully remixed, in a way that Jackie Chan had been pleased with from all that we knew. We wanted to be able to avail ourselves with that new soundtrack and you couldn't possibly cut in the footage that had been missing from the American release without switching sound tracks. We had to make them available for the supplemental scenes. But I think they were grateful even for that.

Doogan: Yeah. It was good enough. I love the disc, and it's one of those discs I can't get rid of my LD player for.

Becker: Well, I would have loved to have presented it in its original form -- either as well as, or in edition to -- but we didn't. If we had to do over again, maybe I would. Not every decision we make is always perfect. Films should be exemplary in some way.

Doogan: Has there ever been a film that you or anybody on your staff just had to have and everyone said no? And it was not just a matter of the studio not giving you rights, but nobody wanted to be involved and there was no point in doing it?

Becker: On Strangers in Paradise, we recorded a Jarmusch commentary which we couldn't use, if that's what you're looking for --

Doogan: Why couldn't you use it?

Becker: In the end, Jim didn't like it. We recorded the commentary, we edited it several times, and we kept reworking it and reworking it. In the end, he just couldn't get comfortable with it, and we dropped it.

Doogan: That's a shame.

Becker: It's rare. But it happened. He still supervised the transfer and helped with a whole bunch of supplementary elements and things like that.

Doogan: Any whole films like that? Where maybe somebody looked at the film and went, you know I don't want this put out? Does Criterion still have stuff in the vault that's never been released but has been mastered, special-editioned and, in the long run, you couldn't do anything with it?

Becker: No. The closest to that was The Prince of Tides. With the problems we had many years ago on the laserdisc. That was simply a matter of Barbra Streisand quite rightly having found some typographical errors in the supplement and thinking better of a couple comments on the commentary track and asking us to change it, which we laboriously did over the course of a year-and-a-half. It lead to some delays, but in the end was more or less the identical disc to the one that we had originally produced with a couple of errors corrected and one or two (not terrifically significantly) comments lost from the commentary track.

Doogan: Didn't this same thing kind of happen with Brazil? Didn't Gilliam make some comments that you guys had to end up either re-recording?

Becker: No, no. Universal is a class act. They are amazing in this regard. They did not infringe on the content of the Brazil disc one bit. In the end, we -- actually prior to my arrival -- we had started to work on the Brazil disc, and through an error the disc was announced in the catalog prior to the final execution of the contract, and that caused a major delay. Universal felt that we had jumped the gun. You must act in partnership with these people. To their credit, they understood that we needed to retain our editorial independence, and that we needed to be seen as a free from fundamentally distorted censorship of any kind. We agree in general. Obviously they have review of our material and things like that for the purpose of protecting themselves legally, and also for protecting themselves from libel and slander. Neither Universal nor Disney, for that matter, has ever made us pull a punch on something like that. They were concerned, on the Brazil disc, that we make as well-rounded a version of the story as we could, and we talk to as many people as we could, which we were doing. All the way along they've supported us in it, and I think to their advantage -- it's lifted the air of mystery that surrounded the controversy and made it all very clear. It's completely understandable now, and it's not a secret. It's just something that is out there. It's part of history. To Universal's credit, they didn't make us cut a word, change a comma -- you know, as long as all the clearances were clear and everybody had spoken their peace -- they didn't change a thing.

There's another example with Disney, where in the liner notes in one of the films that we put out on laser, there was a comment that essentially referred to what may have been a strategic error in the release pattern of the theatrical release when it came out, and what was opposite the film. And it was in the liner notes, and I got a call back from my contact at Disney saying, "Do you think it's a good idea, putting this in here? " And I said, "Actually I sort of do", because the film didn't perform as well as anyone had hoped it would at the box office. We're making the case this film has lasting value, and is by filmmakers who are important voices in the film community. And it's a very ambitious film that needs to be seen and soon, and so forth. I talked it through with them and they said okay, fine.

Doogan: What types of title suggestions do you guys get?

Becker: We don't really comment on them. Because as soon we say, "Oh, yeah that sounds great" or "I'm really interested, we're actually pursuing that" or "We're looking at that or we're working on that", then that information would make its way through all of the usenet groups, bulletin boards and all that stuff. Two bad things can end up happening. One, is that we have four new competitors in the marketplace, who weren't looking for it until they were reading the boards and saw this excitement over the fact that Criterion was trying the land the rights. The other problem -- which is even worse -- is that very quickly it would go from "Oh, thanks for that great suggestion, we're actually looking into those rights" or "We're in negotiations for those rights now" to "Criterion has it scheduled" or "Criterion has it coming out next month" or even still, "I went to pre-order it my store, and my store doesn't know anything about it." After that, 48 letters go to Jon Mulvaney, me and to our sales staff saying, "Where is this title? Why do you keep announcing this vaporwear?" That's the fundamental reason that we no longer comment on title suggestions. As much as we love to receive them, and tell people to keep sending them (as helpful as they are), it very quickly feeds a rumor mill that is already willing to believe that we're working on things that we may not be working on. And that just causes disappointment in the customer base.

The biggest disappointment for all of us right now is Eraserhead, which is a title that we never announced. We were in year-long conversations with David Lynch. And it's one of these things where David Lynch is a very particular person. He has very peculiar ideas about how he wants to do things. And he doesn't want to be rushed to make up his mind. And he wants to do what he wants to do, in the way that he wants to do it. He doesn't want his privacy infringed, and he doesn't want to be reading about himself. We were in very protective conversations with him about Eraserhead that were all positive, over a long period of time. Suddenly, there's a rumor on the web that we were actually doing it, and had announced it. At some point, I even saw street dates posted for it. You know, this is something that never even made it on to our actual production load. It had been, at one point, penciled into a schedule -- if we could finish up negotiations in time. But that's as close as it ever come. We had certainly never announced anything about it. That's upsetting.

Doogan: Let me close with a question from the masses: will there ever be a Criterion DVD released that meets the announced street date?

Becker: Well, in order to ease the difficulties we have had in getting product to the customers on street date, we've changed our whole solicitation method, so that street dates won't be mentioned until they are a sure thing. This is only because, as a company, we've refused so many check discs that the reason we find ourselves lagging behind is because we found something on the disc we didn't like. This is either in the compression, in the audio or the authoring. It's sometimes something that the regular viewer wouldn't necessarily see. But most of our viewers aren't your average viewer. We hear from the ones that are extraordinary on a regular basis, and they keep us on our toes. That's why things slide, and we are doing something about it next year. I don't mind people knowing what we're working on, but they're going to have to be patient with us because we have to take the time to make them right.

---END---

The Digital Bits would like to thank Peter Becker, Claudia Sullivan and Johanna Schiller for making this interview possible, and everyone else at Criterion for their assistance and support. For more on Criterion, please visit their website, at: http://www.criterionco.com. The Digital Bits will be doing more with Criterion in early 2000, and we'll have lots of exciting news from them when the time comes to announce it.

In the meantime, clicking the link to the next page will take you to a special preview of some of the titles Crtierion has in the works for 2000, as well as a complete Criterion Collection DVD checklist. Enjoy...


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