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Warner Archive DVDs: A hands-on evaluation

CNET takes Warner's on-demand DVDs for a spin.

Warner Archive DVDs
John Falcone/CNET

Recently, Warner announced its new DVD-on-demand program. Dubbed "Warner Archive," it's a Web site that allows the company to market more obscure titles from its back catalog. Consumers choose the specific titles they want, and Warner manufactures them as needed and mails them directly to the consumer in under a week.

At least two of the debut movies caught my eye, so I decided to give it a try. My test movies were "Countdown" and "The D.I." The former is a 1968 movie with James Caan as an astronaut scrambling to beat a Soviet space mission to the moon. In addition to a pre-"Godfather" pairing of Caan and costar Robert Duvall, it's of interest to me as an early Robert Altman film (years before his better known 70s hits "M.A.S.H." and "Nashville"). "The D.I.," meanwhile, is a 1957 flick directed by and starring Jack Webb as a tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor. This one is a gift for my father, who's been searching for this old favorite for years.

Both movies arrived in a padded envelope less then a week after my order. They're packaged in standard DVD keepcases, and I appreciated the lack of cellophane and other redundant packing materials. The front and back covers are obviously based on a template, but they are customized with photos, blurbs, cast lists--it certainly has a budget feel, but it's a step-up from some of the truly no-frills custom DVDs I've ordered in the past.

The disc itself also has a professional looking label. According to The Digital Bits, "the discs will be burned rather than pressed which raises obvious concerns over longevity, although a proprietary burn technology is being used that Warners feels is much more reliable than what one can do at home on one's own computer." Indeed, the case includes the warning "This disc is expected to play back in DVD video 'play only' devices, and may not play back in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives." That said, we had no trouble playing it in several Blu-ray players, Windows PC DVD drives, or Xbox 360s. Only some PS3 models balked: the original 60GB PlayStation 3 didn't recognize the disc, but newer 40GB and 80GB models did.

Menus are bare-bones. A scene selection menu is absent, but the movies are auto-chaptered at 10-minute intervals, so it's easy enough to jump to key scenes. Extras are also basically nonexistent, though "Countdown" does include the original theatrical trailer (though it's nonanamorphic wide-screen).

As for the quality of the movies themselves: I'd say it's strictly in the "good enough" territory. Both films are in their original wide-screen aspect ratio ("Countdown" is anamorphic 2.35:1, "The D.I." is anamorphic 1.85:1). The colors on "Countdown" had the somewhat dull, faded look of many films of the late 60s, and there was occasional grit and scratches. ("The D.I." is black and white.) But the prints were good overall, and nothing will detract from your enjoyment of the film. Remember, none of these films are popular enough to warrant the cost of a full-scale frame-by-frame restoration. The victory here isn't that it's a pristine, videophile-friendly print of the movie--it's that you can see these movies at all. Unless you're stumbling across them on Turner Classic Movies or finding a worn VHS copy at a yard sale, these on-demand DVDs and digital downloads (see below) are the only way to see these movies.

That said, my biggest issues with the Warner Archive program remain price and availability. On the pricing front, I'd like to see the movies cost closer to the $8-15 range, rather than the default $20; a "buy 2, get 1 free" sale might be one way to achieve this, for instance.

The larger problem is that the Warner Archive site is the only place where these movies are surfaced. And so far, Googling the titles doesn't even help you find the Warner site. What Warner should do is partner with Amazon. Amazon already supports third-party vendors and on-demand book publishers, so this wouldn't be a stretch. They'd show up as available on Amazon and the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database site, both of which would make them much easier to find via Google and other search engines.

Interestingly, the Warner Archive titles are also available as digital downloads via a partnership with CinemaNow. I didn't bother investing in those versions because the FAQ made them look to be overcomplicated, DRM PC files. The preference here, again, would be partnering with larger digital distributors--Netflix or Amazon Video On Demand.

And that's pretty much my bottom line. I love the fact that these more obscure movies and TV shows are becoming available on DVD and digitally, and I hope that other studios follow Warner's lead. I'd just like the movies to be easier to find, available via more distributors (digitally or otherwise), and for them to be more affordable.