Bad hobbits habits die hard for big media companies, no matter how consumer tastes may change in regards to distribution of content or how savvy they might become to the more arcane practices of the industry. A case in point is the consumer and fan reaction to the recent Blu-ray release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy released by Warner Home Video/New Line. In what for some is clearly a case of double-dipping in a new media format, consumers— and not just rabid fans of the film, mind you– are outraged by the release of the theatrical editions on Blu-ray rather than the Extended Editions that many were hoping for, though insiders had been saying for months that the first BD version out the gate would be the theatrical edits and not Jackson’s more expansive work.
As of this late April date, the mood is grim on Amazon.com’s Customer Review page, with a whopping 2,928 reviewers (out of just over 3,000 total) giving the Blu-ray edition of the trilogy a one-star negative review specifically due to the perception of double-dipping by the studio. While no one is slamming the three films in particular (except for maybe a few Internet trolls), the outcry for a simple video release is something rarely seen as it does not seem coordinated by a ‘net mob or anything except genuine consumer indignation. While you might be forgiven in assuming that their Toyotas suddenly lost their ability to stop or something important like that, these consumers do have a legitimate gripe about the Blu-ray release. If you had been waiting patiently for one of the great cinematic achievements in recent film history to arrive on the high-def format only to have the rug yanked from under you when the lesser of two versions is released, then you’ll understand why some folks are up in arms about this and other attempts by studios to repackage product in order to maximize profit.
Here are a few examples of that ire:
This is ridiculous! First of all, why release the theatrical version on blu-ray at all? Anybody who wants to buy this trilogy on blu-ray will want the extended edition, this is such a lame dupe for fans. Secondly, why on earth is it $63? …No way am I paying that much money for this trilogy when my extended edition DVDs are in great condition and still look fantastic on an HDTV. – C.J. Hartzler (4/18/10)
This blu-ray release is a perfect example of why corporate executives are seen as parasites by the general public. They obviously have no respect for, or sense of loyalty to, their customers. …a cynical decision was made to try and rip us off; sucker us into buying a knowingly inferior product, hoping we would be unwilling to wait any longer for what we want. – D. Segal (4/18/10)
One thing WHV/New Line may not have realized is that there’s a confluence of events at work here… A great big ass-kicking recession is just on its way to the ash-heap of history, but many folks are still feeling the pinch economically; nevertheless, they’ve invested a little in this new high-def format (after all, by dint of government collusion, they were pretty much forced into getting a TV in the new HD standard anyway, might as well get that Blu-ray player, too) regardless of their trepidation in re-purchasing old favorites (those regular ol’ DVD’s seemed juuuuuust fine only a few years ago), they’ve not minded much that while regular DVD’s were priced reasonably after years of $20+ discs on the market (the retail discs had settled in to a sub $15 price point that seemed just right) the new HD discs were priced higher even when taking inflation into account. So, they went ahead and purchased a few Blu-ray movies anyway, even though those many of those discs were well beyond $25. Still, with the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere (and myriad media review sites), they felt empowered to make good consumer choices regarding these new discs, and what the hell, they did look fantastic with a noticeable improvement over standard-def DVD. They also know about the industry practice of “double-dipping,” they remember that they’ve purchased discs and tapes in the past in an older format that was touted as being “definitive” or “ultimate” or a “collector’s edition” or worse yet… the dreaded “limited edition” that had to purchased quickly or was lost until found on an eBay auction. Like most marketing and sales ploys they’ve encountered in their lives, they realized that the constant re-packaging of old material is like any carny’s shell game… but with the growth of awareness at these marketing schemes they’ve also realized that they no longer have to be a sucker every single time.
Warners misjudged the consumer, and either simply forgot or just didn’t care that it cannot put toothpaste back in the tube. General consumers, and not just fans, are highly aware of the extended editions of LOTR. They realized long ago that the extended version of Peter Jackson’s epic is something special, that the longer editions are not just theatrical cuts with poorly edited cutting-room floor footage inserted in, or just more blood and gore for the sake of carnage. They understand that Jackson and his creative cohorts took their time in actually remaking the films for home video, carefully inserting extended and deleted footage that was cut merely for time and theatrical pacing, matching it perfectly and finishing effects and music cues to create something beyond a mere variation for repackaging purposes. The extended versions became, for many people, the only way to see these films, and that’s what they thought they might get via the Blu-ray release, especially because Jackson and New Line took such great care in the past. Jackson, a big movie geek himself, has come out on the side of fans, as in a recent Wall Street Journal blog interview:
“I agree with the fans. I was heavily involved in the DVD process when the films were being released through New Line, but now that Warner Brothers has taken control over the releasing of the films, they just tell me what they’re doing and don’t involve me in the process. [With New Line,] the one thing we never did with the fans was make them feel cheated. Back in the original release, we always put extra material in, extra documentaries — a lot of added value. I so totally understand why the fans would be upset; I don’t disagree with them.”
In many interviews since the completion of the theatrical trilogy and DVD releases, Jackson has stated that he always considered the extended editions distinct from the theatrical versions, though from his love of the project it has always seemed clear to fans that he favored the extended DVD cuts over the theatrical works. Nevertheless, he edited them with a different purposes in mind: shorter cuts of the films for more theatrical showings (and to keep folks comfortable in the theater) and longer, more elaborate home video versions that would delve into the intricate details of Middle Earth and the characters. These versions are intended for fans at home to watch leisurely on the sofa where bladder demands and packing in showtimes were no longer an issue. However, once these LOTR Extended Editions were released on DVD a few years ago (and long before Blu-ray was much of a consideration), it was apparent that many general consumers, and not just fans, favored this edition as well. This was signaled by copies of the three theatrical DVDs being found at bargain shops in big round bins or in the used section of the local video outlet. The Extended Editions were absolutely impressive, setting a new standard for DVD boxed sets and special editions. Aside from excellent video and audio quality (which look wonderful on an upscaled DVD player) they featured boxes with faux-book bindings that looked great on a bookshelf, along with meticulous artwork and loads of special features. They seemed like true keepsakes. It stands to reason that the Blu-ray release should have been on par with, and just as valuable as, those special extended DVD sets.
The level of fan outrage over the BD release has become apparent in media forums and other places online where folks congregate to trade information about the movies they love. Though some tech-heads have touted the BD release as being terrific in terms of video/audio quality, plenty of others feel differently… mainly because of the lack of extended scenes they’ve gotten used to viewing when re-watching the trilogy. Not only have they invested in a new media format once again touted as “perfect” (though already, with VOD and other ways to get content onto HD living room screens, it’s apparent that Blu-ray’s days are numbered), not only have they gotten used to HD presentations and elaborate Blu-ray sets of major releases, but now they’re being asked to shell out lots of money for bare-bones releases that don’t have all the bells and whistles they’ve come to expect. This has become the crux of the indignation felt by consumers: If you’re going to put the film in HD, they reason, why not go all the way instead of offering versions that only the most careless cinematic consumer would regard as owning for a hi-def library. Why release a sub-par transfer where DNR is quite apparent and makes discs 1 and 2 look soft and smudged? Why issue the films only as a trilogy without separate discs being available? Why include only the films in HD and not the special features of the extra discs? Why include those features in standard-def as if they were just lifted from the DVD release? Why can’t we see Saruman’s spectacular demise in HD?
Avatar is facing the same problem, but not nearly the same amount of consumer anger. Fans wanted an elaborate set of Cameron’s film, possibly an extended version, but at least something with lots of extras and bonus features in lieu of the 3D experience they had in the theater. Upon being detailed in the press over a month ago the release met with some consumer pushback along the lines of “I’ll wait for Cameron’s ultimate cut” or “I’ll wait for the definitive Blu-ray release.” Nevertheless, Cameron and Fox have both said the release of that BD version is coming (due in November, possibly in 3D), and in the meantime here is the film gorgeously transferred in HD, ready to be enjoyed at home. Most folks seem cool with that, but then Avatar hasn’t yet seen an expanded edition release that would cause most general consumers to balk at buying.
The rants and “reviews” on Amazon and elsewhere, sound like conspiracy… some tame, some wildly off the mark: Jackson is really working on a new BD extended edition and is taking time to make sure it looks great; Warner’s wants to release the extended editions only with the release of The Hobbit; Jackson is so busy on The Hobbit that he has no time to oversee the BD version of the extended cuts… and on and on. The simplest reason of all, some declare flatly and obviously, is that Warners is just plain greedy, and wants to milk the LOTR BD versions for all they are worth.
Those rants, while they might not be correct in their specific assumptions (for instance, Jackson is only in the early stages of producing The Hobbit and, with co-financier/rights-holder, MGM, in unhealthy financial condition, there may be a considerable delay in actual production getting started), are correct in stating that enough is enough when it comes to multiple-versions of a release. As the consumers repeatedly say, it’s tough to spend hard-earned money for such an expensive item on one hand while getting only half of what they wanted on the other. Consumers are more aware than ever of companies that have a habit of releasing hyped products only to come out with a superior version months later that offers more features… which that make the initial product obsolete and a lot less fun to own. Apple does this all the time with their iPhones and Macs. They’ll release an iPhone without a video camera, even though other mobile phones have long had them and the technology is pretty standard, then after waiting for consumers to rant and gripe about the lack of this feature, they go ahead and offer it on the next version as if it was really no big deal, meaning you’ll either pay up or shut up about not having a video camera. And though the phone may not be any different other than having this lone feature, Apple expects you to toss your old unit aside and spend another couple of hundred bucks to keep up with the future (which, the minute you buy into it, is already obsolete… and the world keeps a-turnin’).
Some might say, well, you’re not being forced to buy such products, and if you don’t like repurchasing for features, then you can then do without them. Don’t complain of buyer’s remorse… That’s commerce. Many BD reviewers and media critics have been blithely representing just that attitude in their articles about the Amazon customers’ outrage. They’ve basically said that for now this LOTR Blu-ray edition is just fine, looks great (with the caveat that not all discs have exemplary transfers, and the first disc in particular looks mediocre for such a release), and is there to own now, or you can wait… but if you do buy now consider that when the Extended Editions come out you can just toss those old theatrical BD’s aside and buy the new ones. Problem solved, dudes. Only, many of them tend to forget that those discs they review fall into their hands via freebies and pre-release review copies that aren’t available to the general public. That’s nice. It’s always nice when the money is not coming out of your own pocket. Reviewers and critics have it easier when procuring product and simply discarding it for the next version. Other folks don’t. For some forking over $60 (on an MSRP of nearly $100 mind you) for the LOTR trilogy in Blu-ray is not only a waste of money once the Extended Editions take their place, but also a waste of packaging. Some of the consumer rants against the Avatar Blu-ray release have pointed out that the bare-bones version for release on Earth Day will add to the plastic and harmful materials entering landfills once another video version with extras comes out. Not a very environmental stance for a film whose big theme is nurturing nature. Warners probably forget that Hobbit-lovers are a pretty green bunch, too… but regardless, how many versions of a film really need to be out at retail before the product is oversaturated in the marketplace and suddenly filling up landfills? How many times can consumers really be expected to purchase the same stuff in different packaging?
Ultimately, this spat between consumers and Warner Bros. shows that movie fans are no longer willing to be treated as ignorant of studio practices regarding home video releases. Now that the studios are offering different versions of films theatrically to milk money from the “product’s” lifespan (2D, 3D, IMAX) before the video release, it may only get worse for the home video consumer and movie fans. Avatar may yet see a home video release that includes a 2D and 3D version for HDTV’s capable of 3D playback, and eventually, if 3D takes off as a consumer favorite, we’ll see plenty of movies re-tooled for 3D home video presentation, which means more possibilities for studios to repackage old material in new forms.
As I’ve pointed out time and time again here at HD Report, you cannot put crap into a new shiny box and expect it not to smell, look and feel like crap. However, when it comes to top-notch entertainment like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s always nice to have the best, most pristine presentation possible. That said, Warners should have known better than to release this version on Blu-ray and not expect some kind of outcry from die-hard fans and the general public alike. It’s not as if money is easy to come by (unless you’re an investment banker) for many folks, and consumers have grown wise to the ways in which they’re marketed to.
So, what are your thoughts, dear readers? Will you be buying the Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray in its current theatrical edition form? Will you wait for the Extended Editions in high-def, or are you just happy with your DVD EE copies? Let us know in the comments below.