I've been asked to put together a guide with some thoughts/tips about collecting Blu-Rays and DVDs. As many of you might know, I'm a huge fan of physical media, and I have a sizeable collection myself. So here are some pointers!
Not all box sets are created equal.
Some box sets are bare-bones releases without much effort put into either supplementary materials (like booklets with essays/interviews/etc) or the audio/visual restoration of the film itself; other box sets are more painstakingly curated.
And some box sets are made of flimsy cardboard, and will get easily banged up in a move; other box sets are more sturdy and durable. If you’re scrolling through reviews on Amazon, try to find customer images of the product, and if you can’t find any there, then sometimes there might be “unboxing” videos on YouTube of certain box sets (my favorite channel of unboxing videos is here). Those videos will give you a better sense of what the physical thing actually looks/feels like. Perhaps the most important thing to watch out for is how the discs themselves are stored: some DVD collections hold each disc in little sleeves, and the discs inevitably get scratched up. Look through reviews to make sure this doesn't happen to you!
Let's talk about Criterion.
With collecting in general, the Criterion Collection is a great place to start. Their audio/video quality is typically quite excellent, their packaging/art is lovely, and their releases usually come with insightful and diverse essays in a little booklet. Also, the Criterion Collection has a really active group of fans, who will eagerly chat with you on Reddit and other messageboards (like this one or this one) about various releases.
The MSRP of their Blu-Rays is around $40, and the prices on their website are usually slightly discounted (around $32). But you’ll almost always get the best price on Amazon (between $23-28). There are two opportunities to beat this price range, though. The first opportunity is the 24-hour “flash sale” that Criterion’s website puts on a couple times per year (usually in February and September). The price jumps down to $20 or so at that point. The second opportunity is the Barnes & Noble 50% Off Sale (which also happens twice per year, in July and November). Prices are around $20 during this sale (which lasts a bit longer). With extremely rare exceptions, this $20ish range is the best deal you're going to get for a Criterion Blu-Ray. (I've only seen better prices twice in the past ten years of collecting, both of which I found through DiscDeals on Twitter.)
Here’s the catch, though: the Criterion Collection (like any curator) has certain sensibilities and biases about what qualifies as "noteworthy," or collectible. They're a gatekeeper. And of course all gatekeeping and canonization is inherently problematic. So they shouldn't be treated as the be-all end-all source for cinephiles. But they’re quite good at what they do (for example, their release of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven is by far the most beautiful Blu-Ray I've ever seen).
Another catch: the Criterion Collection often does a kind of poor job with packaging their box sets. For example, I’m a little disappointed with their Jacques Demy box, their Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project boxes, and their "Classic Hitchcock" box. All of these are great collections, of course, with lovely image quality, etc… but holy cow, the cardboard cases are flimsy. This problem is a lot less noticeable with their smaller collections (e.g. "4 by Agnes Varda," or Linklater’s Before Trilogy), possibly because the smaller boxes have less weight to handle and can therefore maintain their shape more easily without getting all skiwampus.
(Of course, the elephant in the room--the most notable “catch” with the Criterion Collection--is the price. Unfortunately, most arthouse distributors with quality releases will have similar prices, but the good news if you're on a tight budget is that Criterion actually sells a little series of “discount” classics called the "Eclipse Series." I recommend checking it out; it’s super interesting. Criterion's Eclipse basically does bare-bones releases of little forgotten or foreign gems [with no extra booklets, only DVD quality instead of Blu-Ray, etc] at a much lower price. I can personally vouch for the Shepitko, Makavejev, Kurahara, and "Czech New Wave" boxes.)
Arrow Films, Arrow Video, and Arrow Academy.
Okay, so Criterion is the most well-known arthouse distributor. But what else is there? Enter Arrow Films, a distribution company (est. 1991) that specializes in "high-quality presentations of classic and cult cinema." Some of the more lowbrow films (stuff that Criterion is less likely to touch) is available here. Pulpy, nasty stuff. Hellraiser, Donnie Darko, the Female Prisoner #701 series (with Meiko Kaji of Lady Snowblood fame), that sort of thing.
But Arrow isn't just about horror and sci-fi. They've also got a label called "Arrow Academy," which does similar stuff to the Criterion Collection (or to Eureka's "Masters of Cinema" series). Arrow Academy does some really, really great work. I'm particularly fond of their box sets of Jacques Rivette, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Eric Rohmer, and Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy. Wonderful art, great transfers, and the boxes themselves are designed with durability and style in mind.
The new kid in town: Powerhouse/Indicator.
Very recently (2016, I think), Powerhouse Films started a label called "Indicator" and it's extraordinary. Indicator is run by a few experts who really care about physical media, and it shows. Their box sets are some of the best-produced boxes I own. I'm particularly fond of their "Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen" box sets. Really durable, beautiful, well-crafted little boxes, with great attention to detail and jam-packed with extra features and materials. Their limited edition releases of individual films (like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat or Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai) are super great, too.
Why variety is important.
The nice thing about these other distributors (Arrow, Powerhouse, BFI, Eureka, Twilight Time, Second Run, and others) competing with Criterion is that when there are several voices "gatekeeping"/canonizing all at once, it's easier to get a better variety, and to avoid having your collection formed too strictly by any particular cultural hegemony. More stories can be told and discovered.
A note about limited editions.
Some of my favorite Blu-Rays (several of which are listed above) are limited editions. Take careful note if you're shopping around and you see this phrase. Maybe there will only be 6000 copies of that collection ever printed--maybe 2000. One of my biggest regrets as a collector is that I let the Arrow Video box of Battles without Honor and Humanity (the first series) slip through my fingers. It's now very difficult to find, and the only copies available are used--and are quite expensive. Which reminds me...
A note about used DVDs.
Listen, when you're starting out as a collector, it's tempting to rely on cheap used copies. Sometimes Amazon insists the box is "like new!" But just don't do it. Don't buy used DVDs/Blu-Rays. Trust me on this one. When my collection was in the 500-800 range, I did this a few times, and I always regretted it. Quality for used media cannot be guaranteed, unless you're buying personally from someone you can trust and interact with, someone whose name you know. Otherwise, wait for good sales, buy new copies, and have some peace of mind.
(Side note: some collectors disagree with me here. They suggest eBay and Amazon, both of which have protections in place for when you feel the quality of the product you've been sold has been falsely advertised. So, I should make it clear that my approach here is not Gospel. It's just a preference.)
How to prioritize what to get.
The hardest question for a collector is "between these two sets--of which I can only afford one--which one should I buy right now?" The bad news is, I don't have one clean universal answer for you. It really depends on what's important to you.
Do you want your collection to be well-rounded in a way that it currently isn't? If so, look for blind spots. Any nations you'd like to better represent? Eras? Political movements? Are most of your films directed by men? Maybe look into some female filmmakers?
Or, on the other hand, maybe you're not worried about representation or comprehensiveness--you just want everything to fit a certain sensibility. If you're debating between two filmmakers and you're not super familiar with them, here are some questions you could ask yourself:
- Do you know any film students who have studied their work?
- Do you have streaming access to any of the films you're considering buying--if so, maybe you could preview a film or two before committing to a whole set? (Many of the harder-to-find works will not be available on Netflix or Hulu, but Amazon Prime usually does a little better. Also, definitely consider using more arthouse services like FilmStruck, Fandor, MUBI, etc! And if you're a library patron, or a student, you should absolutely take a look at Kanopy!)
- Can you read some scholarly articles about what these filmmakers do (via JSTOR, maybe)?
- Can you seek out summaries, reviews, or other commentary on forums and sites for collectors, cinephiles, critics, and filmmakers? Maybe check out Bright Lights, Cineaste, Observations on Film Art, or Senses of Cinema. Alternately: there is a wealth of great "lighter" (read: less academic, more popular) film analysis/criticism out there, from places like Birth.Movies.Death and Film School Rejects--or even The AV Club and Vulture, etc.
- Do you have access to any video essays on Vimeo or YouTube that analytically dig into either of their oeuvres? (I'd recommend Every Frame a Painting, and Nerdwriter, in particular.)
This is not to say that other people's thoughts need to be your thoughts (they don't), or that reading about a film can be an adequate replacement or parallel to the actual experience of watching it yourself (it can't). It's just to say that sometimes when trying to figure out what's the most important thing to add to your collection, external commentaries and previews can be helpful.
And if you need to take a step even further back--that is, if you're wondering "where do I even begin?"--you should probably join some film recommendation forums (there are plenty of lists and discussions on Letterboxd and Reddit, for example). Also, look up interviews with more accessible filmmakers whom you already know and love, and try to find who they list as their influences. Often, the most compelling work you'll see in the theater today is heavily borrowing from great artists and movements throughout film history. Another thing you could do that might be helpful is just to brush up on some film history. There's a TV documentary miniseries called The Story of Film: An Odyssey that might be a good starting point for suggestions.
Beware of buzzwords.
Outside of the aforementioned distributors (Criterion, Arrow, Powerhouse/Indicator, BFI, Eureka, Twilight Time, and Second Run), who specialize in collectible content, it's hard to tell what the phrase "collectors edition" or "special edition" really means.
So, remember this: most of the time (again, excluding the aforementioned distributors), those phrases don't mean anything at all. If Best Buy, Amazon, or some other outlet is trying to push a certain box to you, ask yourself: what's particularly special about this edition? Unless it's a limited run, a steelbook with custom artwork, or something with rare extra features (e.g. extra booklets, commentaries, etc), it's probably not really special. And you shouldn't pay full price for it.
And even when it is special--there are usually sales that you can and should wait for.
While we're talking about price, I should mention CamelCamelCamel. It's one of the most useful websites out there. It lets you track price changes on Amazon, and it maps everything out on a chart for you. Maybe you've stumbled upon what looks like a good deal on a TV collection, and you check CamelCamelCamel--only to discover that the price has dropped much lower at regular intervals throughout the past year, so you decide to wait. CamelCamelCamel can't predict the future, of course; however, it's helpful in the sense that it can highlight certain trends or patterns.
A parting thought: regions.
This blog post is already too long, so I won't dig into all the details of DVD/Blu-Ray regions. But you need to know that region-locking exists, and that certain films may not work properly on your American DVD/Blu-Ray player (be especially careful of this if you are shopping overseas, e.g. if you're looking at Arrow or Indicator releases on their UK websites).
More info about regions can be found here. Also, you should know that region-free Blu-Ray players exist, but I'm not an expert on those (yet). I'll refer you to this Reddit thread, which echoes a lot of the recommendations I've seen online over the years (i.e. Sony and Seiki).
Happy shopping! <3