Disaster 101: Skyscraper (2018) + Thoughts on Video Store Day 8 and the Human Touch

November 3, 2018 | By

The grand-daddy of the modern disaster genre.

 

My fascination / obsession with the disaster genre probably began with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which I saw on TV in one of the network TV premieres that used to grace the idiot box roughly 4 years after a movie had ended its theatrical run.

Networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC paid a fortune to air big Hollywood films, and when the Towering Inferno (1974) appeared, the already long film was split into 2 nights, padded with extra footage shot for the TV edition. The practice was similarly done for Earthquake! (1974), Two-Minute Warning (1976), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and perhaps most infamously, The Deep (1977) and Superman: The Movie (1978).

If you could get more ad revenue by creating a mini-series or full prime time TV version of an event program, why not fatten the show? Worked for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), too.

You could theorize the concept of the Director’s Cut grew from this nonsense, from initially padding a film with more ad breaks to video labels realizing an old film could gain new life if it was billed as a restoration of the cut originally ‘intended’ by its director, whether it was true, or just a flip-flop after some money was waved under a director’s nose (*cough* Alien *cough* The Exorcist).

Disaster films were always designed to be Big, Epic, Loud, Star-Heavy, and filled with life-changing incidents that would transform reluctant and unlikely heroes into saviours. In cinemas, the films attracted audiences wanting escape from the doldrums of banal lives, shitty relationships, and daily news reports of wars, terrorist attacks, and social unrest. In a disaster film, the good and the moral always triumphed.

 

The Adrian Smith-tweaked glass pillar in SKYSCRAPER (2018).

 

Skyscraper’s timely in the sense of wanting to fulfill those same escape routes for audiences tired of war horrors, deep political division, rising nationalism, and trade wars because it’s about a father rescuing his family from greedy crooks.

And in place of special TV airings, audiences can snap up the Blu-ray in HD or 3D, or 4K editions with extras that evoke those expanded network premieres of the 1970s and 1980s. (Director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn’t expand the film, but you can get a sense of an imaginary longer vision within the extras.)

As a genre entry, Skyscraper is flawed, juvenile, sometimes fun, but a misstep. Dwayne Johnson felt he was making Grade A drama instead of a more generic product with a few spicy condiments, and being a genre fan, in my review I do go into excessive nit-picking about why the film fails to advance the disaster genre with new spins on characters, scenarios, and social commentary. Thurber’s script does have a fine premise and hero, but in spite of being 2018, it’s also a movie in which the only strong women are a pounty villainess with minimal dialogue, and a wife who should’ve had a couple of good fight scenes (Neve Campbell’s character is a trained army doctor), but what’s offered to audiences are very tame, and ultimately insufficient.

It’s still worth a peek on video, and is evidence that Universal, like Warner Home Video, have not given up on home video nor physical media. Granted this is an underperforming summer blockbuster searching for new life (and extra revenue), but the fact it exists on DVD, Blu, 3D, and 4K is proof the round discs you plop into a player and watch on a monitor, TV, or new 4K screen aren’t going anywhere.

 

 

October 20th was Video Store Day, now into Year 8, and it should be a combined love by fans towards not just physical stores and the platters they sell, but the producers, studio labels still mining catalogues and licensing new transfers to indie labels, and online retailers who specialize in curating the most unique titles.

It is tough to be inclusive towards the biggest online retailer (Amazon) because it’s the behemoth indies must compete against and outwit with slim pricing and unique swag available only from the label itself. It’s also maddening when there’s an online sale that defies the logic of making a profit when an expensive set sells way below cost – my guilty indulgence was Arrow’s Herschell Gordon Lewis box for $100 with shipping – but there still exists a hesitation among some buyers to purchase online, and maybe a sense of sterility when scanning web pages, reading crankypants reviews, and clicking the Buy icon instead of having some human interaction.

Much has been written about the experience of entering a shop, scanning, handling, weighing, checking your wallet for cash and functional cards, and engaging with fellow film & TV fans, so I needn’t bother with anecdotes. I’d rather go in a slightly different direction with a question: If used shops are swimming in DVDs and Blu-rays – especially familiar studio titles – why are people still buying discs?

You can divide the physical home video market into several layers (listed in no specific order of dominance):

1— New studio titles and the ‘Top 20’ classics they want you to buy again / you never managed to include in your personal library of favourites and / or sold off with regret or loaned to an unrepentant moocher.

2 — Back catalogue titles that still prove resilient among buyers, even as older bare bones, single disc editions.

3— Lesser catalogue titles which have joined MOD (DVD-R) lines that similarly offer just the movie in most cases, but either bring back a long OOP title, or mark its debut on disc, albeit at a premium price that can exceed $25 on DVD-R and $30 CAD on Blu.

4— Prestige reissues, now remastered in HD or 4K with new extras that also come with a Blu disc, packaged in anniversary editions or franchise sets, with Blu’s often at budget-friendly pricing.

5— Indie labels A: carrying new titles which on DVD average $20-25, but Blu in prohibitive $35-$45.

6— Indie labels B: licensing newly mastered or co-producing the restoration / remastering of studio catalogue titles.

7— Indie labels C: licensing titles and / or HD transfers and commissioning their own special edition which will stand as the definitive release, period, or for a specific region.

8— Indie labels D: similar to C, but with limited runs ranging from 3000-5000, or an inferred but unspecific run that infers limited, and a price point that’s $40-$60.

 

I’ve left out TV shows because they form a different set of categories:

1— New shows debuting on DVD and maybe Blu. The success of early seasons determines their availability on disc, if not digital-only releases from major online retailers, who in this case are really licensing shows for a specific time, and may only be playable on their proprietary software (which quite frankly blows blue donkeys).

2— Older shows repackaged into slim cases or megasets at attractive budget prices, but often using the cheapest and most pliable plastic, the shittiest hubs, and the worst butterfly mounts that frequently break in transit and leave the buyer with chunks and slivers of drifting plastic and scuffed DVDs before the wrapping’s even been removed. This el cheapo practice also applies to new shows like Outlander, which comes in especially rubbish cases.

3–British and other European shows. These are series which have limited runs on streaming services, and many of which do exist on DVD and sometimes on Blu. There’s also an older generation willing to not only buy them, but buy many of them. If Europe’s product was making more money in digital realms, why is the BBC bothering to release new shows, collections of entire runs, standalone Xmas specials, remastered shows on Blu, and labels like Acorn and MHz putting out Brit and Nordic / Italian / other series on disc?

4— I’ll also argue there’s pent up demand for shows produced & owned exclusively by Amazon and Netflix – maybe not on disc, but certainly as digital files TO BUY. Netflix’ decision to release Stranger Things: Season 1 in a DVD / BR combo only in the U.S. via Target was misguided. Its now year-old exclusive deal pretty much ensures third party sellers on Amazon and Ebay are making money lost by Netflix, and there’s the internet that’s made the show available gratis to fans who’d be more than happy to buy both seasons digitally or on disc.

Remember: if too much time passes, fans move to other great shows they can see & maybe have, weakening the attraction of ST, should it finally emerge in a combo set. Doc Martin fans will wait a couple if years because they know the option to buy will be there; if ST takes 3 years to emerge in a combo set in another exclusive deal, the projected sales might be thwarted by online rips and third party sales.

Was the Target deal really worth it?

The smartest move by Showtime was to make David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Season 3 available on DVD and BR; the dumbest move that happened in tandem with its release was Paramount either losing the rights or making Seasons 1 and 2 on Blu go OOP. If you want the first two seasons, only the DVD editions remain in print. To (loosely) paraphrase Homer Simpson, ‘Not a smrt move.’

Two final comments before I wrap up this blog, but they’re still related to the enjoyment of things film fans like.

The BBC recently reported Britain’s John Lewis department stores will stop carrying DVD players as it seeks to further embrace customer needs. Why this is regarded as some dire chime for the end of physical is baffling, because while DVD remains cheaper to buy and has more product in print than Blu, the disappearance of DVD players means Blu-ray models will become the primary choice, as they should, because they’re backwards compatible. They’ve always been able to play DVD and BR, but as their price point has dropped to double digits, it makes no sense to buy a DVD-only player. Why not buy BR player that ensures you’ll be able to enjoy HD if you’ve only recently upgraded to a HD monitor?

Streaming didn’t kill DVD – it’s significantly eroded the sales of physical media, but as I cited way above, there still exists a buyer base wanting films & TV on DVD and / or Blu. When you sign up for a Netflix membership, you know the licensed content won’t remain indefinitely; it’ll eventually get replaced by something else, and if it happens mid-season, your alternative options may include being able to buy that Nordic crime show on disc, or rent it from a local shop in some of the lucky cities that still have bricks & mortar shops.

Movies still appear on disc – KINO’s KL Studio Classics line has really ramped up their release schedule, mining the MGM, UA, Fox, and Orion Pictures catalogues – and as much as limited releases drive fans and collectors crazy, at least those feted cult classics exist beyond digital streaming (although I’m still grumbly that Olive sought to press just 5000 copies of their special edition of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

Also of note are big titles still being released in 4K. As the sets continue to drop in price, the palpable niche market of 4K consumers will have more affordable hardware and media to enjoy – not as widespread compared to Blu, but its status as the new elite format is slowly dropping down to average cineastes and connoisseurs like myself. I’ll only take the 4K plunge when I have more wall space, and  / or if 3D is reintroduced into basic models, because I like 3D.

The danger as content keeps getting winnowed down from format to format and more highly curated, limited licensed digital delivery venues has been reiterated by many columnists and content fans: the variety and depth of film and TV history will shrink, and the impact of B&W, silent, foreign, standard ratio, and esoteric titles made before 2000 will shift from a mass that existed on tape and disc to whatever streaming services deem worthwhile – unless those services disappear, as will happen FilmStruck is shuttered November 29th.

If you live in a community that lost a video store, have pricey cable TV, and want to dive into film history on your own terms by discovering a film, director, star, composer, writer, creative movement, and genre at your leisure, you’ll going to be screwed by this closure, because it means the TCM and Criterion content will vanish.

AT&T’s decision to shutter Warner’s low performing components was based on straight facts about an expected profit curve and its likely revenue plateau. They may have felt ‘We’re not a public broadcasting service with a mandate to educate the masses through film history,’ and ‘TCM fans can get their classic movie fix through cable, and Criterion followers can buy the bulk of their roster on disc.’

FilmStruck may well have been the cineaste’s equivalent of the local video store that’s been around for decades and amassed a substantive chunk of film history on disc, so the loss is great, and it means people will have to settle for titles curated by algorithms or sanctioned after being winnowed by  sterile corporate departments with choices limited by existing licensing agreements.

I’ll close with one final point: those who work in bricks & mortar shops are well familiar with the out of town visitor who has limited time to scour the racks, and laments such a shop no longer exists in their home town.

They’re reminded of what’s closed, and the lost experience of browsing for an hour or three at actual product, leaving them with just online vendors and mail order venues. I am completely spoiled by living in a big city (Toronto) that still has a handful of classic shops that rent & sell, rep & indie cinemas with eccentric monthly programmes, and the pretty decent chance that when a label like Synapse restores Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) for Blu, we’re one of the cities lucky enough to experience that 4K restoration in a cinema before its physical media debut.

Such riches of film culture should exist in every town or nearby town, and no doubt some neighbouring cities have their own tight community of cineastes, but if sections of the pathways that enable fans to enjoy film and TV get snipped, a great imbalance spreads, robbing communities of what should exist a click away, a walk none too far, or an easy drive.

Perhaps that’s why the remaining stores in towns & cities refuse to fold easily: they’ve become beacons of film history and popular culture, outlasting noble streaming experiments, and perhaps due to retail’s reliance on humans.

In the digital realm, licensed assets are quality checked, tagged, and prepped for ingestion by a special few, but in the physical media realm it’s a producer who follows a release from a proposed idea to release; label that handle the production with replication houses; distributors who acquire the rights and handle the dissemination to territories; sales reps that engage with clients and meet their custom needs; and store owners, managers, and staff that collectively acquire product for dedicated customers and the curious.

Humans, whose existence depends on these traditional relationships, which go back decades, and are arguably more complex than technicians enabling results at the click of a mouse or finger tap. This person-to-person system is more fragile because if there’s a weakness in the chain – bad product, delivery delays, inept distribution, marginalizing a valued client – things start to stutter, and that loss of synchronized momentum can be lethal.

It’s a system that has its emergency measures that can compensate for missteps and sudden changes. These are managed by dedicated humans who find workarounds and new solutions to keep the system humming for the benefit of their clients, and ultimately the film & TV fans.

You could say that the success and survival of physical media depends on this highly traditional, hands-on, face-to-face series of relationships from producer right down to buyer. Each has found ways to adapt to industry contractions, new formats, and sometimes really dumb maneuvers by corporations that defy logic.

As long as the relationships remain strong, the mass of film history, pop culture, and perfectly fine technology can survive.

Coming next: John Ford’s semi-timely political drama The Last Hurrah (1958) on Blu from Twilight Time.

Cheers,

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG

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