Warner Home Video has just announced what I think may be the most important development in home video since the introduction of the DVD — The Warner Archive.  It is making available, online and for U. S. customers only, selected titles that Warner doesn't plan to release widely but that will be manufactured on demand for customers who order them, at $19.99 each.

The DVDs will be burned, rather than pressed, with no extras, but Warner promises professional-quality transfers, with 16×9 enhancement for the widescreen films.  The site provides sample clips from most of the films offered and the quality is indeed impressive.

Many films that would otherwise fall between the cracks will see the light of day, opening up, I suspect, a whole new customer-driven market, much as Netflix did.  Netflix made certain assumptions about what kinds of films their customers would want to see (i. e. mostly new ones) which turned out to be totally wrong (people wanted to see mostly older films), but they had a system in place which allowed the market to define itself.

Warner is also co-opting the black market for films unreleased on DVD, which can almost always be found somehow online, usually in barely watchable versions burned from tapes of old TV broadcasts.  With luck, the Warner model will find its way into the world of public film archives, encouraging them to make their holdings available cheaply to a wider public than the occasional theatrical screening could ever reach.

I placed an order on the Warner site the first time I visited it and can't wait to see the two Garbo silents in that order — Love (above) and Wild Orchids — and a talkie, Westbound, the only Scott-Boetticher Western still unavailable on DVD.  I'm sure you'll find something among the first 155 films offered that will tempt you, too — and Warner is encouraging people to submit their own requests for future offerings, which will be announced at the rate of about 20 new titles each month.

Early reports indicate that the site has been flooded with orders in its first hours of operation, in numbers far greater than Warner anticipated, all but overwhelming its system.  George Feltenstein, the Warner Home Video executive responsible for the project, is said to be thrilled by this response — and so am I.

Let's hope that Feltenstein's little experiment earns him a place alongside Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, and Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings, of Netflix — visionaries whose willingness to listen to consumers, rather than dictate to them, created new markets and made their companies tons of dough.

In any case, we're clearly looking into the future here.  How close that future is rests entirely in the hands of consumers.  So order something from The Warner Archive today and speed the plough.

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