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A Library on Disc

21 Oct, 2013 By: Chris Tribbey

Blu-ray’s capacity can be used for more than picture and sound quality; it can accommodate a large collection of low-res titles, but many in the industry say that’s a bad thing

Eighteen films. One 50 GB Blu-ray Disc. $25.

When under-the-radar U.K. distributor Firecake Entertainment released its Ultimate Horror Classics collection in the United States Oct. 7, it did something no home entertainment industry observer had seen since the advent of Blu-ray: It used the disc not for its 1080p video or lossless audio capabilities, but purely as a storage medium.

All of the films are in 480i video, no 5.1 audio, no bonus features.

An Amazon reviewer praised the idea: “The Blu-ray is utilizing its storage capacity, not it’s HD potential. It sits better on the shelf than a clunky DVD set and not having to rummage through a pile of annoying double-sided discs is also a bonus.”

This isn’t Firecake Entertainment’s first release. The company has released several public-domain single titles and collections, including another horror-themed set (DVD) in 2008 (including Dementia 13; Last Man on Earth; City of the Dead, aka Horror Hotel; Carnival of Souls; A Bucket of Blood; and Night of the Living Dead, 1968). In 2008 the company also released “The Robert Donat Collection” on two DVDs, featuring The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Ghost Goes West (1935) and The 39 Steps (1935). In 2009 the company released The Edgar Wallace Collection on one DVD (The Door With Seven Locks, aka Chamber of Horrors; and Dark Eyes of London, aka The Human Monster).

This is the company’s first Blu-ray release, ever (the collection was first released in the United Kingdom in 2012), and efforts to track down someone at the distributor to comment on this article failed. Firecake has no website and no listed number. A search turned up a November 2012 bankruptcy notice in the U.K.’s Liverpool area, listing an Andrew Timothy Weild doing business as Firecake Entertainment.

Opinions from other distributors and home entertainment experts were mostly negative regarding the release strategy.

Mill Creek Entertainment — no stranger to releasing massive collections — hasn’t tried to fit more than five films on one DVD and wouldn’t attempt to do what Firecake has done, said company president and COO Ian Warfield.

“We thought about doing something similar when Blu-ray first came out, but then we thought about why people buy Blu-ray players,” he said. “They want better video and audio. We dismissed it then, and we still dismiss it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Bill Hunt, editor of the TheDigitalBits.com, had one word for the release: “crazy.”

“What people really want is quality from Blu-rays — picture and sound — and substantive extras,” he said. “What Firecake is doing runs completely contrary to that idea. It even runs counter to proven experience when it comes to including the same content on fewer discs.”

He recalled when studios experimented with releasing titles on fewer double-sided or double-layered DVD-18 discs rather than more DVD-9s aiming for a slimmer packaging profile on retail shelves. The result?

“What the studios realized was that people tended to purchase the thicker, non-DVD 18 sets, even though it was the exact same content, because they felt like they were getting more with the thicker package,” he said.

There’s something to that perceived value consumers find with larger, bulkier sets, according to Adam Gregorich, group administrator with the Home Theater Forum.

“There absolutely is, across both DVD and Blu-ray,” he said. “Distributors don’t even have to put fewer titles on a disc. They could simply break up a single BD-50 disc into two BD-25s. A two-disc set sounds like a better value than a single disc, especially when you are talking about multiple movies.”

Gregorich sounded aghast when told about the 480i quality of the films in the collection, calling it a “huge mistake” and that Firecake would have been better served releasing the set on multiple DVDs.

“Customers now expect a premium product when they buy a Blu-ray, and cramming 18 public-domain films in standard-definition onto a single Blu-ray is not living up to that premium quality,” he said.

“There are concerts and other events that were recorded in 720p or 1080i, and I’m OK with using the native high-def resolution in those cases. I have heard a small number of members on Home Theater Forum state that they would like to see 480i seasonal TV on Blu-ray as a season would take just one or two discs. I disagree, as I think it is confusing for the public.”

Mike Attebery, editor of High-Def Digest, wondered who the audience was for Firecake’s release, saying Blu-ray owners are more discerning and want quality.

“I associate this kind of release with the bargain bins at Walgreens and not so much with film fans with Blu-ray players and HDTVs,” he said. “This might have worked to some degree in the early days of Blu-ray, but even then, we saw some releases along these lines, and even those had better tech qualities. From the start, when the library of Blu-ray titles was more limited, it seemed the more expensive, quality releases like the BBC ‘Earth’ series were what drew the most interest.”

Film Chest president Phil Hopkins, whose Bridgeport, Conn., company sells digital versions of public-domain films to distributors, was a bit kinder to Firecake and its first Blu-ray offering.

“It’s similar to what Mill Creek does — a lot of bang for your buck,” he said. “But it does go against the grain. It’s going to confuse people regarding what they should expect from Blu-ray. It’s an interesting marketing idea, but will people latch on to it?”

Not if Mill Creek’s Warfield is any indication: “It’s admirable for [Firecake] to try, but I doubt they will be successful. Maybe if they included a pizza,” he joked.

Andy Parsons, chair emeritus with the Blu-ray Disc Association, said that while the emphasis with Blu-ray has always been to “first and foremost” offer the best video and audio possible, “I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of a 50 GB optical disc for products that prioritize quantity over a higher resolution picture. 

“A collection of public domain films seems like a great way to exercise an aspect of the original Blu-ray specifications that have always provided support for SD content, and it’s interesting to see a publisher take advantage of the capability,” he said. “I can’t really think of a more elegant and efficient way to distribute and consume so much content.”

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