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Criterion's Flash Sale: Just Say No

by Edwin Arnaudin
February 26, 2014 1:57 PM
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Shortly after noon yesterday, my Twitter feed lit up with the kind of activity only one type of news can ignite. The Criterion Collection had announced one of its 24-hour flash sales and my fellow film journalists flocked to the site's online store and began stocking up on 50 percent off goodies.

Soon I was flooded with purchase suggestions and screenshots of carts full to varying degrees, and per usual when these events come along I couldn't help but browse myself. Doing so inevitably led to placing temptations into my own cart and entering the promo code to see precisely how good of a deal I would receive.

$20 for the Blu-ray of "Days of Heaven," my favorite Malick film to be given the Criterion treatment? Sounds pretty good. $62.50 for the "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story" box set? Hell, that's just under $9 per film... $7 if I slum it with the DVD version.

I still had some birthday money left over and there was a little extra in the checking account. Why not go ahead and click that beautiful green "Proceed to Checkout" button?

Likewise per usual at this juncture, my mind became crowded with questions, each one a pin ready to poke holes in what at first seemed like an easy decision.

How often would I really watch these movies? What about the ones I already own, many of which I've seen once, maybe twice since purchasing (and even fewer whose bonus features, often a key selling point, I've exhausted)? And what about all the movies I haven't seen that I keep putting off, often in the name of revisiting old favorites?

The more I think about it, the less cultivating a personal film library has a place in my life. Would I love to own the complete Criterion Collection? Of course. Is the cost feasible? No. Is owning the entire thing even rational? That depends on the person, but strictly from a film-watching perspective, I don't think it is.

It's a shift from where I was 10, even five years ago, but one that's a combination of packing up and moving an ever-growing number of discs almost yearly from 2002-10 (college, grad school, and a string of one-year leases); the rise in affordable streaming services; my librarian past and seeing the benefits of a communal film collection (especially since many North Carolina systems have entered into a consortium); becoming friends with more film enthusiasts, each of whom have their own personally tailored collections from which they're eager to loan; and the cases of a sizable collection of films I already own staring at me whenever I sit down to watch something.

Through these factors, I've come to the realization that I don't need to own a film to feel ownership of it. Once I've seen a film, no one can take that experience away from me. Watching something grants me entrance into a community with whom I share that common ground and if I want to refresh that knowledge, that can easily be accomplished without bringing an extra possession into my home, no matter how impressive the transfer or enticing a bonus feature.

I make an exception for each new Wes Anderson film, though even those go unwatched for a year or two with many of their supplements yet unseen. So, yes, I pre-ordered the Criterion edition of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but did so because it was a film I'd been anticipating owning in that format since its theatrical run, not because it happened to be part of a 24-hour special offer.

As such, apart from the cost/space/time issues of physical ownership, the problem with these Criterion flash sales is that they attempt to convince film lovers that they should buy discs because they happen to be on sale that day. That's not to say certain people don't keep a wish list, save up, and wait for these semi-regular events to occur, but the majority of us impulse-purchase consumers swarm simply because the sale is upon us, a rush that blinds us (myself included) of the fact that most of the standalone Blu-rays are available on Amazon for $25 on a given day. A similar feeling transpires with Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases, inducing a frenzy of "why not?" orders without pausing to answer that question. 

Before finalizing that purchase, consider how much instant access to a particular title is worth and how often that impulse arises. If those factors line up with the cost, go for it. Personally, I'd rather utilize the aforementioned non-purchase options or invest $8 and dedicate a month to knocking out some blind spots on Hulu Plus' Criterion Collection channel, though that's a challenge all its own.

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  • doug | August 25, 2014 10:25 PMReply

    Well put, Edwin. My addiction, however, is unaffected by sound logic.

  • neil ross | May 9, 2014 1:14 AMReply

    Edwin, your reasoning and opinions are shit. But, that's just my opinion. Enjoy that, tool.

  • Tyler | February 27, 2014 1:38 AMReply

    I admit. I impulse-buyed at about 2 am when I heard about the sale. I got Del Palma's SISTERS (which I haven't actually seen yet, so I hope its good) and either the beautiful KID WITH A BIKE or the haunting INSOMNIA, I can't remember (I was really tired). So I can either feel buyers remorse about guying a film I actually haven't seen yet and one I can't remember or know that my money went towards a good company that provides the best quality films out there (even if their choice in titles is sometimes debatable).

  • MPC | February 27, 2014 1:26 AMReply

    Sorry but the Criterions I buy, I watch more than once. I'm picky with the films I buy -- most of them blind purchases -- but the quality is unsurpassed. There's a beautiful intimacy and scope to "Children of Paradise" that gets better with each viewing, "House" is such an acid trip every time I see it (and I find something new each time), and "Following" is an amazing debut from Christopher Nolan.

    Your article might hold merit if it basically said, "Only buy Criterions of movies you love" or something to that effect. But a lot of us watch these movies more than once, even if it's not often.

  • Steve Coppock | February 26, 2014 9:47 PMReply

    I will destroy this entire inane article with what was the second film on Blu-ray I excitedly put in my cart:

    I have waited 25 years to see it since first becoming aware of it when it played in a revival in NYC that I missed. I stupidly thought "Oh, it will come around again or be on video" only to discover WRONG-O! that the film had copyright issues outside of Italy. Twice I would discover too late it had just played either there or in L.A. after I moved. At the best video store that existed here, Lazer Blazer in West L.A., I would occasionally check to see if it was on the upcoming list especially Criterion's.

    So I was dumbfounded and filled with actual hand-clapping glee when I went perusing the Criterion website yesterday in search of half-off bounty and discovered it had been quietly released back in December. Any cinéaste worth his/her mock-turtleneck & herringbone jacket should consider not paying Criterion for the effort it took them to release such an obscure, Oscar-winning film immoral. At 50% off it's almost a capital offense.

    In the last 2 years I think I've purchased - used from eBay no less - 2 other Blu-rays, and that was to watch the extras. In fact, yesterday was the most new discs I've ever purchased at one time (of the 40-something films in my semi-retired laserdisc collection, only one was purchased new and that was at a big discount, the T2 box set. Ironically, that one film 16 years ago cost almost as the 4 discs/6 films I got yesterday).

    Congratulations on being promptly informed that this sale had just kicked off - I usually miss it. Another point I feel I should make is that several films I was going to purchased I didn't because they were on Hulu Plus (which I recently got for the sole purpose of watching "Community" and then dropping, only to discover the Criterion titles there. So much for that...). Like an idiot, in my haste it took me a long time to discover that Criterion provides a button directly under the "Add to Cart" one to "Watch on Hulu." Which I was very thankful for when I saw that 2 of my choices were DVD-only and there's the possibility that the streaming quality will be HD (which is frequently the case).

    It really does question the writer's supposed love of film for him to suggest not buying Criterion releases. As the demand for discs continues plummet ever faster due to the rise in streaming services, fewer and fewer of the films of the type released by Criterion will be available. Steaming services only what titles they can get in bulk or will bring in new subscribers (hence why Netflix paid over $70M for "Mad Men" alone). In an ironic twist, we have left behind probably the best period in the history of cinema to actually watch it and in a double irony partially because of the "old" Netflix. No longer did you have to be near a big city to either see a film in revival or rent it from a place that specialized in non-mainstream titles. I envied kids who could get "The Decalogue" or the fully restored SEVEN SAMURAI by walking all the way to... the end of their driveways.

    It is ironic because while every bit of knowledge seems to be going up online, the macro-economics of streaming coupled with the still pervasive pirating means small companies that hold the rights to many older, independent and foreign titles either don't have the money to properly transfer them or won't risk it because some deluded asshole thinks he isn't hurting "major corporations" by putting it up for free once the disc comes out. There is a very real possibility that a lot of world cinema is about to be lost forever simply because it won't be popular enough to preserve. In which case, The Criterion Collection is almost the only company that can save much of it. And Mr. Arnaudin is a myopic and ignorant fool for playing iconoclast with his rant.

    I will grant the one cavaet I should extend to another writer who has suffered what I have before with these things - Mr. Arnaudin might not have had much say in the choice of headline. It is much harsher than the note he ends on.

  • Sarah G | February 26, 2014 6:23 PMReply

    Oh but he way: WES ANDERSON SUCKS

  • Anonymous | February 26, 2014 6:17 PMReply

    I went a little nutty over the holiday season both on blu-ray and itunes. I can't even tell you how many c-films I bought since mid-december.... *counting* umm, 26 (blu-rays, mostly foreign films) maybe? Yup, 26. I've seem... maybe a dozen of them since x-mas. Some of them are still wrapped. I know, I got it bad. :/ But to be honest, I don't regret my purchases. At least I'm not spending thousands on clothes/shoes I'm only gonna wear [if I'm being honest] a few times. I tend to binge watch a ton of films/shows on a free weekend, so... yeah, it's worth it for me in the long run. But I'm not your average movie lover. I obsess over the classics and I'm willing to spend a lot of money on good films, especially films on the tcc. But I'm cheap as f--k with just about everything else lol.

  • Pauline Krull | February 26, 2014 5:20 PMReply

    So you're saying we shouldn't support a company that more than any other in the US has been a bastion of restoration, does a remarkable job tracking down source materials, and respectfulness to director's intentions and hope they go out of business and we'll just pay $8 for god knows what bundled streaming rights library? You do know that Hausu would've never played theaters without the money they invested in its restoration for home video? This is an extremely poorly thought out "article" that belongs on Thought Catalog.

  • Amy | February 28, 2014 12:25 PM

    Agreed. There aren't too many reliable sources of high quality film transfers these days and Criterion is one of the few left. Good point about the restoration and the link to theater showings.

    I really don't want to have to rely solely on Netflix and its ilk, viewed over an ISP that now has free reign to throttle my bandwidth at will, to bring me films whose talented production teams spent a lot of time, care, and money to create a superb experience. The folks at Criterion care about these issues. Netflix? Amazon? Don't think so. They want the most viewers they can get and will price (and pay for) content accordingly. Do you REALLY see Netflix ever getting involved in the restoration of, say, a Hitchcock film from the twenties?

    And many times I buy DVDs for the commentaries, which for the most part I simply won't get via a streaming provider, no matter how good the stream quality of the source film is.

    For films made by the masters, I'll stick with Criterion, Kino Lorber, Masters of Cinema, etc., thanks. If I truly can't afford the DVD I will hit up my very well-stocked public library. Last year's hit comedy? Streaming's OK for that for the most part and helps me save space on my crowded bookshelf for Polanski's "Tess."

  • Sigh | February 26, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    Great idea: say no to potentially broadening your horizons and maybe discovering a film (or filmmaker) that you've never encountered before, or seeing the best possible version of a classic with illuminating extra features.

    But Wes Anderson gets a pass.

  • Mitch Anderson | February 26, 2014 5:03 PMReply

    So, buying films one loves is bad, except when it's not.


  • Neil | February 26, 2014 3:57 PMReply

    Criterion releases are quickly becoming the only discs I buy. There are exceptions of course, but I can't remember the last time I paid more than $10 for a non-Criterion bluray. The half off sales are also the only time I buy them as well. Unlike you, I don't have much of a communal library, nor do I have access to a fast internet connection where streaming on Hulu is a viable option.

    But even if I did have access to those things, I dunno if I would stop. Criterion puts so much love into these releases and it shows. The transfers, artwork, packaging, special features are all so far beyond just about everyone else who puts out discs. You know you're getting the best possible version of a film when you buy Criterion.

    Beyond all of that, I genuinely believe Criterion is doing the Lord's work and I want them to continue doing said work. Preserving the best and most important films of our past is extremely important. It will always be important. A world with Criterion in it is much better than one without them, so I buy their stuff. At the end of the day, I love what they're selling so I buy it, but I do genuinely want them to do this til the end of time.

    tl;dr: To paraphrase our greatest poet, Miley Cyrus, I can't stop, I won't stop.

  • benxpete | February 26, 2014 3:24 PMReply

    ...and this is the kind of article that keeps me from usually "just saying no" to IndieWire.

  • Peter Winkler | February 26, 2014 3:22 PMReply

    Great article.

  • Dan | February 26, 2014 3:11 PMReply

    This article was obviously written by someone who is not a cinephile, I feel like my dad is telling me why I shouldn't spend my money on something he does understand or appreciate.

    Sure, we watch the movies we own once or twice every couple of years, but we're paying for the experience of that first watch once you buy it, in the best definition available in the market, with tons of extra material that will help you understand everything around the film, and therefore, the film. Some people will be willing to pay $25 bucks, some not. Let them decide.

  • Blockhed | February 26, 2014 2:45 PMReply

    This is such a stupid, pointless article I can hardly believe it was actually written, let alone published. If you don't want to own something, don't buy it. Oh, unless it's a Wes Anderson film.

  • Anon | February 26, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    What is the point of this article? Are you really trying to deter people from supporting a company that provides us with quality hard copies of great films?

  • Noah | February 26, 2014 2:34 PMReply

    I am one of those few that keep a wish list and wait for these sales. That being said I did have an urge to make some blind buys just for the deal of it. I fought that urge and also only bought Fantastic Mr. Fox. I have all the other Anderson releases and came to the sad realization the other day that even though I have knocked Moonrise Kingdom on many occasions, I would probably buy that if (when) it gets the Criterion treatment. It's an addiction I'm KIND OF getting a handle on.

  • Greg | February 26, 2014 2:34 PMReply

    I will definitely get my $20 out of the Criterion Collection's "Nashville" DVD/Blu-ray that's on its way to my house as we speak.

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