Warner reveals all about Blu-ray classics

Jan 29, 2009
George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video talks about future releases and why it takes so long to bring Golden Age gems to Blu-ray

Article by David Krauss

It's a question serious movie fans have been asking for some time: "Where are all the classics on Blu-ray?" Almost three years have passed since the debut of high-def discs and we're fast approaching the first anniversary of the format war's abrupt end, and still such iconic titles as 'Gone With the Wind,' 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Lawrence of Arabia,' 'Citizen Kane,' and 'Rear Window' have yet to see a Blu-ray release. "What's taking so long?" everyone seems to be asking. "Is Blu-ray only for recent blockbusters? Will we never be able to enjoy our favorite old movies on this glorious new media?" As time creeps along and more households embrace Blu-ray, the clamor for classics grows louder and more persistent, while the wait drags on…and on. I can speak from personal experience when I say film buffs are many things, but patient isn't one of them.

Well, if you're one of those antsy aficionados aggravated by the dearth of film classics available on Blu-ray disc, take heart. A prominent home video executive feels your pain, and he's doing all he can to rectify the situation without sacrificing quality or compromising a film's original elements.

Anybody who knows DVD classics knows George Feltenstein, senior vice president of marketing/theatrical catalog for Warner Home Video. A major Golden Age film fan himself, Feltenstein has been the driving force behind hundreds of classic releases from the days of VHS on through laserdiscs and into the digital era. His unrivaled passion and commitment to classic film has helped cement WHV's reputation as the genre's leading producer, and developed a loyal consumer following for the studio. And guess what? He's just nuts about Blu-ray.

"I don't think you'll find anyone on the planet complaining more about the lack of classic releases on Blu-ray than me," Feltenstein said in a recent phone interview from his Burbank office. As a consumer himself, he personally thinks it's "horrible, ridiculous, and frustrating" that more pre-1970 titles are not available on the format, and believes "thousands upon thousands of people" haven't made the Blu-ray leap because few of the titles on store shelves interest them. (Feltenstein also feels the film industry hindered the public's adoption of the technology because it failed to clearly and accurately communicate the format's vast superiority over standard DVD during its early stages.) As an industry executive, however, he understands all too well the studios' quandary over whether to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on a per title basis to remaster classic films – and that's what it costs if you need to start from "scratch" – when demographic research shows "typical" buyers could care less about the classic genre. And, Feltenstein adds, "The fact that we are in a recession-slash-depression and the world's economy is going to hell in a hand-basket doesn't help things."

All that said, Feltenstein, who dubs himself WHV's "in-house Blu-ray cheerleader," believes WHV has recently made some "bold and aggressive" moves regarding classics, and hopes other studios will follow suit. He cites next month's releases of the biblical epic 'Quo Vadis,' and two Best Picture winners, 'Gigi' and 'An American in Paris,' as a "litmus test" for classics, even though they are "very, very risky titles to put out in this marketplace, which mostly caters to new theatrical releases." (20th Century Fox will also hop on the classic BD bandwagon next month with 'The Robe' and 'South Pacific.')

That trio, however, is just a warm-up for what Feltenstein calls a "murderer's row" of classic releases later this year that will include such AFI 100 masterpieces as 'Gone With the Wind,' 'The Wizard of Oz,' and 'North By Northwest.' Hitchcock's thriller underwent a $1 million restoration, while 'GWTW' and 'Oz' – both of which were remastered in 2K Ultra Resolution three or four years ago for splashy DVD releases – have been completely overhauled once again to make sure they meet all of Blu-ray's exacting standards. "What was perfection two to three years ago is not now," Feltenstein says. "We thought 'Gone With the Wind' would be good to go on Blu-ray with what was done previously, plus $200,000 for dirt cleaning. But to look perfect, we had to start all over from scratch at enormous cost. I took it to management and there was no hesitation. Having a film like 'Gone With the Wind' on Blu-ray will set a new standard and pave the way for more classic releases."

According to Feltenstein, WHV has been mastering its classic films in 1080p since 2002, long before Blu-ray's official dawn, but he's quick to point out that even those relatively new transfers still must undergo expensive, time-consuming dirt and scratch removal to make them suitable for Blu-ray. Regular 1080p remastering is fine for standard definition, he says, but HD quality requires additional work. "Blu-ray demands perfection and our consumers demand that these films achieve the best possible image quality. I assure you they will, but there will always be people out there who will nitpick and find something wrong with them."

Perfection, he explains, doesn't mean compromising a film's original elements, such as grain structure, and Feltenstein is adamant that WHV does not condone such tampering, nor does it allow The Motion Picture Imaging Group, the company that produces its transfers, to artificially enhance images or apply digital noise reduction to achieve a more modern, sleek look. Black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s tend to exhibit more grain than movies made in the '50s and '60s, and sometimes that grain looks amplified when projected on a high-def display. When doing transfers, Feltenstein says, "we keep the grain, but get rid of every piece of non-photographic originated dirt we can."

Oftentimes, 1080p remastering shines a beacon on basic rudimentary production techniques used in classic films. Mattes, backdrops, and rear projection work are more noticeable, and special effects can lose their mystique. When upgrading 'Top Hat' (1935), Feltenstein was shocked to see how dirty the floor was on which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced. That dirty floor will be clearly visible when the Astaire-Rogers films make their Blu-ray debut in 2010, as will the wires that support the Scarecrow in certain scenes of 'The Wizard of Oz.' Age-related specks, scratches, and grit, however, will be erased.

Sound issues have also drawn ire from many consumers hungry for high-def audio on Golden Age films. Some have complained about the lack of a Dolby TrueHD track on 'Casablanca' and the upcoming 'An American in Paris.' Feltenstein insists he will always try to fashion an HD audio track, but only if it can be created naturally through the film's original multiple channel recordings. Both 'Casablanca' and 'An American in Paris' were recorded in mono, so monaural tracks were used on their respective Blu-ray discs to preserve each film's authenticity.

When discussing the criteria for selecting suitable titles for Blu-ray release, especially this early in the format's lifespan, Feltenstein notes there are still "hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful classic films in the Warner library that still haven't even seen a standard DVD release." At this time, he says, limited audience titles will not immediately come out on Blu-ray, such as a collection of Esther Williams movies WHV is readying for later in 2009, because projected sales would not effectively cover costs, which can quickly spiral into the stratosphere. Dirt and scratch removal on existing 1080p masters is expensive enough, but some films require new intermediate elements from the original negative, while others demand a full photochemical restoration before a new master can be created. Authoring, compression, menu creation, and design also inflate the price tag. "Even replicating the physical Blu-ray disc is expensive," Feltenstein says. "So it's not just the cost of making the master that determines whether we go forward." As a result, the studio is currently prepping its most iconic titles for Blu-ray and holding off on more specialized material.

Does that mean some titles, especially those antiques with heavy grain and scratchy audio, will never see a Blu-ray release? "Just because it can't be perfect doesn't mean it shouldn't be on Blu-ray at some point," Feltenstein says. "Some titles will take longer than others, but a film's vintage will not keep it from Blu-ray. Because we've been mastering in 1080p since 2002, we have gorgeous high-definition masters on more than 250 black-and-white 4x3 movies. They're just not the kind of movies that will lure people into Blu-ray. Remember, it was about five years into the DVD era before it became financially viable to go deeper into the classic library; we are about to begin year number four of Blu-ray in a few months, and I believe our plans for Blu-ray library marketing are in line with what we did – and continue to do – for DVD. But right now, we have to try and find the right classic film that will really show off the technology."

And Warner has plenty of those on tap. In addition to the Astaire-Rogers canon in 2010, Feltenstein said the 1954 'A Star Is Born' with Judy Garland, currently being remastered in 6K resolution, will also see a 2010 release, and 'Citizen Kane' will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a Blu-ray bow in 2011. Other titles in the pipeline include the 1959 'Ben-Hur,' which was already remastered in 1080p, but is being redone because, Feltenstein says, many viewers were displeased with the standard DVD transfer. 'Singin' in the Rain,' previously mastered in 1080i in 2001 is unsuitable for Blu-ray in its present form, so it's gone back to square one for a "profusely expensive" 1080p makeover. 'The Music Man,' 'Doctor Zhivago,' and 'Meet Me in St. Louis' also will see high-def releases in the next two to three years. And in honor of its 40th anniversary, 'Woodstock' will arrive on Blu-ray later this year in limited numbered editions with two hours of recently discovered performances. The classic concert film was originally shot in 16mm, so beware, there will be noticeable grain.

Though Hollywood usually thrives during tough times, Feltenstein said the home video industry has not been immune to the economic downturn, as layoffs and store closings make production more time consuming and marketing more challenging. "It's a very difficult environment to further this agenda," he said. "But if you put out a great release, people will buy it, and buying ensures that more releases in the same vein will follow. If people want to see more classic releases, they need to support the ones that are available or will soon be available. It's that simple."

Feltenstein can't speak for other studios, but emphasizes WHV's strong commitment to classics on Blu-ray, both from a financial and ideological perspective. "The horizon is bright," he says. "We will continue to be aggressive, and I believe people will be very happy with what we have in store."

In other words, good things come to those who wait.