Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Elf on the $800 Shelf

First off, let's disclaimer a few things clear, ahead of all possible discussion:  
I'm not a raging dyed-in-the-wool Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings"-series fanboy, but I don't in the least bit hold it against those who are.  I agreed with the AFI 100 including '01's Fellowship of the Ring on their revised list of Greatest American Movies, and I laughed long and loud in the overconfident faces of those whose '04 Oscar-pool bets I collected upon, when they smugly believed the Academy would never pick Return of the King over a depressing Sean Penn movie because "fantasy wasn't good enough" for Best Picture--There hasn't been a Better Picture winning the award since.
The Hobbit Trilogy, OTOH....oh, good lord.  Do NOT get me started, either as Tolkien reader or film fan.  No, for the sake of the blog, just don't.  We began to suspect a lot of personal issues Peter Jackson may have had that we never wanted to know about, and the George Lucas prequel-trilogy comparisons, all of them deserved, flew fairly hot and heavy.  (Let's just leave it at saying that An Unexpected Journey was an amazing book adaptation for about half an hour, until Bilbo Baggins left his house, the Seventh Doctor Who showed up with bird-poop on his head, and then the entire three-year trilogy promptly shifted gears and slammed down the accelerator pedal with burning rubber tires on a highway to Hell.)

The big controversy among core Jackson-Tolkien fans at the moment concerns a Warner Home Video Ultimate "Middle Earth Collectors' Set" Blu-ray disk collection, as pictured at the top of the page, that joins the complete existing 4-disk (each movie) sets of the LOTR and Hobbit Trilogies into one entire collection, street date Oct. 4.
Well, that's hardly surprising:  There's usually a complete Batman or Harry Potter set every year by the clock around fall/Christmas shopping time, for those folks who haven't bought it yet, or with that one must-have collector-packaging concept.  The Warner "Holy Trinity", of the last remaining three core studio house-franchises they believe they can repackage every year for mass-retail--Batman/Dark Knight, Harry Potter and Peter Jackson's Tolkien--has already been addressed on this blog.  (It used to be four Warner house-franchise properties, but bad update series have now traumatized WHV into the unshakable belief that "nobody cares" about the Looney Tunes characters, unless they can repackage Space Jam again.)

In a promo-video unboxing on YouTube, Warner even hired Dominic ("Merry") Monaghan to show off the rich bounty of the Middle Earth set, for those who wanted the details:

The price?  $799 + tax.  But if you pre-order the set early on Amazon, you can get it with 25%-off discount for $599.

Now, I'll confess a secret passion for Digibooks--The premium collector packaging we USED to get whenever Warner, Fox or Universal released classic films like Unforgiven or The Right Stuff, that packaged the Blu-ray disks inside small hardbound photo/essay books, and the disk case bound into the inside back cover.  But then, I remember the days when you could buy collectible souvenir theater programs to E.T. and Star Wars at the popcorn counter, and to think of a collection of hardbound movie programs that now had the real actual movies included was beyond our wildest dreams back then.  I'd even given up the digital copies on Disney's animated classics, just to get those hardbound Target store-exclusives of Aladdin and Peter Pan with the storybooks attached.  Me, I always dreamed of a movie shelf as one of those Edwardian manor libraries, that needed an entire room for books from floor to ceiling, and movies packaged as leather-bound volumes hits my fantasy sweet-spot.
At a clinically-sane price, I might have considered Warner's deal...If it contained the 3D Hobbits.  And if, for that matter, they'd just forgotten about the Hobbit Trilogy to begin with, put it out of our misery, and simply gave us those shelf and bindings with the Original Trilogy.

There's more to this issue than just the price...Well, okay, there IS the price.  It's always been an issue.  Let's just feed that big elephant in the room its peanut, and move it over to the corner where it won't trumpet.  The Digital Bits, which has also been following the story, did a humorous breakdown of whether the set was any bargain vs. buying a la carte.  (If you can go without the bric-a-brac and don't care which cut you watch, Warner does have just the Theatrical disks for a more sensible $60.)
The point of creating the set, and why fans had been looking forward to it for literally years throughout the Hobbit Trilogy's theatrical run, was that Peter Jackson had been hoping to extend the bonus material as he had on the first LOTR DVD set in the early 00's. Hours of bonus material had been assembled, intending 2-hour documentaries on the making of each movie, as an arc of production material to actually unite the complete six-movie canon.
Tolkien fan site has followed the story particularly closely, and offers more detail on the Peter Jackson Set That Could Have Been.  And, more to the point, why it Wasn't: 8/22/16
Basically, by the time WHV was finished with it, the Ultimate set was hardly even Ultimate, or even Penultimate.  It was simply a repackaging of the existing theatrical-cut editions of the six movies, with new artwork, and movie-themed collectible casings.  It became, as Blu fans and "Ringers" dubbed it, "The $800 Shelf".  (I could buy probably as good a wooden shelf for my disk sets at Yankee Trader for $20, but without the Hobbit-hole design.)

The basic problem, perhaps, seems to be in Warner's current mindset of defining what is a Blu-ray "collector".  To disk collectors, we collect the movies; we want to know everything about them, and house any analysis or any rare footage that could ever be said or shown about them on one compact case on our shelf.  To Warner, who must repackage the same seventeen titles to a core base of fans who want some new visual representation of their loyalty, "collectors" collect Things.  So the Things must be made a more entertaining case with which to hold the nominal representation of the fan brand they represent.  
One buys a documentary, the other buys a Batmobile with old repackaged disks already in it.  One sees it as an industry about preserving art, the other sees it as a business of how to remind the public who owns which copyright, and collect thereupon.  And to a studio that increasingly wishes not to make their movies physical, and let fans get the smash-hit movie online without the "pointless" off-the-subject featurette extras, making a disk might just as well be making a plastic Batmobile for some crazy franchise-obsessed nut who can't buy enough things to demonstrate his personal issues.

This is not a "Collector's" set.  This is not even meant by Warner to be a set with any love for the Tolkien fan or the video collector.  This is a an act of cynical desperation that Warner does not even realize how condescending the targeted listener hears.  
Loosely translated: "Okay, here's the deal--We don't think that anyone can sell any more disks in mainstream retail, except for the three core studio properties that Best Buy will display on their shelves if we creatively package them in large sets with standout visual cases.  And we'd be all-digital by now if our entire studio didn't revolve around you anal-nitpicking SDCC kids with the brooms and the Joker shirts and the Spock ears...So here's something creatively packaged for your fancy-pants disk-freak collector's shelf, without the effort of changing the film content.  And since you're one of the last three folks we can depend on to buy Blu-ray disks anymore, it's YOUR job to keep the company's division afloat--If you're too stubborn to go digital like normal customers, then chip in, soldiers, everyone has to do their part, and nobody said it would be easy, we've got a whole quarter of WHV losses to pay for."

And that's even going on the assumption that they believe Tolkien fans, even a "limited" number of them, will buy it at the price.
Let's briefly put on our tinfoil hats, for a moment, so that the squirrels can't control us, and make the darker counter-assumption--What if this is actually the set WHV is expecting, even counting on, fans NOT to buy?
And that the studio intentionally priced LOTR fans' pledge-drive "charity contribution" to the Support and Preservation Of Blu-ray outside of the reasonable customer price range by claiming the prestige set and "Limited" status, for only a few select high-end philanthropist customers, clearly necessitated the high price?  Then, they would have headlines to tell the video industry at the '17 CES--"Surprisingly, despite the high quality of the set, one of our most reliable and widely-recognized franchise properties had low Blu-ray disk sales for the Ultimate Collector Edition, proving that even the fanbase seems to have finally embraced the decline of physical media...Or at least illustrates the difficulty for studios to continue to re-sell reliable titles in mainstream retail."  
Nice plan, Warner:  Shoot your own highest-profile year-tentpole disk sale in the foot and then quickly toss the gun to the fans, so that everyone in the industry can see them bewilderedly holding it...And then let the "ungrateful" core Tolkien collector-fans discredit themselves the minute they all start knee-jerk shouting that the reason it didn't sell was that poor Warner who worked so hard on the disk-collector set just didn't bend far enough over backwards to personally satisfy them, so maybe no one can, and you're better off just selling to the mainstream Wal-mart customer you know.  Clev-er.

But that's an If.  Until we hear from Warner's side of the story--which we probably won't until the studio feels cornered by the entire fan-Internet as reposted by the mainstream media, and then we'll get a carefully worded statement that they didn't think they were doing anything wrong, or even doing us a favor by it--all we have are Ifs.  And tinfoil theories.  We can juggle them like balls and clubs until someone just steps forward with the facts, and then it's a little closer to reality.
The least we can do is take the issue to Warner's doorstep, and hope the Silent Sphinx will give us an answer to the riddle.  The issue is not simply why they didn't give us a documentary (although bonus features on disks are nice things to take the trouble and expense for), or why they didn't include the Theatrical or 3D editions in an already disk-drowning set, or even why you the Tolkien Fan were upset the edition didn't come with Rice Krispies Treats and a pony as their personal gift to you.  
The issue is a question that unites ALL Blu-ray fans in 2016, and that is the recurring question of Why Didn't Warner Care?  And more frighteningly, Does Warner Home Video Care Anymore?  Is Blu-ray disk now officially a second-class citizen at the studio, and only trotted out in retail as an excuse for Best Buy to sell plastic figurines?  Did they believe that Blu-ray buyers are now a specialized "limited" cadre of quaint old-fashioned high-end collectors, like wine-tasters or sports-car-auction enthusiasts?  What made them believe Less needed to charge More, or that the bonus feature that talent was willing to co-operate with was simply Not Worth the Effort, which they called the Expense?  I know studios, desperate for short or long-range profit, are not in the business for their health.  But the Surgeon General has determined that open apathy, manipulation and cynicism towards their customers is hazardous to a company's continued health.

Some may think I give Warner a hard time on this blog, and put too much of the blame for the Digital-vs-Disk "war" (such as it is) on the doorstep of one of the few studios that controls a third of movie library titles in the country.
I don't really--The studio has put out some good editions in the past.  I only try to put blame where I see blame due.  And every time something in the industry happens, I keep dearly wishing that blame for "Blu-ray genocide" would be due somewhere else for a change.
To wrap up this question, I leave you with this image of Warner:  When WHV had to produce a studio-anniversary disk anti-piracy ad...well, we've all seen those at the theaters and on disk-intros, haven't we?  "Movie piracy hurts everyone", "You wouldn't steal a purse", etc.
When Warner wanted to deliver a message to the "common folk" who might hurt their business, they chose a different, and more humorously studio-iconic message, albeit one rather disturbingly unclear on the concepts:
Who...on earth...SYMPATHIZES with the Great Green Head of Oz as the role-model "hero" of the movie, and dreams of the thrill of telling Dorothy, the Small & Meek, "Silence, whippersnapper!"?  Why, the studio, that's who.  Dreaming that you can eliminate obstacles to your profit by being great-and-powerful enough to crush them under your heel is a nice little stroke-fantasy clip, especially when they can selectively cut out the scenes where Dorothy protests "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, picking on him like that!" which might otherwise ruin the image.  Uh, yeah, Warner, could you step aside for a sec and let us talk to the Man Behind the Curtain?--Or should we pay no attention to him?

Again, the $800 Shelf seems to have backfired into something of epic proportions that goes beyond Tolkien fans at conventions with Arwen dresses and Orc costumes.  It is an issue that all Blu-ray fans need to confront Warner on, as a concern may have finally become an Intervention.  An Intervention is the word for how one tries to deal with a lunatic or addict, telling them you do so because you care, and don't want to see them sink into further self-destruction and ruin everyone else's lives around them--And to which the subject usually replies with saying you're only interfering, he doesn't need you or anybody, he's already got everything he needs, and you're too square to understand the world he lives in anyway.
Questions of "public shaming" aside, if Blu-ray and Tolkien fans can both come together and help Warner open up and face the press on this issue, we may see what comes out of it for the company.
But we should be be prepared for what happens if Warner's first official corporate answer to the complaint is, quote, "DO not arouse the wrath of the great Oz, ungrateful creatures!  Go away and come back tomorrow!"

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