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From Kurosawa to Hitchcock, The Criterion Collection has a well-earned reputation for treating great films with great care. Since it began releasing DVDs in 1998, Criterion has developed serious bona fides among cinephiles: The company was one of the first distributors to honor the original aspect ratios; its supplementary materials, unlike so many tossed off extras provided by other distributors, often provide actual insight into the context and history of the films they serve; and its film transfers are some of the best available. Five hundred DVD releases later, Criterion appears to be at the top of its game.
Which is why last week’s news—that the company had lost the rights to nearly 25 films to Lionsgate—comes as such a bummer. (Lionsgate is launching a high-end distribution arm, The StudioCanal Collection, in competition with Criterion.) One red flag is Lionsgate’s spotty preservational rep: Its releases have often been tarnished by poor-quality transfers (notably, the lackluster rerelease of John Huston‘s The Dead), and the supplementary materials are simply not up to par.
When we think about what’s getting lost here, it’s instructive to consider the example of Grand Illusion, one of the titles Lionsgate will pick up. After its debut in 1937, the film was nominated for Best Picture, the first foreign film to receive such an honor. Not long thereafter, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels banned Grand Illusion, dubbing it “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” for its anti-war sentiments. Prints of the film were destroyed by Nazis, and the original negative was thought to have been lost entirely. In 1958, some of the prints were rediscovered, and a piecemeal version was assembled from both negatives and positives to be released under director Jean Renoir‘s supervision in the early 1960s. This was the version Criterion was busy transferring to DVD in the late ’90s, when, out of nowhere, a complete negative of the film was found undamaged in France’s esteemed Cinémathèque.
Criterion, exercising very un-Hollywood restraint, delayed the release of its first DVD in order to transfer this vastly superior version of the film to home video.
The fact that the film has survived at all is a testament to its lasting impact. Renoir’s work is a mainstay on just about any “Greatest Films” list, and for good reason. As a curator, Criterion treated the film with appropriate reverence and offered extensive supplementary material to complement a top-notch transfer.
But guess what? This exhaustive edition of the film will soon be out of print, and Lionsgate will have the option to rerelease it. Early reports about next month’s StudioCanal debut aren’t flattering: The Lionsgate rerelease of Kurosawa‘s Ran simply isn’t up to snuff when it comes to transfer quality, and it omits several key bonus features included in the previous Criterion release. Lionsgate may actually be upping the ante in terms of its own less-than-impeccable standards, but that simply does not make up for forcing Criterion to stamp OOP next to its finest work.