The DVD nostalgia thread

So this thread on when people first discovered CDs has had me reminiscing about the early days of DVD. When DVD was released in the US in 1997, it was around the same time that Montgomery Ward’s Electric Avenue chain was closing down–as the stores started liquidating their stock, they reduced the prices on all their inventory by a larger and larger percentage each week. On the last day that my local store was open, they dropped their prices to 95 percent off for everything left in the store. Of course by that time, almost noting was left in the store, but I did find a DVD of the movie Fly Away Home marked down from $24.99 to $1.25, so I bought it as my first DVD months before I even had a player. In December of 1997 I got a Creatve Labs PC-DVD Dxr2 kit for 200 bucks when the cheapest stand-alone players were in the $500-$600 range, and ran the output from the decoder card a TV.

At that time, the stand-alones that were “only” $500 or $600 couldn’t even decode AC-3 internally and needed an external decoder that cost another few hundred dollars (and the decoder card didn’t, either.) I settled for stereo audio for about a year until I found a website with a close-out model of Dolby Digital decoder from around $120 and then bought that. And even then, that didn’t have powered output for the speakers and needed a separate Dolby Digital receiver (another few hundred dollars.) But I had a pair of powered PC speakers with RCA plugs (and large subs) that I had been using for years and liked, so I bought 3 more pairs of those to hook into the AC-3 decoder’s output.

The early days of DVD were fairly dramatic–there were several studios (including Fox) and directors (including Lucas and Spielberg) that were hold outs on DVD, for reasons ranging from fear of the ability to make easy digital copies of their movies (for the studios) to snobbery for Laserdisc (for some of the directors) and there was much back and forth on what major and minor titles would be available when. There was a bitter format war. Few brick and mortar stores sold them, and those sold them at full MSRP of $20, $25, even $30 (and forget about finding them used anywhere) but there were serious price-wars between infant on-line retailers, so that with price-matching and coupons the savvy buyer could easily pick them up for $10 or less on-line. It was an “exotic” technology with an “in crowd” back in the beginning.

So, anyone else have any nostalgia for the early days of DVD? Any of you vetrans of the Usenet newsgroup

I was surprised at the offerings. You could get some films incredibly cheaply – **Flash Gordon, Amadeus, ** the Eastman House version of the silent The Lost World, while others remained stubbornly unavailable or unaccountably expensive (like one of my all-time favorites, a Man for All Seasons.
What really got me interested was when they started adding “extra” features to the films, released the films mostly in letterbox rather than pan-and-scan, and started releasing restored editions, expanded editions, and Director’s cuts.

So I got the James Bond films, all now letterboxed and with “making of” features.

I got the expanded editions of Spartacus, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (when that finally came out) and others.

Soime of my favorites were the restored silent film versions –

  • Two different restorations of the silent The Lost World
  • The restored and re-colored andcomplete animated films of Winsor McCay
  • The restored (with fully colored Technicolor scenes, and one scene using the Handscheigl color process I hadn’t even realized existed.
  • the complete The Ten Commandments, with the Technicolor sequences
  • The silent Ben Hur, with color sequences I hadn’t known about
  • The fully restored Metropolis

It was not remotely a war. DIVX discs were never a major factor. The overwhelming majority of consumers didn’t even know that it existed. The very few that bought them (and the necessary player) were clueless. The format only hung around so long in order to reduce the chances of a class action lawsuit.

In most areas of the country you’d have been hard pressed to find a store that sold them.

What was with that weird pause that always(?) happened midway through DVDs. Immersion breaker, that.

Layer change. Took time for the laser to refocus to the second layer.

Better than the experience with LaserDisc, which could store as little as 30 minutes per side. Some massive, expensive LaserDisc players had two trays–put a disc in each tray, and at the end of each side, the player actually had these arms that would stick the disc outside the player, flip it over, and play the opposite side, then the same thing with the second disc. You would be able to watch a 2-hour movie without having to leave your seat 3 times!

It may not have touched the whole of America, but it was a gigantic tempest in the teapot I swam in.

At one point, I was big on buying new DVDs (and later Blurays) and Tuesdays were the day of the week when newly released titles were first available. I found that if I went to Best Buy on Tuesday, the prices were better than if I waited until later in the week. So I’d check the Sunday circular to see what was released that week and then pick it up.

And I got some titles for the extras. For example, Roger Ebert did commentary tracks for a very few movies, including Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and his comments help me to understand the significance of these movies.

And Dark City.

And Floating Weeds, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Crumb.

But I’m less interested in those, which is why I didn’t mention them.

The first DVD I ever saw was Star Trek Generations. My friend had bought it and I saw the picture quality difference immediately. I was hooked and that weekend bought a Phillips Player. This was 1997 and I bought it at The Wiz which is long gone.

The first DVD I technically bought was Batman & Robin (ugh) because it came with the player and to this day has never been opened. The first disk I bought for real was The Thing which I bought at the same time as the player.

The first season set I bought was the X Files which I think was the first season set period. The packaging was horrendous. So huge and bulky and every show followed that lead for years which made storing them terrible.

I eventually bough a 5 disk changer DVD player (also Philips). I still have it but it’s unplugged and unused. I loved it. It was great for season sets since you could put all the disks in and just go disk to disk. You could even change disk while it was playing. When I eventually upgraded to Blu Ray I wanted a multi disk player but apparently that isn’t something they make, at least that I could find.

When I bought my first DVD player it came with four DVD’s as part of a promotion.

The first DVD I bought specifically was Mr Vampire, a Chinese horror comedy. I bought it at a local Media Play.

I was young and single, so I spent the $500 to get a Dolby Digital-ready DVD player. Along with that first player, I picked up copies of Scream, Runaway Train, and Twister, because I’m pretty sure it was the law that anyone who bought a DVD player at that time had to own a copy of Twister.

There were a few things that early DVD player had that even today’s players don’t seem to have. For one, it would remember where you stopped watching, even when you took the disc out, for something like up to 20 discs. I think they wanted to make it like using a VCR, where the tape naturally resumed from the last spot you were watching. If you wanted to reset to the beginning and not have the player remember the disc, you pressed the STOP button twice. Another kind of odd feature was a dynamic “bits to screen” display that showed how many bits were flowing from the player to the screen at that very moment. The higher the bits, the better (generally) the picture. Some discs, like Das Boot, had a really high bit rate throughout. Some, with much higher compression, did not. Not very useful I suppose, but kinda neat.

Another thing I remember about the early days was that some studios and retailers were very eager to get more DVDs out there. Warner, for a little while, had a deal where you could send in four proof of purchase tabs (there were usually four in each movie box) and get a DVD from a select list for free. Online retailer 800 dot com (blast from the past) had a list of DVDs they sold at 3 for $1. They made it easy to start building a collection.

I had a really good system at the time (circa 1998), including a very good HiFi VHS. My friend stopped by on his way home with his new fangled DVD, and we hooked it up. He had a movie that I had on VHS so we compared. The difference was so striking that I was hooked! You could read the credits! See things you people wouldn’t believe (so to speak).

I got my own player shortly thereafter. Though I got a combination DVD/Laserdisc. My thinking was that some studios (cough Disney) weren’t “ever” going to release their films on DVD. While Disney obviously gave up on that for their main titles, at least I still have my “as close to original release as is currently possible” original three Star Wars THX editions. Maybe someday, Disney will release proper versions on DVD, and I can close the door on Laserdisc.