The Criterion Collection is a joint venture between Janus Films and The Voyager Company that was begun in the mid 1980s for the purpose of releasing authoritative consumer versions of "classic and important contemporary films" on the laserdisc and DVD formats.
Because it is a privately held company, there is a dearth of publicly accessible information regarding the Criterion Collection as a business, as well as its relationships with other entities. Nevertheless, what information can be gathered from media sources reveals that the Criterion Collection shares a close business relationship with Janus Films and with Home Vision Entertainment (HVE).
The Criterion Collection was founded in 1984 by Robert Stein, Aleen Stein (then Robert's wife), and Roger Smith. In 1985, the Steins, William Becker, and Jonathan B. Turell (son of Saul J. Turell) founded The Voyager Company. Voyager was a developer of multimedia CD-ROMs. It released dozens of high-quality educational CD-ROMs between 1993 and 2000. During that time, the Criterion Collection became a division of Voyager. In March of 1994, Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH purchased a 20% share of Voyager for $6.7 million. The four founders themselves each retained a 20% share.
In the late 1990s, Voyager was broken up. In the winter of 1994, Aleen Stein divorced Robert Stein and left the active management of the company to start another CD-ROM publishing company, Organa, LLC, although she retained her 20% share in Voyager. In the winter of 1997, Holtzbrinck sold 42 Voyager CD-ROM titles, the Voyager brand name, the Voyager web site, and associated assets to Learn Technologies Interactive (LTI) LLC. (Robert Stein had himself sold 42 Voyager CD-ROM titles to LTI some time earlier in exchange for his shares in Voyager/Criterion) At this time, the remaining founding partners, Aleen Stein, William Becker and Jonathan Turell retained complete ownership of Criterion, each with 1/3 share of the company; Turell became its CEO, and Becker's son, Peter Becker, became its president. (Peter Becker had been the president of Voyager and, before that, the director of its Criterion division.) Aleen Stein still no longer plays an active role in the day-to-day operations, but she continues to own 1/3 of the company.
Janus Films, Inc. was founded by Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, Jr. in 1955; they sold it in 1966. At some point thereafter, it was acquired by William Becker and Saul J. Turell. It is likely, although unverified, that Becker and Turell were the 1966 purchasers of Janus Films.
Charles Benton founded Public Media, Inc. (PMI) in 1968. PMI's home video division, HVE, was established in 1986. Charles' daughter, Adrianne B. Furniss, became PMI's president in 1996, and its CEO in 1999. Adrianne B. Furniss is also the Chief Executive Officer of HVE. Charles Benton is the Chairman of HVE.
HVE, which is also a privately held company, distributes Criterion DVD releases; however, it doesn't own Criterion. HVE also provides sales, advertising, and marketing services for Criterion.
HVE releases its own line of DVDs on its own HVE line, including The Merchant Ivory Collection, produced in association with the Criterion Collection and is dedicated to releasing DVDs of films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and The Classic Collection, "a joint venture between Home Vision Entertainment and Janus Films." The latter appears to be dedicated to releasing DVDs under the HVE imprint of films for which Janus Films holds DVD rights and are not released by the Criterion Collection. Films under the Classic Collection imprint have also been released by the Criterion Collection.
Contributions and influence
Criterion pioneered many innovations in the way movies are presented on video that have become standard today. One of these is letterboxing, in which widescreen movies are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios. Though at first resisted by consumers, due to the fact that letterboxing requires the image to be shrunk and bracketed top-to-bottom by black bars to accommodate a television's roughly square screen, it was soon embraced by movie enthusaists who were quick to recognize its benefits over the alternative, a film image severely cropped on the sides. The 1987 Criterion laserdisc of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was a seminal home video release in legitimizing letterboxing.
Their debut release were the 1984 laserdiscs of Citizen Kane and King Kong. In both cases, Criterion pioneered the concept of the "special edition," in which a movie is presented with numerous bonus materials including trailers, directors' audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries, alternate endings, deleted scenes, and more. This concept was quickly embraced by almost all other home video companies, from the mainstream to small speciality labels like Elite Entertainment. Today, special edition DVDs, even for the most trivial of films, are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Criterion has released definitive, and in some cases unique, video editions of such films as The Prince of Tides, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Citizen Kane, A Hard Day's Night, It's a Wonderful Life, and the aforementioned Blade Runner, under license with the respective companies that own (or have at some point owned) them. Such special video editions are now out of print with the laserdisc format now replaced with DVD, and the fact that ownership of many titles released on Criterion have changed hands. As a result, many Criterion titles are now collector's items. For instance, the original DVD release of This Is Spinal Tap contains supplementary content not represented in MGM's current DVD release; the laserdisc version of Blade Runner is the original unedited international version (this was not included on subsequent laserdisc and DVD releases of the film due to legal issues); The Prince of Tides includes a commentary track by Barbra Streisand and other supplements not included on Columbia/TriStar's current DVD; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind contains footage from the original version (in film context) not represented on the later "collector's edition" video releases. These versions can occasionally be found on the eBay auction site, sometimes at collector's prices.
As many businesses do, the company does discontinue production of some of their editions, with Silence of the Lambs being an example of one no longer made by the company.
Criterion usually selects foreign films, established classics, and obscure critically-admired movies over mainstream Hollywood fare, though they have released the occasional mainstream blockbuster, such as Armageddon and The Rock. Criterion is noted for spending a great deal of effort and money tracing the best source materials for classic films, and engaging in thorough restorations—another practice that has influenced other companies.
Though a laserdisc pioneer, Criterion entered the DVD market cautiously, not releasing their first titles on the new format until it had been on the market for approximately a year. Indeed, their earlier DVD releases of widescreen films were presented in letterbox format as was the case with widescreen laserdisc films, rather than being anamorphically enhanced (Criterion's first anamorphic release was #47, Insomnia, although they would not release another anamorphically-enhanced film in a widescreen ratio until #55, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Nonetheless, in 1998 the company discontinued their line of laserdisc releases. Today, though they are no longer alone in the care and dedication with which they treat their films, nor in the elaborate content of their special editions, the Criterion Collection remains synonymous with quality.
However, as most any brand associated in the mind of consumers with quality, Criterion DVDs tend, on the whole, to be much more expensive than DVDs released by other entities. Whether this pricing structure is due to increased costs necessary to ensure the best possible film elements and extras and to compensate for a smaller market for the titles it releases, or whether it is a means to capitalize on the cachet of its reputation has been hotly debated. With an emphasis in quality over quantity, only a comparatively few films have been selected to be "saved" by them.
As of December 2004, Criterion has issued over 250 releases.
- The Criterion Collection (http://www.criterionco.com/)
- CriterionDVD.com (http://www.criteriondvd.com/)
- Criterion Forum (http://www.criterionforum.org/)
- Home Vision Entertainment (http://www.homevision.com/)
- The Merchant Ivory Collection (http://www.criterionco.com/merchantivory/)