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Old 28-02-24, 06:55 AM   #1
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Default Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - March 2nd, 24

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March 2nd, 2024

Sony Claims to Offer Subs “Appropriate Value” for Deleting Digital Libraries

Customers confused as Sony claims to work with affected users individually.
Scharon Harding

Sony is making an effort to appease customers who will lose their entire Funimation digital libraries when the anime streaming service merges into Crunchyroll. Currently, though, the company's plan for giving disappointed customers "an appropriate value" for their erased digital copies isn't very accessible or clear.

Earlier this month, Sony-owned Funimation announced that customers' digital libraries would be unavailable starting on April 2. At that time, Funimation accounts will become Crunchyroll accounts. Sony acquired Crunchyroll in 2021, so some sort of merging of the services was expected. However, less expected was customers' lost access to online copies of beloved anime that they acquired through digital codes provided in purchased Funimation DVDs or Blu-rays. Funimation for years claimed that customers would be able to stream these copies “forever, but there are some restrictions.”

Rahul Purini, Crunchyroll's president, explained the decision while speaking to The Verge's latest Decoder podcast, noting that the feature was incorporated into the Funimation platform.

"As we look at usage of that and the number of people who were redeeming those and using them, it was just not a feature that was available in Crunchyroll and isn’t in our road map," Purini said.

The executive claimed that Funimation is "working really hard directly" with each affected customer to "ensure that they have an appropriate value for what they got in the digital copy initially." When asked what "appropriate value" means, Purini responded:

It could be that they get access to a digital copy on any of the existing other services where they might be able to access it. It could be a discount access to our subscription service so they can get access to the same shows through our subscription service. So we are trying to make it right based on each user’s preference.

Clarifying further, Purini confirmed that this means that Sony is willing to provide affected customers with a new digital copy via a streaming service other than Crunchyroll. The executive said that the company is handling subscribers' requests as they reach out to customer service.

Notably, this approach to compensating customers for removing access to something that they feel like they purchased (digital copies are considered a free addition to the physical copies, but some people might not have bought the discs if they didn't come with a free digital copy) puts the responsibility on customers to reach out. Ahead of Purini's interview, Sony didn't publicly announce that it would offer customers compensation. And since Funimation's terms of use include caveats that content may be removed at any time, customers might have thought that they have no path for recourse.

But even if you did happen to demand some sort of refund from Funimation, you might not have been offered any relief. The Verge's Ash Parrish, who has a free-tier Funimation account, reported today on her experience trying to receive the "appropriate value" for her digital copies of Steins;Gate and The Vision of Escaflowne. Parrish noted that Steins;Gate isn't available to stream off Crunchyroll with a free subscription, meaning she'd have no way to watch it digitally come April 2. Parrish said Funimation support responded with two "boilerplate" emails that apologized but offered no solution or compensation. She followed up about getting compensated for a premium subscription so that she'd be able to stream what she used to digitally own through Crunchyroll but hadn't received a response by publication time.

Following up with Funimation's PR department didn't provide any clarity. Brian Eley, Funimation's VP of communications, reportedly told Parrish via email: "Funimation users who have questions about digital copies can contact Funimation here. A Funimation account associated with a digital copy redemption is required for verification.” Ars Technica reached out to Crunchyroll for comment but didn't hear back in time for publication.

The downfalls of digital “ownership”

Sony's plan to delete access to customers' digital properties shows the risks of relying on streaming services. The industry is infamous for abruptly losing licenses to programming, changing prices and accessibility to titles, mergers, as is the case here, and collaborations that change what customers are entitled to.

When asked about this broader industry challenge on Decoder, Purini acknowledged customer inconvenience but noted the importance for Crunchyroll to "keep our resources and teams focused on what would help us bring the best experience for the broader audience."

It's unclear how many users were using their Funimation digital copies. However, some may consider their digital copies backups that they won't use unless they're no longer able to play their physical copy, giving Funimation customers peace of mind.

Although Funimation claimed that digital copies would be viewable "forever," their terms of use note that Funimation can remove content "for any reason." However, it's not uncommon for customers to avoid reading lengthy, wordy terms of service agreements. Terms of service are easy to understand for an industry participant like Purini, he said, but "that might not be the case with a broader general audience."

That said, with streaming becoming a more substantial part of people's media libraries, users must understand what they're spending money on. Access to beloved shows and movies over the Internet isn't guaranteed, and inconsistent compensation plans are often the result.

Amazon Blocks Long-Running Fire TV Capability — Breaking Popular Apps with No Warning and Giving Developers the Runaround
Elias Saba

Amazon’s recent streak of unpopular Fire TV changes continues, and its latest change is a doozy. The most recent Fire TV software update has blocked a Fire TV capability that has been present since the original model’s release in 2014. This is a basic Android capability that, to my knowledge, no other Android-based device manufacturer has ever had issues with, let alone blocked. This change has rendered popular Fire TV apps, which have been in Amazon’s own Appstore for years, useless. Worse yet, Amazon seems to have been careless in implementing this change without even a courtesy email to the affected app developers, all under the, seemingly false, guise of enhanced security.

Code excerpt of Amazon’s change to Fire TV’s ADB connection that denies local connections. Sent to me by an affected app developer.

Amazon has blocked the ability for Fire TV apps to establish local ADB connections and, in turn, execute ADB commands. While it’s not a capability used by many Fire TV apps, without it, Fire TV apps can no longer perform certain advanced tasks, such as freeing up internal storage space by clearing the cache of all installed apps. This change has been verified to be present in Fire TV update for Fire OS 7 devices, like the Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Cube, and update for Fire OS 8 devices, like the Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Stick 4K Max. It is unknown if older Fire TV models running Fire OS 6 or Fire OS 5 will also be receiving this change, but it seems likely. This update does not change the ability of external devices, like computers or phones, to establish an ADB connection with a Fire TV, which remains possible.

When I asked Amazon if this change was intentional and performing as intended because multiple readers and developers were asking me about it, Amazon’s only reply to me was “We are aware of reports that some apps have been impacted by a recent security update.” Since then, the developer of the immensely popular app Remote ADB Shell, which has over half a million downloads and has been heavily crippled by Amazon’s update, has reached out to me with evidence that the change by Amazon is certainly deliberate.

While Amazon is stating this change is in the name of improved security, I don’t buy it. While ADB commands can be very powerful and, therefore, should only be allowed to run with care, all Android-based devices, including Fire TVs, have several precautions in place to keep users safe from apps or devices trying to execute nefarious ADB commands.

ADB connection request on Fire TVs

Before any ADB command can be executed on a Fire TV, an ADB connection to the device must be made. This starts by selecting the Fire TV’s model name in its “About” menu seven times to reveal a hidden developer menu. Then, an “ADB debugging” option must be enabled from said hidden menu. Finally, every unique ADB connection request from a device or app, be it a local or external connection, results in a full-screen prompt that must be allowed before the ADB connection is made.

These numerous ADB-related security hoops are in place on all Fire TV models and are common to all Android-based devices. No manufacturer apart from Amazon has felt the need to enhance device security by blocking local ADB connections, despite most non-Amazon Android devices being phones, which hold far more private and critical user data than a Fire TV streaming media player.

Most likely, this change is an idiotic way for Amazon to protect its Fire TV home screen from being bypassed and, in turn, to protect its profits. Apps commonly used by the Fire TV modding community will often use local ADB connections to detect remote button presses. That detection allows the use of alternate home screens, which aren’t inundated with things like auto-playing fullscreen video ads like Amazon’s own home screen.

While it’s an unpopular opinion, I see nothing wrong with Amazon protecting its Fire TV revenue by stopping the use of alternative home screens. It’s crucial to the business model Amazon has chosen to use for the Fire TV and if customers don’t like it, they don’t have to buy one. However, blocking a core OS capability and breaking popular apps in a futile effort to protect the Fire TV home screen is shortsighted and foolish. It’s the equivalent of a town mayor demolishing a bridge used by everyone because their political opponent lives on the other side.

What makes this Fire TV change even worse is how Amazon has treated the developers affected by it. Two popular Fire TV apps affected by this change are TDUK APP Killer and TDUK APP Cache Cleaner, which use local ADB commands to force quit and clear the cache of all apps with a single button press. I’ve been going back and forth with the app’s developer, popular Fire TV YouTuber TechDoctorUK, all week trying to get to the bottom of why his apps were suddenly and unexplainably marked as incompatible with all Fire TV models, despite not receiving any notice from Amazon and his apps appearing “Live” with “No issues found” in his Amazon developer portal.

Emails shown to me from Amazon stated that TechDoctorUK’s apps were removed for failing tests that resulted in error messages being displayed by the apps. However, the Amazon testing that resulted in those errors was done on non-Amazon devices (i.e., Android phones), despite the apps only being listed by TechDoctorUK as compatible with Fire TV devices. After being given the runaround for a couple of days, only after I reached out to Amazon about this issue did TechDoctorUK receive an email that stated: “Because your app overrides the native user experience (e.g., with a lockscreen, or widget), it has not been published on Amazon devices.” Given that force-stopping apps and clearing app cache are both native capabilities of Fire TVs, just not with a single click, I interpret the email as Amazon’s canned way of saying we don’t want your app on Amazon devices.

During my brief stint as a Fire TV Product Manager at Amazon, I was put on a team tasked with changing a Fire TV capability that could affect existing apps. We created and executed a plan that involved contacting affected app developers ahead of the change, helping them update their app if needed, and addressing customer issues that might arise, among other things. What we certainly didn’t do is carelessly push out the change, ghost ban affected apps, give developers the runaround, and reply to concerns with irrelevant canned replies.

Blocking local ADB connections on Fire TVs is a shortsighted decision. If the goal was to further protect the Fire TV home screen, it should have been achieved in any number of other ways that didn’t require breaking legitimate apps.

Houthis Hit Submarine Communications Cables

"Globes" has learned that four submarine communications cables have been damaged in the Red Sea between Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti in East Africa.
Khaled Abdullah

Three months after the Houthis began attacking merchant ships, the Yemenite rebels have carried out another one of their threats. "Globes" has learned that four submarine communication cables have been damaged in the Red Sea between Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti in East Africa.

According to the reports, these are cables from the companies AAE-1, Seacom, EIG and TGN. This is causing serious disruption of Internet communications between Europe and Asia, with the main damage being felt in the Gulf countries and India.

Estimates are that the damage to communications activities is significant but not critical because other cables pass through the same region linking Asia, Africa and Europe that have not been hit. The repair of such a large number of underwater cables may take at least eight weeks according to estimates and involve exposure to risk from the Houthi terror organization. The telecommunications companies will be forced to look for companies that will agree to carry out the repair work and probably pay them a high risk premium.

EIG (European India Gateway) connects Southern Europe with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, the UAE and India. The underwater cable was laid by Tyco arm Alcatel-Lucent at a cost of $700 million and was the first cable stretching from the UK to India. Shares in EIG are held by a consortium including AT&T, Saudi Telecom, Verizon, and India's Bharat Sanchar.

TGN Atlantic was laid by Tyco International in 2001 and sold to Indian company Tata Communications in 2005 for $130 million. The AAE-1 cable which has also been cut links East Asia to Europe via Egypt. The cable, which has a 40 terabyte per second capacity, links China with the west via countries belonging to the Chinese-Iranian axis including those countries and Pakistan and Qatar.

The Seacom cable links Europe, Africa and India as well as South Africa.

Senior executives at international communications and underwater cable companies have posted reports about the damage on LinkedIn and X.

DVD’s New Cousin Can Store More Than a Petabit

Containing more data than the entire Internet can transmit in a second
Charles Q. Choi

A novel disc the size of a DVD can hold more than 1 million gigabits—roughly as much as is transmitted per second over the entire world’s Internet—by storing data in three dimensions as opposed to two, a new study finds.

Optical discs such as CDs and DVDs encode data using a series of microscopic pits. These pits, and the islands between them, together represent the 0s and 1s of binary code that computers use to symbolize information. CD, DVD, and Blu-ray players use lasers to read the data encoded in these discs.

Although optical discs are low in cost and highly durable, they are limited by the amount of data they can hold, which is usually stored in a single layer. Previously, scientists investigated encoding data on optical discs in many layers in three dimensions to boost their capacity. However, a key barrier that prior research faced was how the optics used to read and write this data were limited to roughly the size of the wavelengths of light they used.

Now scientists in China have developed a way to encode data on 100 layers in optical discs. In addition, the data is recorded using spots as small as 54 nanometers wide, roughly a tenth of the size of the wavelengths of visible light used to read and write the data.

All in all, a DVD-size version of the new disc has a capacity of up to 1.6 petabits—that is, 1.6 million gigabits. This is some 4,000 times as much data density as a Blu-ray disc and 24 times as much as the currently most advanced hard disks. The researchers suggest their new optical disc can enable a data center capable of exabit storage—a billion gigabits—to fit inside a room instead of a stadium-size space.

“The use of ultrahigh-density optical data storage technology in big data centers is now possible,” says Min Gu, professor of optical-electrical and computer engineering at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.

How to store a petabit on one disc

The strategy the researchers used to write the data relies on a pair of lasers. The first, a green 515-nanometer laser, triggers spot formation, whereas the second, a red 639-nm laser, switches off the writing process. By controlling the time between firing of the lasers, the scientists could produce spots smaller than the wavelengths of light used to create them.

To read the data, the researchers again depended on a pair of lasers. The first, a blue 480-nm beam, can make spots fluoresce, while the second, an orange 592-nm light, switches off the fluorescence process. Precise control over the firing of these lasers can single out which specific nanometer-scale spot ends up fluorescing.

This new strategy depends on a novel light-sensitive material called AIE-DDPR that is capable of all these varied responses to different wavelengths of light. “It has been a 10-year effort searching for this kind of material,” Gu says. “The difficulty has been how the writing and reading processes affect each other in a given material—in particular, in a three-dimensional geometry.”

The scientists encoded data on layers each separated by 1 micrometer. They found that the writing quality stayed comparable across all the layers. “Personally, I was surprised that nanoscale writing-recoding and reading processes both work well in our newly invented material,” Gu says.

The researchers note that the entire procedure used to create blank discs made using AIE-DDPR films is compatible with conventional DVD mass production and can be completed within 6 minutes. Gu says these new discs may therefore prove to be manufacturable at commercial scales.

Currently, he says, the new discs have a writing speed of about 100 milliseconds and an energy consumption of microjoules to millijoules.

Still, Gu says, the researchers would like to see their new discs used in big data centers. As a result, they’re working to improve their new method’s writing speed and energy consumption. He suggests this may be possible using new, more energy-efficient recording materials. He says more layers in each disc may be possible in the future, using better lenses and fewer aberrations in their optics.

The scientists detailed their findings online 21 February in the journal Nature.

Flop Rock: Inside the Underground Floppy Disk Music Scene

Floppy disks are facing extinction, but musicians are still pumping out DIY music projects.
Alexis Ong

The first computery thing I do in the year 2024 is nudge a 3.5-inch floppy disk into a USB floppy drive that I bought from an online merchant working out of Singapore’s onetime hotbed of ’90s computer piracy. I’m briefly startled by the drive’s low mechanical whirring — a warm, ambient background score that instantly transports me back to my childhood. Some of my first painfully preteen journals were hidden poorly on nondescript floppies just like this one. I click on the disk’s sole file, an MP3 titled “Inability to Perform Social Activities Is Considered Inferior,” and Yasuyuki Uesugi’s growling wall of experimental noise rolls through my apartment like a rogue wave at the beach. The track is one minute, 27 seconds long, and at 1.33MB, it almost hits the diskette’s limit of 1.44MB.

Next up is a split release by two artists — Pregnant Lloyd and Team Phosphenes — then another filled with a mix of short experimental tracks. These small treasures have all come from a floppy-only net label called Floppy Kick, a one-man operation run by Mark Windisch in Debrecen, Hungary. Each disk is numbered as part of a limited run. My copy of “Inability to Perform Social Activities Is Considered Inferior” is the third of five, which makes sense since there’s a finite number of floppies being circulated around the world.

Floppy disk music arguably peaked in the 2010s, but in the 2020s, it’s still going strong; Discogs.com shows a healthy 500-plus floppy releases in the 2020 category, which is more than the documented number of floppy music releases in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s altogether. Perhaps it’s because we’ve moved a little closer to their impending extinction. Or maybe they’re perfect reminders of how violently smashing bytes together on a thin, vulnerable plastic / magnet sandwich is still one of the most punk things you can do as a musician and artist.

More than 10 years ago, Windisch wanted to release his own noise music project, Eoforwine, in an “extreme” format. “I found some sealed packages [of floppy disks] in the attic at our old house, so it seemed like a good idea,” he says. “I was already familiar with Discogs.com, so I made a proper entry for the release, also made a small blog and a Facebook page for the label.” Within a month, a guy from Greece messaged about releasing a floppy demo; soon, Windisch was running Floppy Kick, getting to know other floppy enthusiasts, and swapping releases with other floppy labels. “[I had] first used floppy diskettes (the larger, flexible ones) for my C64 computer when I was young,” he adds, recalling childhood video game swaps as well as his father’s use of floppies to transfer MIDI files from his synths to his laptop. “I just like how limited the format is, and it’s not easy to show something in such a small amount of data.”

For decades, the floppy has been a quiet mainstay in DIY-driven media, especially in lobit subculture, which celebrates low-bitrate music as a form of art and practicality. The added fact that floppies aren’t made for long-term storage also forces their users to confront the transience of art and information in the face of time and decay. In 1993, Billy Idol launched a multimedia floppy disk to accompany Cyberpunk — the first promo of its kind (inspired by a 1991 HyperCard stack) that arguably left more of a mark on pop culture than the album. In 2009, artist and professor Florian Cramer compressed every Oscars Best Film nominee onto a single floppy disk, so that each was represented by an abstract, almost Mark Rothko-like moving image. And floppy music, in its powerfully weird little niche, is still alive and kicking even as the anemic remains of physical media are being miserably, myopically phased out of everyday retail.

There are almost 2,300 floppy releases listed on Discogs.com, most of which are electronic, but other genres include hip-hop, a smattering of classical and jazz, a bunch of metal subgenres, and “non-music” like experimental field recordings from Norway and spoken word from China. In 2018, Rolling Stone covered a “mini-boom” of vaporwave releases on floppies, noting that the lo-fi, lobit nature of vaporwave was an obvious match for the storage constraints of the 3.5-inch. There are net labels like Loser Crew, Pionierska Records, and Strudelsoft devoted to floppy releases, which are snapped up as soon as they launch. Floppies also pop up on broader retro labels like DataDoor, which does Commodore 64 music. Floppy disks are a realm of technical extremities and some of the rarest and most collectible music in the world.

According to Floppy Totaal’s Niek Hilkmann and Thomas Walskaar, Discogs is “the most reliable source” to get a feel for what’s out there. The two started Floppy Totaal as a festival in Rotterdam in 2014, until it morphed into a full-blown research project on obsolete media as cultural phenomena. “We had also cassette events and minidisc events, at one point even mechanical music events with punch cards,” Hilkmann explains on a Zoom call. Around the same time, they came across the then-thriving floppy scene in the Netherlands, mostly through the underground review blog Yeah I Know It Sucks, which inspired them to dig deeper into their project.

“A lot of people have memories of floppy disks, or fascination for them, and so we soon found out that this little piece of plastic basically was the one medium that everybody used [and] had in mind when they think of obsolete or residual media,” adds Hilkmann. Last year, Floppy Totaal published its first book, Floppy Disk Fever: The Curious Afterlives of a Flexible Medium, featuring interviews with the floppy net label Pionierska Records and Tom Persky, who runs floppydisk.com, the only remaining floppy seller / recycler in the business.

One prolific figure who drove Hilkmann and Walskaar’s early induction into floppy music was Kai Nobuko, a critic for Yeah I Know It Sucks who makes music under the names Toxic Chicken and Covolux. Nobuko’s catalog is vast and varied; a trip through his old SoundCloud account conjures a heady specter of ’90s-era Warp Records electronica, rich, horn-laden drum and bass, and earnest lo-fi pop, while his more up-to-date Bandcamp features journeys into psychedelia, improv sampling experiments, and gamelan music.

“I started with making MIDI music files, which are so little that it was easy to store them on floppy disks,” says Nobuko. “This was [my] first time… using floppies. Later I started to use FastTracker to make sample-based music,” he explains, sticking to low sample rates, short samples, and mono / single-channel sound to keep file sizes small. “I had to do quite a lot of experimenting with lobit encoding to be able to make the music sound good (to my ears) and also to optimize the space of the floppy to contain around 10 minutes of music in which the sounds were listenable and distinguishable.” In his mind, it became a sort of sport to make these 10-minute mini-albums, with the added advantage that the data loss inherent in extreme lobit would produce “nice ringing tones.”

Nobuko believes the proliferation of floppy music in Western cultures is linked to strong punk movements with a DIY aesthetic. “Also, the lobit scene seems to be bigger in countries that had bad internet connections, so they would already use lobit encoding to upload or download things online,” he explains. In a similar vein, Hilkmann believes that floppy recordings are an explicitly anti-capitalist niche that exists outside the usual means of publishing music today on Spotify and other streaming services. “A medium, artistically, is only interesting as long as it’s available,” he says. “Now that floppy disks are becoming more and more difficult to get, they’ve become more and more a collector’s item almost, while a few years ago, it was more like almost a trashy medium that you could quickly get your hands on and do fun things with.”

Hilkmann and Walskaar soon realized that the floppy world — at least the one they were able to explore — was mostly Western-oriented, with artists and musicians based in the US, Europe, and occasionally Canada. “With the language barrier, it’s a huge issue,” says Walskaar. “If you cannot search for it, it’s really hard to find.” He informs me that the word for “floppy disk” varies by country, not to mention numerous variable words for different music subcultures and local slang. “The most famous example,” says Hilkmann with a grin, “is that in South Africa, the floppy disk is actually called the stiffy disk, because it isn’t floppy at all.”

On Discogs, though, it’s possible to find some Chinese and Japanese floppy music, which may be the extent to which they are discoverable on the anglophone internet. Sifting through floppy releases, I become acquainted with a powerviolence band from Argentina named after a campy Argentine actor; this 1995 prog rock soundtrack of the adventure puzzle game Milo; and Rob Michalchuk, who runs a floppy-friendly label called Poor Little Music. Poring over the Floppy Kick offerings is tantalizing, too — many of its Bandcamp record pages don’t have embedded playable tracks, which means the only way to hear them is to slam that “buy now” button. Windisch, who traveled to Rotterdam in 2019 to hold a workshop for Floppy Totaal, is still surprised and pleased to meet new customers, especially those who go out of their way to follow the artists he releases as opposed to being drawn to the novelty of the floppies. “Only a handful of floppy release collectors and labels exist in the world, but I can’t say that we all know each other,” he says. Floppy Kick, to this day, is one of the oldest floppy labels still going strong.

What everyone does seem to know is that the floppy is running on borrowed time. Persky, the self-described “last man standing” in the floppy business, supposedly has around half a million floppies in stock but also told Floppy Totaal that he doesn’t really know the exact value of his stock. Walskaar recalls that 10 years ago, floppies were relatively cheap and easy to find and that “people were throwing them at you for free, basically.” Today, it’s a different story. “Now, if you go on eBay or any other version of eBay and try to find floppies actually, price-wise, they’re pretty expensive,” he says. “If you want new old stocks or unused old floppies, like straight from the packet, that’s also getting pricey. Tom Persky confirmed that with us.”

For Walskaar, the floppy disk has become symbolic, particularly since he’s a graphic designer with an eye for visual meaning. “It’s still the icon of saving,” he says. “I don’t think the CD will be the ‘saving icon’ in a digital world. [The floppy] kind of lingers on [as] residual media where it sticks around society in a way.” Hilkmann sees the floppy as a memento mori. “It shows us that nothing is eternal and everything that seems to be very vague or obscure, especially in the digital realm, isn’t that at all and will also eventually move away, change, and is something that we can also change for our own memories and on our own accord,” he says. “I’m looking at it from a more romantic view. But it is also important to do this, I think. When we think about media, we sometimes tend to forget that these are actually physical objects just slowly moving away.”

Cramer, the filmmaker who made the best Oscars films floppy and ruthlessly dissected David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Naked Lunch to fit on a 3.5-inch, once said that the “floppy disk should die,” pointing to their useless, toxic plasticness in a world where it shouldn’t exist. Turning my new Floppy Kick orders over in my hands, I understand the thought behind Cramer’s words but remain torn between waves of sentimentality not just for the place of floppies in history but their presence as a tangible part of my own life.

Nobuko, too, shares my inclination for sentimentality. “I don’t agree with Florian about how floppies should die, even though of course [they] will in the end,” he says. “I think it is nice to be able to hold something in your hand, to collect something that becomes precious to you. I find it great that there is the option to stream music, it lets you listen and discover music that we might not find otherwise.” This, he says, is significant in a period where internet platforms and music sites have proven to be unreliable, unstable, or unethical about artist payments. Even so, the floppy must be protected; throughout his email to me, he also shows concern for the delicate nature of floppies and the ever-present threat of magnets — the enemy of any self-respecting floppy collector.

In Nobuko’s eyes, they’re a sort of mysterious treasure, cloaked in offline exclusivity and very real scarcity. “To me, the floppy represents a couple of things,” he says. “Nostalgia, but also a punk ethos. It feels highly personal. The floppy, as fragile as it is, has to be handled carefully. The label or musician has put a lot of thoughts in it. And I do think that they are adorable.”

Tax-Free Status of Movie, Music and Games Traded Online is On Table as WTO Nations Meet in Abu Dhabi
Jamey Keaten

Since late last century and the early days of the web, providers of digital media like Netflix and Spotify have had a free pass when it comes to international taxes on films, video games and music that are shipped across borders through the internet.

But now, a global consensus on the issue may be starting to crack.

As the World Trade Organization opens its latest biannual meeting of government ministers Monday, its longtime moratorium on duties on e-commerce products — which has been renewed almost automatically since 1998 — is coming under pressure as never before.

This week in Abu Dhabi, the WTO’s 164 member countries will take up a number of key issues: Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Reforms to make agricultural markets fairer and more eco-friendly. And efforts to revive the Geneva-based trade body’s system of resolving disputes among countries.

All of those are tall orders, but the moratorium on e-commerce duties is perhaps the matter most in play. It centers on “electronic transmissions” — music, movies, video games and the like — more than on physical goods. But the rulebook isn’t clear on the entire array of products affected.

“This is so important to millions of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “Some members believe that this should be extended and made permanent. Others believe ... there are reasons why it should not.”

“That’s why there’s been a debate and hopefully — because it touches on lives of many people — we hope that ministers would be able to make the appropriate decision,” she told reporters recently.

Under WTO’s rules, major decisions require consensus. The e-commerce moratorium can’t just sail through automatically. Countries must actively vote in favor for the extension to take effect.

Four proposals are on the table: Two would extend the suspension of duties. Two — separately presented by South Africa and India, two countries that have been pushing their interests hard at the WTO — would not.

Proponents say the moratorium benefits consumers by helping keep costs down and promotes the wider rollout of digital services in countries both rich and poor.

Critics say it deprives debt-burdened governments in developing countries of tax revenue, though there’s debate over just how much state coffers would stand to gain.

The WTO itself says that on average, the potential loss would be less than one-third of 1% of total government revenue.

The stakes are high. A WTO report published in December said the value of “digitally delivered services” exports grew by more than 8% from 2005 to 2022 — higher than goods exports (5.6%) and other-services exports (4.2%).

Growth has been uneven, though. Most developing countries don’t have digital networks as extensive as those in the rich world. Those countries see less need to extend the moratorium — and might reap needed tax revenue if it ends.

South Africa’s proposal, which seeks to end the moratorium, calls for the creation of a fund to receive voluntary contributions to bridge the “digital divide.” It also wants to require “leading platforms” to boost the promotion of “historically disadvantaged” small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Industry, at least in the United States, is pushing hard to extend the moratorium. In a Feb. 13 letter to Biden administration officials, nearly two dozen industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Entertainment Software Association — a video-game industry group — urged the United States to give its “full support” to a renewal.

“Accepting anything short of a multilateral extension of the moratorium that applies to all WTO members would open the door to the introduction of new customs duties and related cross-border restrictions that would hurt U.S. workers in industries across the entire economy,” the letter said.

A collapse would deal a “major blow to the credibility and durability” of the WTO and would mark the first time that its members “changed the rules to make it substantially harder to conduct trade,” wrote the groups, which said their members include companies that combined employ over 100 million workers.

Streaming to Overtake Pay TV Subscription Revenue in the U.S. This Year

Total streaming revenue will hit $17.3 billion, topping $16.7 billion from pay TV, in the third-quarter of 2024, predicts research firm Ampere Analysis.
Georg Szalai

Streaming revenue will overtake pay TV subscription revenue in the U.S. for the first time later in 2024, helped by the addition of ad tiers by various streamers, according to a new forecast.

Total revenues from streaming, including subscription and advertising revenue, will start topping revenue from pay TV subscriptions in the third quarter of 2024, research company Ampere Analysis projects in a new study unveiled on Monday. “Streaming will continue to race ahead as traditional pay TV declines – with the value of pay TV in 2028 expected to fall to half the value it saw at its peak in 2017,” it predicts.

Streaming subscribers overtook pay TV subs in the U.S. in 2016, but “streaming’s lower average revenue per user (ARPU), which currently sits at around a tenth that of pay TV, means that revenue is only now catching up,” Ampere explained.

U.S. pay TV revenue will still be narrowly ahead of streaming revenue in the second quarter at $17.1 billion to $17 billion, followed by a $17.3 billion to $16.7 billion streaming lead in the third quarter, according to the research firm’s projections.

The ad tiers that streamers have added, from Netflix and Amazon Prime to Disney+ and the streaming services of other Hollywood giants, are one driving force of revenue. Streaming advertising revenue will pass the $9 billion mark in the U.S. this year, the Ampere study forecasts. “The introduction of cheaper ad tiers has been successful not only in increasing new subscriber growth in previously saturated markets, but also in acting as an additional revenue source for streaming services,” the firm explained. Revenue will be further “bolstered” by Amazon Prime Video’s new advertising tier launched this quarter, it highlighted.

“Most major streaming services in the U.S. have launched their hybrid advertising tiers, which, along with increasing clampdowns on password sharing, have been successful at reigniting growth in the streaming market,” said Rory Gooderick, senior analyst at Ampere.

Goodrick added, “There is still a way forward for pay TV, however. Disney and Charter’s recent deal in the U.S., which gave almost 15 million Charter subscribers access to Disney+’s advertising tier, shows how the two businesses can work together to maximize streaming’s reach to domestic subscribers and highlights the importance of traditional distribution platforms as service aggregators. Longer-term contracts and the reduction in churn make this an attractive proposition for streamers, while control over the billing relationship also means there’s something in it for the pay-TV provider.”

How Bad Can It Get for Hollywood?
Mark Harris

The Academy Awards ceremony, which this year will take place on March 10, traditionally provides a reliable moment of optimism for a perennially anxious industry. The Oscars are the climax of an awards season that’s a prolonged exercise in collective congratulation, and in early March the rest of the year still looks bright. The Sundance Film Festival and its attendant bidding wars have wrapped up, offering nothing but promise and excitement. At the box office, the biggest bets of the year have typically not yet opened and thus have not yet bombed. Every unreleased movie on the schedule might yet be a great one. Every year feels as if it just might be the biggest year ever.

But not this year.

For Hollywood, 2023 was not so much a disaster as a preview of disasters to come. Sure, one of the big stories last year was the Barbenheimer phenomenon — two celebrated hits that marched arm in arm toward a combined 21 Oscar nominations — but everywhere else you look, the prognosis is grim.

The industry, still staggering back from the pandemic shutdowns, was hit with twin strikes that brought production to a halt for six months. Writers, actors and virtually the rest of Hollywood’s work force were united in animus against the studio bosses, who, in their refusal to cut necessary deals, blithely cast themselves in the roles of supervillains. That fury persists: Each new headline about the huge compensation package for Robert Iger, Disney’s chief executive, or decisions by David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, to shelve entire projects for tax write-offs undergirds a prevailing narrative that the people who finance the movies are becoming the enemies of the people who make them.

All this is happening as the industry seems to be realizing in unison that streaming services — those wondrous platforms that were going to carry the town into the future like magic carpets — maybe aren’t a panacea after all. And hanging over all this anger and anxiety is the menace of artificial intelligence, which threatens every human part of the creative food chain, from the writers who pen scripts to the actors whose faces fill the screens to, theoretically, the studio executives whose job is piloting hits.

Twenty twenty-three was a year of downsizing, diminishment, shelving, sidelining, retrenching, retreating and bet hedging. And 2024 is the year of consequences. The plain fact is that, thanks to the strikes, there simply aren’t enough movies and new shows in the pipeline to give the business the boom year it badly needs. (This weekend’s big opening, “Dune: Part Two,” was delayed from its original 2023 premiere date because of the strikes’ disruption.) For Hollywood, it will take at least a full year for the supply lines to start flowing at capacity again — and there are fewer supply lines than there used to be. Only five of the legacy movie companies still operate as traditional studios and one of those, Paramount, is up for sale.

As for new projects, the industry’s current whispered motto seems to be: Just survive till ’25. Writers and producers pitching projects are being warned to keep expectations at basement level: Nobody’s buying, everybody’s cutting costs, caution rules, and the boom times are over. To quote Tony Soprano — the main character in a hit show back when a golden age seemed to be dawning, not dimming — things are trending downward. He had no idea how prescient he was.

If “Hollywood” were a big summer movie, we’d be right at the end of Act II, at the always-darkest-before-the-dawn moment in the story, when all seems lost. Or, as one agent put it to me, “A lot of us are feeling like we’re working in the aftermath of an industry, not in an industry.” But as any fan of Hollywood screenplays knows, this is also when the beaten-down heroes look at the redrawn battlefield, assess the new, heightened stakes, regroup and eventually triumph. The movie business, since at least the 1940s, has always defined itself by perceived threats to its survival — charges of Communist influence, the advent of television and the rise of the VCR, cable or streaming — and it’s always found a way to rebound.

In the mid-1960s, when studio culture was besieged and foundering and nobody who ran Hollywood could understand why the old ways were no longer working, “it wasn’t just that we were sick of the system,” the director Arthur Penn once told me. “The system was sick of itself.” But that malaise, dejection and uncertainty led to a major upheaval — and a decade of churning creative excitement. The New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s happened because a bunch of great young filmmakers made a bunch of great new movies (“Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” and “The Godfather” and “Jaws”) that turned out to be huge hits. But it’s worth noting that the people in charge at the time considered most of those movies exceptions, oddities and anomalies. The industry didn’t realize that the world beneath its feet was changing.

That’s where the movie business is right now: The system, it seems, is once again sick of itself. The industry has, for the past four years, been wondering when it can get back to normal, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that there may be no such thing. There is only forward to something new. The industry is about to find out what that might look like.

In the ashes of last year, an outline of this new normal started to emerge. It’s a landscape that consists not of just big studios (this isn’t the 1950s) or big studios competing with upstart indies that steal their awards (this isn’t the 1990s) but of a mix of new and old models: studios; indies; streamers like Apple, Amazon and Netflix; and the kind of out-of-nowhere hits, faith-based movies and red-state phenomena like “Sound of Freedom” that keep taking people on the coasts by surprise.

It’s also a landscape that, like so many these days, involves Taylor Swift. In 2023 “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” bypassed traditional distributors, went straight to theaters and outgrossed all but 10 of last year’s biggest movies domestically. If theaters are going to survive, this kind of communal event — the “you have to be there with 20 friends” movie/dance party — is probably going to be integral to their future. One acknowledgment of the Swift effect came when the streaming rights to “The Eras Tour” went to Disney for reportedly more than $75 million. Hollywood finally stepped up with a tried-and-true old-school principle: If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em (even if it’s a very expensive meal).

If the defining piece of good news for the studios in 2023 was Barbenheimer, the industry seems unwilling to learn from its success. Barbenheimer suggested that audiences might get excited when two huge, very different films open on the same day — but studios, which used to compete head-to-head almost every weekend, now try desperately to avoid those scheduling clashes. Astonishingly, several weekends in 2024, as of now, have not even one big new movie, let alone two, set to open. That’s a mistake. Studios need to chase this kind of collision, and Barbenheimer was a useful reminder that old-world studios (Universal released “Oppenheimer,” and Warner Bros. released “Barbie”) are among the few entities with the sheer marketing muscle to stoke a bona fide worldwide event.

Twenty twenty-three provided two blockbusters that are going head-to-head for best picture, a Hollywood studio dream come true. But that can’t erase the fact that superhero movies, the industry’s cash cow for the past dozen years, showed ominous signs of collapse. All four of Warner’s DC movies underperformed, including “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” “The Flash” and “Blue Beetle.” Disney’s “The Marvels” — a sequel to “Captain Marvel,” which grossed $427 million — earned a woeful $85 million. It seems unkind even to mention Sony’s disastrous attempt at building out a “Spider-Man” extended universe with “Madame Web.”

Superhero movies aren’t done — Disney and Warner Bros. have locked in multiyear, multimovie plans, and “Deadpool & Wolverine” is likely to be a hit this summer — but what had been a bulletproof business plan is in tatters. The days when audiences would faithfully trot out for every interconnected chapter of a cinematic-universe saga are over. That’s no longer entertainment. That’s homework.

If there’s a silver lining, perhaps it can be found in an earlier superhero film, one that premiered amid great doubts about the industry 35 years ago. In the summer of 1989, prestige Hollywood moviemaking was in a rut, and anxious executives fretted that maybe young people just wanted to stay home and watch MTV, much in the way they now worry that youth are addicted to bite-size TikToks. But in 1989 the success of the director Tim Burton’s “Batman” and the unexpected breakout hits “The Little Mermaid,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and “Do the Right Thing” opened up new vistas of possibility. Three genres that had been written off as marginal — comic book movies, animation and indies — became gold mines. Hollywood may not yet know what’s going to replace superhero films as the next reliable blockbuster category, but this current crisis at least provides an incentive to start chasing a reset.

A reset, however, requires creative energy and imagination, and that’s a part of the movie industry that legacy studios have spent much of the modern era trying to eliminate. Studios have moved into an age of brand stewardship and out of the business of generating ideas and developing scripts. They’ve redefined their business as curation rather than discovery. That has to change, too. This isn’t a high-minded plea for the industry to become something it’s never been; instead it’s a pitch for the studios (and now streamers) to reconnect with the enterprising, flexible, relatively quick-to-pivot business model under which they operated successfully for a vast majority of their existence.

Hollywood has a long history of toggling between spurts of irrational exuberance and deep valleys of clinical depression. Before the perils of streaming and A.I., the existential threat in the aughts came from peak TV, that siren luring away A-list talent and audience eyeballs. But not everything that looks like an industry killer turns out to be one. The e-book did not end books or bookstores. And streaming, a business that, for all its flaws, gives more people more access to more films, will not kill movies or moviegoing. It’s possible that the bungled decisions that led to two prolonged strikes — the most vigorous recent attempt by studio heads to shoot themselves in the foot — created one unanticipated benefit, a green shoot of improbable hope: a serious delay in the completion of giant franchise movies. Given their recent disappointing box office numbers, a few of those decades-old franchises, like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Mission: Impossible,” may have finally reached retirement age.

In light of this blockbuster shortage — and out of sheer panicked supply chain necessity — Hollywood is looking at and buying and even making plans to produce a bunch of scripts that can get off the ground fast and be cast, shot and edited reasonably quickly. They’re the kinds of films that don’t require a $250 million budget and a year of complicated postproduction work. They’re films like “Hamnet,” directed by the Oscar winner Chlo Zhao (whose last film was an underperforming Marvel movie, “Eternals”) and “Novocaine,” a thriller acquired by Paramount starring Jack Quaid. Even Tom Cruise, who hasn’t starred in a nonfranchise movie since 2017, is teaming with the Oscar-winning director Alejandro Irritu. These are self-contained films that don’t demand moviegoers have a Ph.D. in previous installments or extended universes.

They’re the kinds of films you might sometimes wish Hollywood made more of. Maybe you remember them. They’re what used to be called movies.

Sure, It Won an Oscar. But Is It Criterion?

How the Criterion Collection became the film world’s arbiter of taste.
Joshua Hunt

In October 2022, amid a flurry of media appearances promoting their film “Tr,” the director Todd Field and the star Cate Blanchett made time to visit a cramped closet in Manhattan. This closet, which has become a sacred space for movie buffs, was once a disused bathroom at the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, a 40-year-old company dedicated to “gathering the greatest films from around the world” and making high-quality editions available to the public on DVD and Blu-ray and, more recently, through its streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Today Criterion uses the closet as its stockroom, housing films by some 600 directors from more than 50 countries — a catalog so synonymous with cinematic achievement that it has come to function as a kind of film Hall of Fame. Over four decades, through a combination of luck, obsession and good taste, this 55-person company has become the arbiter of what makes a great movie, more so than any Hollywood studio or awards ceremony.

For more than a decade, the “Criterion closet” has also served as the backdrop for a popular online video series in which actors and filmmakers — Nathan Lane, Aubrey Plaza and Ethan Hawke among them — pick out their favorite Criterion titles to take home. Like other celebrity guests in the “closet picks” series, Field and Blanchett plucked their selections from the neatly ordered shelves and used them as conduits for spontaneous bursts of evangelism. Field praised Raymond Bernard’s “Wooden Crosses” as “one of the greatest war movies ever made,” while Blanchett singled out Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent” as something that “has to be owned by every single human in the world.” Neither bothered to mention “Tr,” the film they were otherwise working so hard to promote; inside the closet, even the biggest stars are reduced to a state of childlike fandom. “There’s no cynicism in the closet,” Field told me. “It’s all love. It’s all about why people do what they do and how powerful movies are for us.”

Each year, Criterion selects 50 or 60 new entrants to add to its catalog, which now includes 1,650 films. Some Hollywood directors campaign relentlessly for their films — or their favorite films from the past — to make the list. For legions of film fans, Criterion is akin to the Louvre, but with “an aura of hip,” the writer and director Josh Safdie told me in an email. When Safdie’s film “Uncut Gems,” which he directed with his brother, Benny, entered the Criterion Collection with the spine No. 1101, he said they couldn’t help feeling as if they had “snuck in” to the museum that they had admired for so long. “Being a part of the collection is something that we’re both incredibly proud of,” Safdie told me. “It may sound corny but it was more meaningful than awards.”

Criterion’s commitment to film and filmmakers has helped the company, which began in the 1980s by releasing films on VHS and LaserDisc — a precursor to DVDs with the comparatively enormous diameter of 12 inches — to stay relevant and profitable through a series of tech revolutions that have upended the industry. While studios and streaming services chase audiences by producing endless sequels and spinoffs, trying to wring fresh content from old ideas, Criterion has built a brand that audiences trust to lead them — even to the most obscure corners of the film universe. Criterion’s success in marketing beautiful, strange, complex movies is the road not taken by most of Hollywood: a steadfast belief in the value of human creativity and curation over the output of any algorithm.

One day in the spring of 1992, a year after taking over as director of Criterion, Michael Nash was sitting in his beachfront office in Santa Monica when he got an unexpected phone call. Like many people who work for years in Hollywood, Nash has a tendency to describe events as if he were reading lines from a screenplay. “You’re sitting in the office, and on the desk there’s the old-style intercom,” he told me. “The operator takes an incoming call, and then it’s like: ‘Michael Nash, David Bowie on Line 4.’”

Bowie was calling about Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which Bowie starred as an alien visitor who masquerades as human and succumbs to the human condition. Nash remembered seeing the movie years earlier and finding it “amazing” but difficult to understand. “I was totally confused,” he said. The reason audiences couldn’t make sense of it, Bowie explained, was that the theatrical release for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” was missing 18 minutes of film that was cut by the distributor. “It got butchered,” Nash told me. Years later, its star was hoping that Criterion might consider releasing Roeg’s original cut of the film on LaserDisc.

Criterion was founded nearly a decade earlier by the CD-ROM pioneer Bob Stein, along with his wife, Aleen Stein, and a former Warner Brothers executive named Roger Smith, to explore the technological possibilities of the LaserDisc, then a novel format that could accommodate multiple audio tracks and allowed viewers to stop on any frame of a film with no image distortion. Criterion would track down the original negative or best-surviving preprint version, then hire technicians to scan the film, remove blemishes when possible and correct colors that may have faded or turned pink over time. “The vision,” says Rebekah Audic, who worked as head of design at Criterion from 1991 to 1994, “was getting people access to all these great films.”

Before the emergence of the home-video market in the late 1970s, Hollywood studios had little use for films whose theatrical runs had concluded. They ceased to be commodities and were often destroyed or transferred to public archives where they remained vulnerable to fire, deterioration and discoloration; nonprofits led the nascent movement to preserve and restore motion pictures until Criterion helped create a market for them. The company’s first release was a LaserDisc edition of “Citizen Kane” that included supplementary materials like a video essay and extensive liner notes on the provenance of the negative from which the restoration was made. Next came “King Kong,” which featured the first ever audio-commentary track, inspired, as an afterthought, by the stories that the film scholar Ronald Haver told while supervising the tedious process of transferring the film from celluloid. The novelty of the LaserDisc meant licensing fees cost virtually nothing compared with the dominant VHS tape format. Acquiring the rights to “Citizen Kane” and “King Kong” from RKO Pictures cost Criterion around $10,000.

Securing the best surviving print of a film often required assiduous detective work. “The original negative for ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was lost,” says Morgan Holly, who served as an in-house producer for the Criterion LaserDisc of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire. “There was one print that was struck from the original negative that was somewhere in the world.” One of Criterion’s editors, Maria Palazzola, tracked it down only to learn that on its journey to the United States, it took a detour through Japan, where strict anti-pornography laws prompted customs officials to order a test screening that would almost certainly have degraded or destroyed Kubrick’s sole personal print of the film. “It was this battle,” Holly told me, but in the end, they persuaded the Japanese authorities to send the print on its way unscreened and unscathed.

Criterion sought to restore films not only to pristine condition but also with the intent of the filmmaker in mind. The company popularized the practice of letterboxing, or presenting a film in its original aspect ratio by adding black bars at the top and bottom of the screen rather than cropping the image to fit a standard television display. Director’s commentary tracks were another Criterion innovation. Some of the earliest were recorded by Martin Scorsese for the “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” LaserDiscs, which helped cement his influence on an entire generation of young directors. “I knew from Scorsese, from those commentaries, sometimes, how they were accomplishing those shots,” the filmmaker Wes Anderson told me. “And I think I got a sense of his approach with actors of trying to get a sort of documentary feeling to certain aspects of those movies.”

Criterion’s respect for creators was what caught Bowie’s attention. On the phone with Nash, he offered to record an audio commentary for the Criterion edition of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which was released on LaserDisc in March 1993 and quickly became a cult classic. “The thing about ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and so many of the other projects is you’ve got films whose greatness was squelched somewhat by the process of taking them to market, where the people who had the projects didn’t understand them and would recut them for commercial release,” Nash told me. His priority was to help make Criterion “an enterprise that would restore the director’s vision and get the film right for posterity.”

When Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic “Brazil” entered the collection as a “special edition” box set, in 1996, the director told me that he seized the opportunity to invite viewers to take sides on his well-publicized feud with the head of Universal Pictures, Sidney Sheinberg. “They had cut almost all the fantasy sequences out,” Gilliam said. “They were making a different film. They were making Sid’s film,” which was ultimately missing 20 minutes of footage. Gilliam told me he insisted that Criterion include both his own cut and Sheinberg’s version in its release “so people could decide for themselves: Was I the idiot? Or was the studio?”

Always in awe of auteurs but never in their thrall, Criterion producers have never been afraid to look beyond the biggest and most marketable names. When Criterion released “Peeping Tom,” a ’60s psychosexual thriller by the English director Michael Powell, the company chose not to ask Scorcese to record the audio commentary, though he would have been the obvious candidate, having done them for other Criterion editions of Powell films. The job instead went to a feminist scholar, Laura Mulvey, the author of the influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which brought forward the concept of “the male gaze.” Over the years, such decisions added up to an editorial voice that became influential, even authoritative, transforming a mere distributor of films into a creator of film culture.

As time passed and its catalog grew, so, too, did a sense among Criterion leaders that the collection could become more than a mere archive — that it should have something to say about contemporary cinema, too. During his brief stint at the helm of the company, Nash focused on acquiring newer movies that he found both “commercially interesting and culturally important,” like “Short Cuts,” by Robert Altman, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s dystopian anime masterpiece “Akira.” He also made Criterion an early proponent of the new wave of African American cinema by releasing LaserDisc editions of films by young directors like John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) and the Hughes brothers (“Menace II Society”). The year after Nash left the company, it released a LaserDisc for “Do the Right Thing,” the first of three Spike Lee films to join the collection.

Criterion’s staff was fewer than 50 employees, each with different interests and tastes, and they were soon forced to confront a question that film buffs argue about to this day: What makes a film worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection? In 1989, the company’s most controversial choice was “Ghostbusters,” a comedy starring Bill Murray that grossed more than $200 million at the box office. “It was important, but in a different way than the other films in the collection were — you know, the Bergman films and the Kurosawa films,” Holly told me. “It was an important film because a lot of people watched it.” Some of Holly’s colleagues nevertheless disagreed vehemently with the decision. “There was one producer, I won’t name his name, but he wrote this 10-page internal memo about why we should not do ‘Ghostbusters,’” he told me.

That was one of many attempts Criterion made to curb its stuffy image, among them “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” by Michael Bay. “Those are frequently cited as outliers in the collection,” a former Criterion producer, Issa Clubb, told me. And yet, he said, they serve as examples of what was once “a very important genre” of Hollywood blockbusters built around big budgets and big movie stars, which has been supplanted by franchise properties — a shift Bay played a prominent role in as the director of the first five films in the “Transformers” franchise.

In September, when I called Michael Bay at his home in Miami, he seemed blissfully unaware that many cinephiles don’t think his films belong in the collection. He was also unaware of Criterion’s continued existence, but told me quite earnestly how “cool” it was that they were still around. His enthusiasm for its LaserDiscs was palpable as he described washing cars for the cash to buy them, just as he did to afford the best stereo equipment. “I just remember it being the pinnacle,” Bay said of the brand. Bay also gamely entertained my questions about the most infamous feature of Criterion’s commentary track for “Armageddon,” in which the movie’s star, Ben Affleck, mentions an on-set spat with Bay over the plot: Why, Affleck wondered, would it be easier to prepare oil-rig workers for outer-space travel than to train NASA astronauts how to drill into and then destroy an asteroid on a collision course with earth? “I told him to shut the [expletive] up,” Bay said. “Ben has a wry personality, so you just have to come back at him with that same type of personality.”

In the late ’90s, as Criterion shifted to DVD, the company had a tried-and-true template but also a desire to keep growing. They started to “push the boundaries,” Peter Becker, Criterion’s president, told me. They released films like a collection of music videos by the Beastie Boys and the experimental films of Stan Brakhage. The brand’s cultural cachet had grown to such an extent that being selected for inclusion in the collection could boost a young filmmaker’s sales as well as reputation. Kelly Reichardt, whose films “Certain Women” and “Old Joy” did not enter the collection until much later, explained that, at the time, the Criterion imprimatur meant getting the equivalent of dedicated shelf space in video stores alongside big-name male directors. “Back in the video-store days, it was really hard to get a shelf if you were a woman,” Reichardt told me. “They have all the dudes” stocked by director, with their entire catalog in one place, “and my stuff would be all spread throughout the store.”

Over time, Becker told me, there was a creeping awareness that “little by little, somewhat accidentally, we had supported and propped up a canon that was largely white and male.” In August 2020, after The New York Times published the article “How the Criterion Collection Crops Out African-American Directors,” Becker took responsibility for what he called his “blind spots.” Subsequently, and in response to the murder of George Floyd, he said, the company set out to correct course. Since then it has released additional films by Steve McQueen and Ousmane Sembne and added, among others, Marlon Riggs and Cheryl Dunye, whose 1996 romantic comedy “The Watermelon Woman” is a landmark of the ’90s indie renaissance and of queer Black cinema. It’s a film that is “so genuine and connects with audiences so beautifully,” Becker told me. Adding it to the collection was “a no-brainer once the rights became available.” Dunye told me that she was proud of its inclusion and happy to have made something that “enriches the global storytelling that Criterion represents.”

Securing the rights to films remains a defining factor in determining what ends up in the collection. Licensing often starts with a wish list submitted to various Hollywood studios. What goes on that list is often a result of conversations and meetings among technical staff, producers and editors and, of course, Becker and the chief executive of Criterion, Jonathan Turell. “I’ve seen more movies than a lot of my friends,” Becker said. “I certainly haven’t seen more movies than all of my colleagues put together.” Occasionally, high-powered interlopers have their say by lobbying Becker. “For a few years, I kept asking him about this film by Dino Risi, ‘Il Sorpasso,’” says Jim Jarmusch, director of “Down by Law,” “Ghost Dog” and other Criterion titles. “and he says, ‘Damn it, Jim, it’s you and Marty Scorsese, you guys are calling me every month or so about this damn film.’” Becker didn’t remember those calls — he said Antonio Monda, an Italian writer and filmmaker, was its major champion — but one way or another “Il Sorpasso” entered the collection in 2014.

Criterion has shaped generations of filmmakers who grew up under its influence. Josh Safdie told me that he watched countless Criterion releases in high school, starting with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and Fritz Lang’s “M.” He got his first glimpse of the directing process from a behind-the-scenes documentary included with the Criterion DVD for Wes Anderson’s film “Rushmore.” Among the supplementary features for the Criterion DVD of Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” he recalled seeing his first glimpse of an actor’s audition tape. “Back then, you were lucky to get a theatrical trailer as an extra on a DVD,” he said. “Getting a look into Truffaut’s process was really special, which in turn made the disc a really special object.”

The extra touches that made them special objects also meant they were more expensive than standard DVD releases, so Safdie and his brother Benny would make illicit copies of the Criterion discs they rented by mail through Netflix. “Benny would make his own Criterion DVD inserts,” Safdie said. He would do this by mimicking the unifying aesthetic features of each Criterion DVD: a catalog number on the spine designating its place in the collection and drawn across the top of its cover a thin line, above which distinctive text with extra wide kerning spelled out “The Criterion Collection.” ’

Criterion’s distinctive visual language began to emerge in the early ’90s when Audic, the former head of design, started building up its art staff with an aim “to really show the power of these films through the cover designs,” she told me. To do that it was sometimes necessary to go through every frame of film in search of the perfect image. Other times, images alone were not enough. “For the cover of ‘RoboCop,’ we had an actual aluminum-cast letterpress plate made and then photographed the plate with a 4-by-5 camera,” Audic says. It took days, she told me, but “using a physical piece of metal gave it a feeling of aesthetic truth.”

When Wes Anderson started working with Criterion on DVD releases of his films, the cover designers incorporated illustrations that his brother Eric Chase Anderson had made as part of the preproduction process. Anderson, who asked that verbal tics like “uh” and “um” not be excised from his quotes, told me that he had always admired how Criterion covers tended to be “more adventurous than, uh, what a movie studio would be inclined to go with.” The work being done by its art department, he said, was on par creatively with the famously impressionistic movie-poster designers of Soviet-era Poland. “They invent their own, uh, their own posters,” he said. “Their own imagery to go with the movie.”

Anderson was equally eager to work with specialists like the mastering supervisor Lee Kline, who inherited from his mentor Maria Palazzola a rigorous approach to editing that begins with preserving the intent of the filmmaker rather than the results they achieved; if some technical limitation had made the film look a certain way, Kline might try, within reason, to help them get closer to their vision than they had the first time around. Across three decades at the company, Kline told me, his actual duties on any given project have varied wildly depending on the filmmaker and the source material. Michael Mann, for example, wants the digital copies of his films to be faithful to the 35-millimeter print; John Waters makes the most of Kline’s ability to improve the look of films that were originally shot for very little money. “He’s a guy who wants to make the movies look as good as they can, and everyone always thinks he would probably want to make them look as bad as they can,” Kline said of the “Pink Flamingos” director. “It’s just the opposite. He wants them to look like Bergman films.”

Kline sometimes works for years on a restoration project, as in the case of Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” “Aparajito” and “Apur Sansar,” three films from the second half of the 1950s that are collectively known as the Apu Trilogy. The late Indian filmmaker was beloved by other great masters of cinema — Scorsese saw “Pather Panchali” as a young boy, and Kurosawa once compared never seeing a Ray film to never having seen the sun or the moon — but he was not very well known even among cinephiles. Changing that through the release of a Criterion box set required the restoration of sections of the films from the trilogy that had been badly damaged in a fire by the time Kline started working on them. Kline repaired what he could, found other sources to replace what he couldn’t and digitally married them in such a way that they matched. The undertaking was a source of great pressure, he told me. “You feel the cinematic weight of the world on your shoulders when you’re dealing with those classics,” he said. One wrong move and the print might be damaged irreparably, another great film lost to history.

In 2019, after the sudden demise of its popular streaming partnership with TCM, called FilmStruck, Criterion started its stand-alone subscription-based streaming service, which features a broader range of films than just those in the collection. Getting the Criterion Channel off the ground was “hugely energizing,” Jason Altman, a producer at Criterion, said, “because it was ours, we weren’t partnering with anybody.” The abrupt shuttering of FilmStruck was the work of Warner Brothers bosses, several Criterion staff members told me, and there was a sense of relief to be free of such relationships. “It was a tremendous opportunity, I think, from an aesthetic standpoint, a content standpoint, for Criterion to have our own space and our own place in this kind of new streaming world,” Altman said.

Criterion made a conscious decision, Becker told me, to use the architecture of streaming technology differently from the way others have. Instead of an algorithm, viewers are guided to what they might want to watch through careful human curation: video essays, interviews with filmmakers and programming blocks resembling those once common at independent movie theaters throughout America — some as straightforward as retrospectives celebrating specific filmmakers, others as niche as collections dedicated to obscure genres like “gaslight noir” and “gothic noir,” between which, Becker assures me, there is a difference. “They’re not algorithmic by nature,” Becker said of the major streaming services. “They’re algorithmic by intention.”

The workload associated with keeping the service going, however, can be immense. The strain was particularly acute after Criterion laid off 20 percent of its staff near the end of 2022 — a “reorganization,” as Becker called it, from which many staff members have since been brought back to the company as its financial situation improved. Altman, who was among those temporarily laid off and brought back on a freelance basis, nevertheless felt that doing things the hard way was still the correct path forward for the Criterion Channel, just as it had been for the brand’s LaserDiscs and DVDs. “You know all those streaming channels, it’s all the ‘content war,’ right?” Altman said. “I mean, it’s like, Who has the most content? It’s not necessarily the best content. That’s the challenge for Criterion.”

The benefit of this curation, Kelly Reichardt told me, was that “you don’t feel like you’ve entered a mall and you’re going to exhaust yourself.” With some other streaming services, she told me, she often gives up before settling on anything to watch. When we spoke, she was preparing for a talk she was invited to give in Tokyo on what would have been the director Yasujiro Ozu’s 120th birthday, by watching as many of the 40 or so films of his that are available on the Criterion Channel. For weeks afterward, I did the same, often stopping between daylong Ozu matinees to reflect on what Todd Field had called “the messiness of our own narrative,” which is to say the process by which friends, lovers and strangers guide us toward movies that end up changing our lives. Field told me a story about waiting tables at a Manhattan restaurant in 1984 and being “shoved” across the street to see a film festival at Lincoln Center; he saw films by Victor Nuez, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and Wim Wenders, he said, “but that’s just because somebody pushed me across the street.” For Field, that’s what Criterion represents: not an “algorithm saying ‘this will turn you on,’” but the gift of being shoved toward great cinema.

TVs Aren’t Meant to Be This Good

4K resolution is a sham.
Ian Bogost

Last fall, when Netflix hiked the cost of its top-tier Ultra HD plan by 15 percent, I had finally had enough: $22.99 a month just felt like too much for the ability to see Jaws in 4K video resolution. A couple of weeks later, I heard that Max was pushing up the fee of its own 4K streaming by 25 percent. Now I wasn’t just annoyed, but confused. Super-high-res televisions are firmly ensconced as the next standard for home viewing of TV and movies. And yet, super-high-res content seems to be receding ever further into a specialty consumer niche. What happened?

4K certainly is ubiquitous; you won’t find many sets with lower resolution for sale at Best Buy. In practice, though, the technology is rarely used. Cable signals are generally mere HD, as are the standard plans on most streaming services. And the fancy new displays, as they’re placed and viewed in people’s homes, may never end up looking any sharper than the old ones, no matter what Netflix plan you have. In short, the ultra-high-definition future for TV has turned out to be a lie.

A relentless narrative of progress brought us to this point, but it did not begin in 2012, when the first 4K televisions were brought to market at roughly the price of a Honda Accord. Rather it extends back into the early days of TV, with the idea that picture quality can and always will be improved: first with the introduction of color sets, then with bigger screens, then with added pixels. But sometimes progress ends. The peak of television-picture quality, as actually seen by TV viewers, was reached 15 years ago, and we’ve been coasting ever since. Forget the cable signals and the streaming plans. Most people just can’t sit close enough to today’s televisions to make full use of their picture.

Years ago, sitting too close was the problem. If you’re old enough to remember watching cathode-ray-tube sets, you may have been enjoined to give them space: Move back from the TV! The reasons were many. Cold War–addled viewers had developed the (somewhat justified) fear that televisions emitted radiation, for one. And the TV—still known as the “boob tube” because it might turn its viewers into idiots—was considered a dangerous lure. Its resolution was another problem: If you got close enough to the tube, you could see the color image break down into the red, blue, and green phosphor dots that composed its picture.

All of these factors helped affirm the TV’s appropriate positioning—best viewed at a middle distance—and thus its proper role within the home. A television was to be seen from across the room, and it could be used as much for ambience as for focused viewing. A soap opera or a news program or a cartoon might be on while people in the house read newspapers, balanced checkbooks, cooked meals, or vacuumed—the second-screen activities of the age before second screens. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously described television as a “cool” medium, one that provides somewhat meager sensory stimulation, as opposed to a “hot” medium such as cinema, which intensely targets the eyes and ears.

The advent of high-definition TVs, with more than quadruple the resolution of what came before, changed all that. By 2008, when this Great Upgrade was fully under way, the nature of the medium itself appeared to have been altered. Now you could see the detail in people’s faces for the first time—maybe even too much detail. And higher picture resolution, when combined with another new technology—flat displays—allowed for the popularity of much larger televisions. In the old days, your 32-inch “big-screen TV” would look like garbage if you didn’t sit all the way across the room. Now you could get much closer and the picture on a 65-inch HD set would still look fine.

Or better than fine. With the crisp picture on a screen that big, TV could be made to look more cinematic. Dramas of the so-called second golden age of television—The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and so forth—might not have grabbed our attention as effectively had they been produced in a style more befitting of the older, smaller, low-res sets. HD made television more arresting—more hot and less cool.

But television technology pressed on. A 4K TV has four times the resolution of an HD set, which suggests that screens might get even hotter, even bigger than they’ve ever been before. In practice, though, these newer sets haven’t really changed the medium at all. If anything, all of those pixels have allowed too much; they’ve become decoupled from the normal scale of domestic life and home design. According to the many TV-size-to-distance calculators available online, when you’re sitting on a couch a dozen feet from your television, a 65-inch screen will look the same whether it’s HD or 4K. The latter has more pixels, but your eyes won’t pick them up. You’ll never know the difference. For the picture to look much better—for you to “see” the benefits of modern ultra-high resolution—you’d need to upgrade to a preposterously large screen, more than 100 inches in diagonal.

These days you can buy a set like that for a few thousand dollars—but where exactly would you put it? Our living rooms are designed for living in, not for viewing giant 4K screens up close. I’m sure that, as of 2024, most people still arrange their homes around their furniture, and then they put their television where it fits. Some screens end up getting mounted high up on the wall, perhaps above a fireplace, where they will be even farther from any viewer’s pixel-counting retinas.

Home-theater snobs lament these practices. They’ll tell you that a 4K set should be viewed from a distance of about one and a half times the screen size and at eye level. They’re right about optimal viewing practices, but they’re wrong about what other people want from television. TV’s function as a cool medium never really went away, even through the hotter age of peak TV. As a home activity, watching television now serves more or less the same purpose it did during the 1960s. The TV is still a family-room appliance, and it’s still one that can be used for focused watching, or for ambience while daily life unfolds within its glow. Even when you happen to be watching uncompressed 4K on a properly sized television at a distance from which the resolution is visible, you might still be doing other things, such as scrolling on your phone or talking with your partner. (These days, people often skip the TV altogether and watch videos up close on their smartphones, and yet tellingly, smartphones almost never come with 4K screens.)

The mismatch between television technology and television use seems to be only getting worse. The newest TVs are billed as being 8K Ultra HD—with four times the picture quality of your 4K set! At that hypertrophied resolution, you can’t sit more than a few feet from an 80-inch screen if you want to maximize its benefits. This betrays any sense of the human scale of viewership, or of elementary principles of living-room design. If 4K is a lie, then 8K is a joke.

The greater truth is that TV is fine the way it is. Your HD set is already huge, bright, and clear enough for the bedroom or the den. No more resolution will be necessary. The technologies of streaming media and viewing screens may still improve in other ways—better compression, blacker blacks, broader color range—but when it comes to pixels, we’re already done.

The Case for 4K Blu-Ray in a World of Streaming

With Christopher Nolan praising the benefits of 4K Blu-ray, is now the time to revisit physical media?
Jon Porter

A decade-plus into the streaming revolution, you’d be forgiven for thinking physical media has had its day. Late last year, Best Buy announced it would no longer be selling DVDs and Blu-ray, just months after Netflix got out of the disc rental market that kick-started its business. According to a 2021 report from the Motion Picture Association, global physical media sales more than halved between 2017 and 2021, falling from $14.9 billion in 2017 to $6.5 billion in 2021.

But more recently, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray has been making headlines for a very different set of reasons. The 4K Blu-ray release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer promptly sold out at major retailers just weeks after its director stood onstage to proudly talk about the amount of care and attention that the team was putting into it. Aside from new releases, there’s also been a steady flow of older titles coming to the format. James Cameron is currently in the midst of rereleasing films including Titanic, Aliens, and The Abyss on 4K discs, and last year, Disney reissued Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“It’s such a good time to get into it right now”

It’s probably too early to claim that 4K Blu-ray is leading a vinyl revival-style resurgence of physical media. But these headlines piqued my interest as someone who fondly remembers building a respectable DVD collection as a teenager. “It’s such a good time to get into it right now,” Jeff Rauseo, whose Films At Home YouTube channel specializes in reviewing physical media releases, tells me. “It’s getting a lot of traction.”

So what do I have to gain by re-embracing physical media and getting into 4K Blu-rays? And where should I even start?

Nolan suggests there are at least two different benefits to a 4K Blu-ray disc: AV quality and ownership. “I’m known for my love of theatrical and put a lot of effort into that, but the truth is, the way the film goes out at home is equally important to me,” the director said at a screening last year. “In the case of Oppenheimer, we’ve put a lot of care and attention into the Blu-ray version but also in particular the 4K UHD version and trying to translate the photography and sound that we formatted for the IMAX format, the 70mm releases, and putting that into the digital realm for a version that you can buy and own at home and put on a shelf so no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.”

This ownership aspect is the most indisputable benefit of owning a 4K Blu-ray. Licensing deals mean streaming service lineups are in constant flux, and that’s before you get into the likes of Disney culling first-party titles like Willow from its own Disney Plus service. Even digital titles bought outright aren’t totally safe, as we saw when Sony threatened to pull Discovery content its customers had purchased through the PlayStation Store (even if it didn’t go through with it in the end) or the forthcoming shutdown of the Funimation app and website.

What’s particularly nice about owning a 4K Blu-ray is the sense that it has a good chance of being the final physical release a film might get. Cas Harlow, AVForums’ lead 4K Blu-ray reviewer, doesn’t think he’s going to have to replace all his 4K Blu-rays with 8K discs anytime soon like he had to do with VHS, DVDs, and Blu-rays in the past. “If they do 8K you’re edging past what you can justify,” he says. “We’re talking about [4K Blu-ray] as being probably the end physical format, the final physical format.”

Another advantage 4K Blu-ray discs have is the sheer amount of data they can hold, which allows for a much higher bitrate and, hence, higher-quality picture and audio than a typical compressed stream. But experts I spoke to agreed that at least some of these benefits are less clear-cut than they originally were, as both internet speeds and compression technologies have improved.

“The final physical format”

In a worst-case scenario, like the original broadcast of the Game of Thrones’ season 8 episode “The Long Night,” the benefits of having a high-quality 4K disc can be obvious. When most people watched the episode, the comparatively low bitrates of broadcast and streaming squeezed out a lot of the finer detail and even created visual artifacts. “It had these gray squares and all this compression happening. It was really hard to make out what was going on,” Rauseo recalls. But watch the same episode with the higher bitrate of a 4K Blu-ray, and the difference is stark (ahem). “I have the 4K disk that if you put that in, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what they were trying to do. That’s the vision. That’s what they saw when they were editing and mixing this.’ TV and streaming just couldn’t handle that with compression.”

But compare a good quality 4K stream with a 4K Blu-ray on a regular TV, and the difference can become difficult to spot. TV reviewer Vincent Teoh, of the YouTube channel HDTVTest, says he personally can’t tell the difference between a disc and a streaming service like Sony’s Bravia Core, which has a bitrate of up to 80Mbps.

“When you have a well-mastered movie that is streaming at a high bitrate from Apple TV or whatever, I think most consumers generally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Teoh says. John Clancy, who runs the Movie Collector YouTube channel, argues you really need a projector and a large screen to get the best out of a 4K disc and that, at regular TV sizes, the differences between physical and streaming can be “a little academic.”

It’s a different story when it comes to sound. “In terms of the dynamic range and compression, the 4K Blu-ray will always trump any streaming service out there,” Teoh says. You might not notice the difference from your TV’s built-in speakers, he admits, but it should be apparent when played through any half-decent soundbar or AV receiver.

Aside from the objective benefits, the collectors I spoke to talked about having an almost emotional attachment to their discs. “There’s just something about human nature and collecting and just having a representation of who you are,” says Rauseo, who estimates he has around 2,500 movies in his collection, including roughly 600 4K Blu-rays.

“I think most consumers generally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference”

That’s where smaller boutique Blu-ray labels have been able to carve out a niche for themselves with deluxe packages that can often include additional collectibles like books and art cards in the box. Harlow points toward Second Sight Films’ recent rerelease of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a key example of this trend. “What you’re getting there is a classic film that perhaps no one expected to hit 4K, let alone look great in 4K, that’s been given a loving and not controversial restoration and put in a lavish box set,” he says. According to market research firm Circana, the market for collector’s editions like these rose 85 percent to reach $80 million in the 12 months ending March 2023, and boutique label Arrow Films recently told Variety that its US sales increased 72 percent between 2020 and 2021.

Rauseo likens this trend to vinyl, where smaller boutique labels are serving a niche that major studios seem less and less interested in. Alongside Second Sight and Arrow Films, he cites Vinegar Syndrome, Shout! Studios, the Criterion Collection, Umbrella Entertainment, and Via Vision as some of the most interesting labels operating today.

As I quickly found out, if you ask five different physical media fans for the best discs to start a 4K Blu-ray collection, you’re likely going to get five very different answers. So consider the discs listed below an interesting spread of titles that show off what the format has to offer, rather than a definitive ranking of the best of the best. Other frequently recommended 4K releases include Lawrence of Arabia; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining; Blade Runner (The Final Cut); Blade Runner 2049; and interestingly enough, the modern remake of Murder on the Orient Express (which might look a little out of place on this list of cinematic greats, but being shot on 65mm means the 2017 film looks “fabulous,” Clancy says).

Before we get into the recommendations themselves: a quick note on 4K Blu-ray players. If you’ve got a modern game console with a disc drive, whether that’s a PS5, Xbox Series X or S, or even something older like the Xbox One X or S, then you already have an entry-level 4K Blu-ray player on your hands. But stepping up to a standalone model can come with advantages including support for standards like Dolby Vision and a nicer interface based around a traditional TV remote rather than a gamepad. There have also been reports of game consoles and lower-end 4K players having other minor playback issues and struggling to play larger-capacity 100GB discs.

If you’re going dedicated, then the go-to recommendation tends to be the Panasonic DP-UB820. Rauseo says there are lower-cost models in Panasonic’s lineup with cheaper build quality and without Dolby Vision, and Sony has a competing model called the UBP-X800M2, but the Panasonic DP-UB820 ticks basically all the boxes.

For an example of a modern release that shows off the best the 4K Blu-ray format has to offer, multiple people I spoke to recommended Top Gun: Maverick. “You’re going to be looking at something like that for a demo disc,” Harlow says, pointing to the film’s 6K source material as a key reason for its amazing 4K presentation. “I would think that that’s a good suggestion to someone if they want to pick up one title and go, ‘Yeah, this is what the format is all about.’”

“For a combination of both picture and sound quality, it’s very difficult to beat Top Gun: Maverick,” Teoh says.
4K Blu-ray box of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

If Maverick shows off what 4K Blu-ray is capable of with pristine source material, Second Sight’s 2023 release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows what’s possible at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a film “that you never expected to ever look good, that you never expected to have in 4K, landing in a gorgeous box [and] looking spectacular,” Harlow says. Although the limited-edition box set is now out of print, the standard release is still readily available.

Rauseo points out that this isn’t the first time the film has been released on 4K Blu-ray, but Second Sight’s version benefits from a cleaner presentation versus Dark Sky’s US release. If you’re prepared to pay the shipping cost, it’s also a great example of the benefits of 4K Blu-ray’s broad lack of region locking.

If I weren’t careful, I could have ended up with three or more disc recommendations on this list from Christopher Nolan, a director famous for his love of large film formats like IMAX, which Clancy says will often make for the best-looking 4K discs.

“If you look at any of [Nolan’s] last five films,” Clancy says, whether that’s The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet, or Oppenheimer, “you’d be hard pushed to find any 4K disc that looks better than any of them. If you start with the best, you end up with the best no matter how you shrink it down.”

While Dunkirk is my personal favorite of the bunch, Oppenheimer, or any number of the director’s films, would make great entries in any 4K Blu-ray collection.

Jaws might not have been shot on a large-format film, but for Rauseo, it’s a great example of a film that everybody’s seen but that few will have seen in this sort of detail. “You put that [disc] in and it’s the full 4K restoration at its highest quality,” Rauseo says. “This is without any compression. It’s pristine.”

The Ten Commandments

While a lot of proponents of 4K Blu-ray focus on resolution and detail, Clancy recommends the 1950s classic The Ten Commandments as a film whose colors are the real star. “If you want to see the best Technicolor on 4K, have a look at The Ten Commandments,” Clancy says.

The movie was shot on VistaVision, a film format that debuted in the 1950s that involved shooting horizontally onto 35mm film rather than vertically, resulting in a larger frame size and more detail. But in Clancy’s view, the biggest strength of this release is its rich colors. “You’ve got that rich Technicolor,” he says, “The blackest blacks, the reddest reds, the most light. Well, it was larger than life colors.”

Is it cheating to include a massive box set on a list of great starter discs for a 4K Blu-ray collection? Probably. Is it annoying that the Warner Bros. 100th Anniversary Studio Collection isn’t readily available in North America and retails for the eye-watering sum of 300 (around $381) in the UK? Firmly, yes. But if you’re prepared to spend the money importing it, then Harlow thinks the recent Warner Bros. box set is a great starting point for a new collector.

Highlights from the set include classics like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining, through to modern audio-visual delights like Mad Max: Fury Road.

“You’re getting a broad spectrum of films that should, arguably, be in everybody’s collection,” Harlow says. “There’s going to be 10 that you would never probably pick up, but you ought to have… and you ought to watch. And there’s going to be 10 which are absolutely on your list. And then there’s going to be 10 which you’re very happy to have.”

I don’t think I’m ever going to have the same relationship with 4K Blu-rays that I once had with DVDs as a teenager. For starters, a lot of the films and TV shows that I’d want to buy (The Wind Rises, Ida, Succession, Fight Club, Zodiac) simply aren’t available in 4K, and it’s difficult to know if they ever will be. And when streaming offers such easy and often affordable access to practically every modern title, it’s hard not to use it to watch a new film that you’re not sure you’ll ever return to.

And yet, I want to find space for at least a few 4K Blu-rays on my shelves. Partly because, yes, I want to know I’m seeing and hearing them at their best. But I also want to make space for my favorite films in a very literal sense. After a decade of renting and streaming, I’ve got little more than a chaotic page of notes in Notion and my own terrible memory to remind me what my favorites have been. Maybe a shelf full of discs will help me change that.

TikTok Begins Removing Universal Music Publishing Songs, Expanding Royalty Battle
Jem Aswad

The bruising battle over royalties between Universal Music Group and TikTok entered a new and more severe stage in the early hours of Tuesday as songs published by UMG began to be removed from the platform. The standoff, which began earlier this month, initially saw recordings owned or distributed by UMG removed from the platform, but now is extending to a much larger number of songs by including those published by the company.

The situation, accompanied by a bellicose war of words from both sides, pits UMG — the world’s largest music company — against TikTok — the most influential platform for promoting music for the past five years — as they continue to fail to renew their licensing agreement, which expired on Jan. 31.

The reach of this latest move is broad, as it effects a vast number of recordings not issued by a UMG-owned label, and many artists who have collaborated with songwriters under contract to Universal Music Publishing Group. Videos featuring those songs must either be removed from the platform or have the music on them muted.

While the scope of the move is complex — artists and songwriters may have differing deals in different territories — sources tell Variety that the initial move is focused on “Anglo-American” repertoire. UMPG’s vast stable of writers includes such top creators as Adele, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Ice Spice, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Metallica, Metro Boomin, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, SZA, the Weeknd, and many others.

Considering the large number of songwriters and publishers credited on most contemporary hit songs, it was unclear just how much music will be affected, or where the two companies might draw the line over whether or not a song is controlled by UMPG — for example, if one of seven writers on a song is under contract to Universal. Opinions differ widely: Sources close to UMG claim that it has a share in a majority of the songs on the platform, while ones close to TikTok places the number much smaller, between 20% and 30%. The latter sources also claim that TikTok has seen no drop in users since UMG music began to be removed earlier this month.

In an open letter dated Jan. 30, UMG chairman-CEO Lucian Grainge wrote, “In our contract renewal discussions [with TiktTok], we have been pressing them on three critical issues — appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users… With respect to the issue of artist and songwriter compensation, TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay,” adding that TikTok accounts for 1% of the company’s total revenue. “Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”

In response, TikTok posted an open letter the same day, writing in part, “It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters… TikTok has been able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher. Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”

More strong words can be expected during UMG’s earnings call, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

The impact of the move on artists and songwriters has been very real, despite UMG’s claim about revenue, as artists have lost the most-powerful platform for promoting their music, along with any royalties that would have been generated on the platform.

“That really hurts,” says songwriter-artist Bonnie McKee, who has written hits for Katy Perry and Britney Spears and has a solo album coming in May. “TikTok is how artists get the word out about a new song — and now they’re muting someone’s entire catalog? The labels say TikTok is so important and push their artists to [be active on the platform], and now they can’t?”

Sources close to the situation tell Variety they see no quick resolution to the standoff. The clearest precedent took place across 2008-2009 when Warner Music Group removed or muted its music on YouTube for several months before the companies came to terms. However, the scope of the UMG-TikTok battle is much broader.

Reps for UMG and TikTok did not immediately respond to requests for further comment on Tuesday. Variety will have more on the situation as it develops.

Nintendo Suing Developers of a Switch Emulator for ‘Facilitating Piracy at a Colossal Scale’
Lauren Sforza

Nintendo Inc. is accusing the developer of a Switch emulator of copyright violations and pirating its video game software in a new lawsuit filed this week.

The lawsuit was filed in the District of Rhode Island federal court on Monday by Nintendo Inc., which is accusing Tropic Haze LLC of being aware that the use of its emulator, Yuzu, is being used in “facilitating piracy at a colossal scale.” It also alleges that developer violated provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), including its measures against circumvention and trafficking.

The complaint defines a video game emulator as “a piece of software that allows users to unlawfully play pirated video games that were published only for a specific console on a general-purpose computing device.” It alleges that Yuzu instructs others on how to “circumvent” Nintendo Switch consoles and “make unlawful copies of encrypted games so Yuzu can circumvent and play those games.”

“With Yuzu in hand, nothing stops a user from obtaining and playing unlawful copies of virtually any game made for the Nintendo Switch, all without paying a dime to Nintendo or to any of the hundreds of other game developers and publishers making and selling games for the Nintendo Switch,” the complaint reads.

“In effect, Yuzu turns general computing devices into tools for massive intellectual property infringement of Nintendo and others’ copyrighted works,” the complaint adds.

The Yuzu’s website listed in the complaint, “yuzu-emu.org,” includes a disclaimer that states the website “is in compliance” with DMCA. However, Nintendo maintained that it was unlawful to use Yuzu for any of its games.

“And to be clear, there is no lawful way to use Yuzu to play Nintendo Switch games, including because it must decrypt the games’ encryption. Defendant must be held accountable for willfully providing users the means to violate Nintendo’s intellectual property rights at such a scale. The harm to Nintendo is manifest and irreparable,” the complaint reads.

The Hill has reached out to Nintendo and Yuzu for additional comment.

Until next week,

- js.

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