Now Screening at Home: Warner Bros. Classic Movies

Time Warner (TWX) is betting that a strategy that keeps out-of-print books from disappearing may also work for movies. Print-on-demand technology makes it feasible to produce a single copy of an otherwise out-of-print book. Time Warner's Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is adopting a similar approach to movies not currently available on DVD, with the release of the Warner Archive Collection.

The collection made its debut Mar. 23 with 150 of the thousands of decades-old titles that have not previously been available on DVD. If you order a copy of one for $19.95, Warner will burn it on demand and ship it to you, packaged in a shrink-wrapped DVD case that looks, more or less, like a conventional retail disc. Copies can also be downloaded in Windows Media format to play on PCs for $14.95.

The new collection may be the last best hope for getting copies of hard-to-find movies. The economics may not work in bulk for DVD rental company Netflix (NFLX), which customarily buys its stock of videos at substantial discounts—though it may wish to add a few copies to augment its comprehensive collection. Warner has no immediate plans to offer the Archive Collection through rental download or via such streaming services as Amazon (AMZN) or Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, though this could change.

Well-crafted Hollywood studio movies

The initial release from the archives includes some minor classics, including a 1931 version of Noel Coward's Private Lives with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery and 1940's Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey. Most of the titles are run-of-the-mill output of the studio system from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, such as the execrable but sociologically fascinating I Was a Communist for the FBI.

To a film buff, there's really no such thing as a bad movie: Any addition to the library of available titles is a good thing. (Seeing these old titles will no doubt remind viewers how well-crafted even the most ridiculous studio products were). Warner plans to add titles at the rate of about 20 releases a month.

The DVDs themselves are bare-bones offerings, with each movie divided into arbitrary 10-minute chapters. There are no commentaries, outtakes, or other extras. But the disks I watched looked as if the transfers had been made from the original negatives or very good prints. The sound was clean.

Movie lovers no doubt will still dream of a day when every movie ever made is available for instant streaming, whenever they want to see it. Warner's decision to make these archives available on DVD seems a bit retro, since releases on physical media seem to be dying a slow but certain death. Still, it's a small, very welcome step toward universal availability.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.