Desperate Times Call For Your Consideration Discs

You know times are getting grim for home video collectors when even brand new, high profile films are getting any kind of retail release anywhere in the world.  I specify "retail," though, because in some cases, there's one last, narrow option for the desperate: FYC discs.  For Your Consideration discs, or Emmy discs, are screener releases of films and TV shows sent out for free to industry people.  Not necessarily just for the Emmys, though those seem to be the most common, but the Academy Awards and others.  Usually, you don't particularly want 'em.  They tend to be barebones, SD DVDs, and when it comes to television seasons, only select episodes.  The retail release is almost certainly bound to be better... except when there isn't one.

Those are a couple of HBO Studio Production tapes of Larry Sanders I scored on the internet in the 90s up top, many years before the series was officially released on DVD.  Now they've been invalidated and are essentially worthless, but at the time I was excited to get my hands on them.  The story's the same in 2020.  FYC DVD's of I Love You Daddy go for big bucks in the unlikely event you can even spot one in the wild ever since Louie CK's film and career got pulled in 2018.  Meanwhile people can't give away This Is Us screeners.

Is this even legal?  There was a time when studios pressured sites (mostly EBay) not to allow sales of FYC discs, and for a little while they complied.  But that hasn't been the case in a long time.  Look, I'm no lawyer and I'm not definitely not claiming to offer proper legal advice, but I'm pretty sure First Sale laws protect us in passing old screener discs around.  The people who originally received them from the studios are probably breaking an agreement when they sell them, and risk getting taken off the lists for upcoming years.  But it's all pretty academic now in 2020 anyway, as a handful of rare physical media releases is not the kind of piracy that's shaking the industry; they've all moved to streaming, the same thing which is even strangling this last ditch option... FYC discs are being replaced by Screener Links.  Plus, anyone who would pay for a screener disc of Movie X would happily forgo it in favor of a proper release if we could.  I'm begging for the studios to sell us official discs of the films I'm about to cover.  I hope this post doesn't tick anybody off, but I don't think my obligation is to sit on the information I've been discovering.

Update 9/17/21, 10/5/21: Having nothing but Netflix screeners isn't the most informative. So here are two more FYC discs, this time from Apple Films/ A24 and Amazon.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is the first film to really make me shit a brick and realize, oh no!  After a year or two of being a streaming exclusive, this movie still wasn't getting any kind of release in any region, and I was going to have to start looking further outside the box.  I didn't even really know what a modern FYC disc was like... do they have "PROPERTY OF NETFLIX" banners running across the screen the whole time, or weird watermarks?  Were they pressed or burned?  Would they signal my player to self destruct?  I had no idea, which is why I'm making this post now, to let people know.  Because this was a film I just had to have.
If you haven't noticed, I tend to swear by the work of Noah Baumbach, and this is right up there with his best.  It's one of those rare projects Adam Sandler takes to prove he can actually act, but it's a lot more than that.  It's some of Noah's best character writing, again exploring the relationship of siblings dealing with their divorced haut monde parents.  And with Netflix bucks behind him, he's flexing possibly his best cast yet, including Dustin Hoffman (right before he followed Louis CK into the bin), Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Adam Driver, Candice Bergen, Judd Hirsch, Sigourney Weaver, Josh Hamilton and even a cameo by old Baumbach favorite Carlos Jacott.  But then lesser known Elizabeth Marvel comes along and just about steals the show from all of them.
2017 Netflix DVD.
So let me answer the critical questions first.  There are no banners, watermarks or other funny business; the whole movie plays perfectly just like any commercial DVD.  It's a pressed disc, not a DV-R, and no, it doesn't self-destruct.  It starts with a pre-menu screen asking you to accept their terms.  Clicking "Yes" takes you to the proper menu and clicking "No" takes you back to your player's menu.  The film itself is presented in 1.83:1, and looks to be the exact same transfer Netflix broadcasts, except as a DVD, it's compressed to standard definition.  It's quite fine by DVD standards, though; it's not interlaced or anything.  Audio is a strong 5.1 mix, and I was pleasantly surprised to find most of these discs, including this particular one, have optional English subtitles, too.

Once my Meyerowitz experiment paid off, and I knew these discs were definitely worth pursuing, it was time to see what other streaming exclusives were sorely absent.  Not that I didn't immediately know off the top of my head.  There were two more I just had to have right away, the first of which was Errol Morris's Wormwood.  This has been touted as a drama/ documentary hybrid.  What that ultimately winds up meaning is that it's a traditional documentary, but the typical recreation scenes go further, with proper dialogue and high quality actors, including Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban.
Wormwood is the strange story of Frank Olson, an army scientist from the 1950s who was involved in mysterious experiments with LSD.  He died under dubious circumstances - he "fell" out of a hotel window - and now his son is obsessed with the notion that the CIA actually had him killed as a cover-up.  So this film, really a six-episode miniseries, cuts back and forth between first-person interviews with the real people telling their story, and Sarsgaard playing his father in dramatizations of how everything may've gone down.  You'll probably recognize son Eric Olson and this whole crazy tale from the infamous 2004 British television documentary, Crazy Rulers Of the World.  Well, thirteen years later, the Olson's are still demanding answers.
2017 Netflix DVD.
Wormwood is mix of new documentary footage, the stylized dramatizations and vintage footage, the last of which, naturally, is often of dodgier quality than the rest.  That's the nature of the film, though, not an issue with the DVD, which presents it all in very wide 2.37:1.  It's clean, clear and as good as a DVD could look.  All six episodes are included over 2-discs.  Each episode has a 5.1 mix, though this time there are no subtitles.  Based on all the Netflix screeners I've seen, it looks like they put them on movies, but not series?  Anyway, they're not here.

The third title I absolutely had to have was Nicole Holofcener's The Land of Steady Habits.  It's the only film of hers I haven't already covered on this site, and the first time she's filmed a script not based on her original writing.  The Land of Steady Habits is an adaptation of the Ted Thompson novel of the same name, about an older man who drops out of comfortable society in search of a more substantive meaning.  It stars Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco and hey, Elizabeth Marvel's back!  Some of the characterizations feel a little less authentic than I'd expect from a Holofcener original; but it's still a smart, funny and touching look at the isolation and disappointment that can develop even when you seem to be achieving the American dream.
2018 Netflix DVD.
So, as you can see, I was in for a disappointment this time.  Every two frames out of four are interlaced!  A 2018 disc interlaced?  Why?  None of the other Netflix discs I've seen are, and the movie isn't interlaced on their site.  I guess it's just a mistake?  QC on screeners may not be as tight as they are on commercial releases.  Apart from that, it looks fine.  It's a fine, SD image presented in the unusual aspect ratio of 2.01:1, but that is composition the film's supposed to have.  It's another 5.1 mix, and on the plus side, the subtitles are back.  The interlacing is a bummer, though, and very noticeable in motion.

Feeling empowered, now I'm on a hunt for any other FYC titles that have been neglected on video.  And what could be more fun than Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp?  In some ways, this prequel is more fun than the original film (the subsequent Last Day of Camp not so much), though of course it wouldn't work at all without the movie to build it all from.  The entire cast is back, which is saying something considering how many comics and stars were in it; and it's packed with more big names, too, including Jason Schwartzman, Kristin Wiig, Chris Pine, Jordan Peele, Bruce Greenwood and so many more.  It's an eight-episode series, which gives it more room to go to even more crazy places, but it's so grounded, managing to perfectly land every single character into the places we find in them in the film.
2015 Netflix DVD.
All eight episodes are spread across two discs and look great, slightly matted to 1.88:1.  It does feel like Netflix just makes up their ARs by throwing darts at a board, but that's how it airs online too.  Meanwhile, colors and details look great; no more interlacing.  The audio is in 5.1 again, and no subtitles, which again makes me think that, for whatever reason, they save the subs for the films.  Actually, there are a few hard subs for a handful of scenes, which you can remove if you really want to, but they don't subtitle the show as a whole.  It's also worth pointing out that this one came in fancier packaging, like a hardcover mediabook, which is fun.

But maybe you're just done with DVDs in 2020.  It is especially frustrating to be eyeing SD discs when the same films are streaming in HD; some of you guys probably think it's a joke to even want a DVD of these.  It's too bad they don't make FYC blu-rays, right?  Oh, but they do!  They tend to be even harder to find, especially for the exclusive titles, but they're out there.

I bought Marriage Story right away.  Possibly the year's greatest film (nominated for six academy awards and won one... not that I put too much credibility in their collective judgement) on blu when I was sure it would never get a retail release?  How could I not?  Well, who could anticipate Netflix would make a deal with Criterion?  But that just goes to show you how the value can rise and fall like the Dow Jones with these discs, because I immediately sold it off and am counting down the days for Criterion's special edition.  In the meantime, though, I had this to tide me over.
We're back with Noah Baumbach in his latest story, where this time we're dealing with the younger generation's failing marriage.  I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone that Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as our avatars in this devastatingly authentic look at an embattled relationship.  They're amazing, but the supporting cast is the icing on the cake, making their heavy drama so much more charming and entertaining.  I mean, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Haggerty and Wallace Shawn?  We don't deserve that much talent!  Plus there are fun cameos by Robert Smigel and Carlos Jacott again.  Baumbach may've even topped The Squid and the Whale with this one.
2019 Netflix BD.
Yes, this is a genuine HD image; the blu is even a dual-layered disc.  It looks fabulous.  It's pillar-boxed to 1.67:1.  Grain is very fine... I suppose it could be a little less blocky, but hey, this isn't a UHD.  I'm assuming this is the exact same image we'll see on the Criterion, though we'll see for sure soon enough.  Unfortunately, the 5.1 mix is lossy, which is something - besides the obvious complete lack of special features - I'm looking forward to Criterion fixing.  Optional English subtitles are on hand, though.  Honestly, if no Criterion was pending, I'd be pretty satisfied with this in my bunker.

But if you want a blu-ray that hasn't been scooped by a legit release, despite having several more years of opportunity to do so (I really thought a DVD would pop up in Germany, at least... but nope), let me show you the crown jewel of my FYC collection: Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno.  It took me a long time to find a copy of this one.  And I didn't even know blu-ray was an option with this one; I was just trying to find the DVD.  So boy, oh boy, am I happy to have this on my shelf.
Into the Inferno is Herzog's second volcano documentary, following La Soufrière, but this is really more of a sequel to Encounters At the End of the World.  He hooks back up with Clive Oppenheimer, the scientist he stood atop a volcanic ridge in the South Pole, to take a fuller, global look at volcanoes in general.  But if reading this has you expecting some kind of dry National Geographic geological TV special, you've forgotten who directed this.  Into the Inferno is a wild, globe-trotting ride that explores as much about religions and myths that have developed around volcanoes as much as the science itself (though there's plenty of nerdy gadgetry and dusty fossils, too).  They travel from Ethiopia to Iceland, including a particularly fascinating visit behind the curtain of North Korea.
2016 Netflix BD.
Into the Inferno was shot digitally, so we don't really have film grain to judge with.  In fact, this was shot with different cameras in different countries by different people - not even including the vintage documentary footage, which includes clips from some of Herzog's past works.  But this is a bright and sharp HD image.  It's a single-layer disc, unlike Marriage Story, but for a 107 minute film with exactly zero additional features, I don't think space is an issue.  Especially if they're not going to use the space for lossless audio, anyway.  Once again, this is a lossy 5.1 mix with optional English subtitles, including one track for just the foreign language, and another that subtitles both the foreign and English audio.
The screeners we've just examined are all, of course, Netflix discs.  That's a coincidence; all the films I was most interested in just happened to be Netflix flicks.  But there are screeners to be had from Amazon, Hulu, Warner Bros, ABC, NBC, A&E, Starz, Focus Features, Lifetime, FX, TBS... pretty much all of the major networks, film studios and streaming services.  So, before I go, let's take a look at one from another studio and see how it holds up.

This is Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks, an A24 film and screener, released exclusively as a streamer on Apple TV.  At least at first.  There's a retail blu-ray pending from Lions Gate, which I will be replacing this with come October.  But I couldn't wait.  In fact, I bought this before the BD was announced, and I was rather skeptical of Apple releasing their films to physical media at any point in my lifetime, so I cracked.  Then this was announced shortly after.  D'oh!  But at least this was a learning experience: my first Apple FYC disc.
On the Rocks plays a little more like a traditional romantic comedy piece than your usual Coppola fare. It still reflects all of her sensibilities - and Bill Murray's back! - but it still adheres to genre conventions in its plotting much more than something like Somewhere or Lost In Translation.  Lots of comic misunderstandings and contrived plot twists.  An affair is suspected, so spying, sneaking and hi-jinks abound.  But it still has an earnest, relatable woman (this time played by Rashida Jones) at its heart.  Murray heightens the comedy right to the edge of too far without crossing over, and Marlon Wayans is surprisingly subdued and sweet.
2020 Apple/ A24 DVD.
A24 presents the film in a warm 1.83:1.  The picture's a bit soft.  This is DVD, after all, but even for SD, it feels like it could be a bit sharper.  But it's overall a very pleasing, satisfying image.  No interlacing or anything like that.  For a DVD, there's really nothing to complain about except, wait, what's that in the second shot?  Yes, a giant watermark floats across the top of the screen at random points.  It only pops up three or four times and lasts less than ten seconds.  It's slightly transparent and doesn't move or blink, so it's not too distracting.  But it's big and it's in your face.  So Apple screeners just got a little less collectible.

There's not really a menu, just an opening screen warning us that this disc "traceable to you" (yeah, right).  The audio's in 5.1 and we're given offered optional English or Spanish subtitles.  I was briefly disappointed, but the proper blu is coming soon, so who cares?  Well, actually we will if any other Apple films you like don't wind up getting proper releases.  But for now, at least, it's fine.

So, I guess Apple discs are watermarked. How about Amazon? They've got a serious streaming exclusive in their Woody Allen miniseries Crisis In Six Scenes, which thanks to the Farrows, Amazon will probably never see fit to spotlight with any further release.  ...And, to be clear, god bless 'em.  Separating the art from the artist doesn't mean giving said artist a free pass to roll over the rest of society unchallenged.  But it does mean dedicated connoisseurs may have to surmount additional obstacles if they feel the need to preserve all the important works on physical media.  Hence this FYC DVD having become quite the collector's item.
Critics have said that Crisis is essentially just another film, arbitrarily broken up into six sections, rather than Allen making any kind of experimental venture into modern television.  And sure, I guess so.  Even shaving off the repetitious closing credits of the first five episodes, the series clocks in at over two hours, which is long for Allen, but not outside the bounds of common feature length.  The episodes end at what feel like natural chapter points, so there's intentional six episode structure here, but this is definitely not far removed from his usual work.  Nor do I think fans wanted it to be.
In fact, I'd say this was made to be a real fan pleaser.  First of all, this is clearly ear-marked as one of his "funny ones."  The first question you ask of any new Allen film is "is he starring in this one?"  And yes, and this time he's reunited with the always wonderful Elaine May to form a classic comic duo along the lines of Manhattan Murder Mystery or Love & Death.  They're a retired couple in the 1960s who wind up taking in a radical activist on the run from the law, played by Miley Cyrus, who yes, is blatant stunt casting, but she manages well enough.  It's a bit of a thankless task, acting as sort of the romantic straight man surrounded by an overwhelming ensemble of comedians that also includes Joy Behar, Michael Rappaport, Bobby Slayton, Lewis Black and Judy Gold.  This one got pretty well thrashed by critics, and no, I wouldn't chalk it all up to his tarnished reputation.  The pacing's a little clunky, and the romantic subplot's a bit of a drag.  But it's not as bad as they say either.  If you can still find Woody Allen funny in general, you'll find this one funny.
2016 Amazon DVD.
Framed in 1.78, just as it was made to stream (I just popped over to Amazon and checked), this disc looks A-OK.  It's standard def, so it's inherently a little disappointing in its resolution, but looks just fine for a DVD. And thankfully, no, there are no watermarks or other flaws.  It's not interlaced, and all six episodes are complete and flawless.  The Dolby stereo mix is clean, and though they're not accessible by menu, there are encoded captions on the disc if you need subtitles.  As you can see, it comes in one of those recycled-looking cardboard sleeve, CD jewelcase sized, with a fold up flap that includes a description and episode list.

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