4K Ultra HD Blu-ray: The Collector’s Format

In a world where everything “virtual” and “digital” is all the rage, the physical disc collector is still an important and avid customer of the home entertainment business — and for disc devotees, the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray remains the gold standard.

“If I love a film, I want the best possible image and sound experience of that film at home,” says Bill Hunt, editor of enthusiast site The Digital Bits. “That’s what 4K is  all about.”

Indeed, for collectors who look for the highest standard in home entertainment, nothing can compare with the physical 4K disc with high dynamic range, a format that isn’t beholden to a wireless system or other delivery mechanisms that may downgrade the experience.

The advantages of the crisper picture and wider color gamut are preserved in the physical disc experience in a way that digital still cannot match.

And, with titles shifting from streaming service to streaming service, and rights constantly up in the air, owning a top-quality disc of their favorite titles is essential to collectors.

Quality Counts

For 4K disc aficionados, quality of picture and sound is top of mind.

“I believe, first and foremost, the improved resolution and picture detail you get with 4K over Blu-ray is the reason for purchase,” says Ron Epstein of enthusiast site The Home Theater Forum, who has more than 100 4K discs in his collection.

“It’s 100% the image and sound quality,” adds Hunt, who counts close to 400 4K titles in his disc collection. “New extras are great, too, and the more the better. But if the image is remastered and there’s an improved sound mix, that’s what’s most important to collectors.

“Second to that would be that the new release at least carries over the previous extras, so people don’t need to hang on to multiple editions if they’d prefer not to.”

Collector Neil Middlemiss of Mint Hill, N.C., just outside of Charlotte, says that the increase in image quality is the primary attraction of 4K disc releases, although he also prizes a Dolby Atmos audio track. He has 140 4K discs in his library and will replace a title he owns in another format to get the quality of 4K.

“If a 4K disc is released of a film I already own, I am typically interested in making the upgrade,” he says. “I do tend to wait for the high initial price point to pass before picking up a copy, but in some cases I will get it right away, such as when the 2014 Godzilla was released on 4K UHD. I picked up a copy upon release so I could watch it ahead of the new Godzilla vs. Kong movie. Classic films I love that I think belong in everyone’s collection, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Alien and Jaws, are the kind I snap up instantly.”

Brian Dobbs of Camas, Wash., says he loves “the potential that HDR has to offer.” (High dynamic range creates brighter brights and darker darks on 4K Ultra HD titles.)

“Atmos and HDR are absolutely the best reasons to go for a UHD disc, and it’s a huge disappointment when titles don’t embrace those options,” says Sam Posten, of Aberdeen, Md., who has just over 100 4K discs in his more than 1,000-disc collection. “I want all my favorites on the highest quality I can buy.”

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Extra, Extra

While the quality of the picture and sound are the top draw among 4K collectors, they also find special features and packaging important.

“Of course, we collectors love to show off our collections, both on the screen and on our shelves, and the bigger the boxes the better,” Posten says.

“Quality has always been the true benchmark for collectors, and 4K Ultra HD is just that — the best possible means of watching a movie outside the theater,” says Aaron Gershman, VP of creative services at Lionsgate. “When that movie’s in premium packaging with excellent artwork, it’s not just worthy of being in a collection, it’s a display piece.”

“With our ‘Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection’ series, we’ve taken that experience to the next level for a selection of our studio’s most acclaimed films, with pristine 4K restorations and a rich assortment of special features, all assembled in limited-edition collectible packaging — perfect for the passionate 4K movie fan,” says Jeremy Glassman, director of global brand marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Middlemiss prizes good packaging, but only on his all-time favorite films. He doesn’t put a premium on special features unless they are “deep behind-the-scenes examinations of the production.”

Still, others pay close attention to special features on 4K releases.
Posten bemoans titles that have only standard-definition extras “recycled from the ’90s.”

“I love special features and usually watch most or all of them,” Dobbs says. “These are gold and, as a filmmaker, offer me insights into the film to satisfy my curiosity about how everything was produced.”

Studio Support

Despite a pivot to serving a growing digital audience, the major studios have continued to cater to these avid collectors — and they are seeing resulting sales.

“Our industry is constantly evolving as consumer habits change and new technologies and distribution platforms emerge,” says Jim Wuthrich, president of content distribution for WarnerMedia. “Digital transactions have become the first choice for some of our consumers, but for others physical ownership of a disc is still their preference as it is what they are used to and comfortable with.

“While the ease and convenience of being able to watch digital content anywhere and on any device cannot be understated, there is still something to be said for the weekend activity of putting a disc in a player and watching with your family. Additionally, the quality of 4K with HDR at home offers our consumers the best viewing experience.”

“Every year, more consumers are recognizing that 4K Ultra HD delivers the very best at-home viewing experience for new and classic films of all genres,” says Bob Buchi, president, worldwide, of Paramount Home Entertainment. “We’ve continued to see sales of 4K discs climb for each of our new releases, with the most recent success being A Quiet Place Part II, for which 4K made up nearly 20% of overall disc sales.

“As for library titles, the 4K releases of both Top Gun last year and the ‘Indiana Jones Collection’ this year sold incredibly well, and there has been great anticipation for the original ‘Star Trek’ films coming to the format this month.”

It’s all about offering the collector a superior product, studio executives say.

“There has been substantial strength in premium disc offerings such as 4K, Steelbooks and special collections across both new-release and catalog,” notes Kathleen Gallagher, EVP of global physical home entertainment for Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “There is a core group who continue to place significant value on ownership, wanting the standout, collectible version that looks and sounds incredible and delivers the ultimate viewing experience.

“We’ve seen strong lift as of late for 4K catalog product in particular, with nostalgic titles such as Jaws and National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as cult-favorites like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World performing at exceptional levels.”

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Independent Spirit

While the major studios have been releasing 4K Ultra HD discs for some time, independent film distributors have been slower in joining the market. But, now, with an eye to the strong desire among collectors, many are committed to serving the 4K Ultra HD disc aficionado and are offering some big releases with a plethora of extras. They aim to give titles just the kind of premium treatment collectors want.

“The studios continue to do a great job porting over extras from the Blu-ray release,” notes the Home Theater Forum’s Epstein. “However, it’s the boutique labels that are releasing some terrific studio-licensed catalog product that contain a treasure chest of newly-acquired special features.”

The attraction to collectors, first and foremost, is “truer and sharper picture quality, 3840 x 2160p compared to the 1920 x 1080p on Blu-ray,” notes Kino Lorber’s Frank Tarzi, VP of acquisitions and business development. Kino began releasing 4K Ultra HD discs in April 2019 with Hannibal. The company has released five 4K disc titles so far and plans on releasing a few dozen more.

Well Go USA Entertainment, too, jumped into the market in 2019 with Shadow, an “amazing and beautifully shot martial arts genre film with very high production value,” says EVP Tony Vandeveerdonk. “Performance at retail exceeded our initial forecasts,” he says.

“The strong visual and ultra-sound experience in home theater on 4K drives the attraction for disc collectors,” he adds, noting that the constrained availability of limited editions also increases collectors’ appetites.

Well Go USA has released a total of five titles on 4K.

Blue Underground got into the market in 2020.

“We’ve gone all in on 4K UHD since releasing our first two titles in May 2020,” says Greg Chick, production manager. “So far, we’ve restored and released nine of our best-selling catalog titles on the format, with several more in the works.”

Collectors are driving the upgrades.

“Disc collectors want their favorite films in the best available quality, with additional bells and whistles,” Chick says. “Blue Underground prides itself in offering pristine film restorations in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision HDR, restored and remixed Dolby Atmos audio, and hours of special features.

“In addition to the films on 4K UHD and Blu-ray, our deluxe limited editions include bonuses like booklets, soundtrack CDs, and slipcovers. For Dead & Buried, we even offered consumers the choice of three different lenticular slipcovers featuring the theatrical artwork and two shocking scenes from the film. Some collectors bought all three covers.”

Genre fans are a key constituency. Last January, Shout! Factory scored big with two horror and sci-fi films on 4K Ultra HD: Prince of Darkness and They Live.

Shout! came early to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray party. Since 2016, the company has released 18 4K Ultra HD titles, beginning with Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart.

“Our loyal hardcore horror and sci-fi fans continue to support HD physical media, as it is still the best format in which they can watch their favorite films in the best possible presentation and doesn’t put them at the mercy of which preferred digital platforms may (or may not) carry their content, and buffering issues,” says Jeff Nelson, senior marketing director at Shout! Factory. “They are also collectors at heart and there is a special sense of joy when they have something tangible — like physical media — in their hands to display and post about on social media.

“The 4K format further enhances the experience for them because the video quality is crisper and more detailed than ever before. It’s this ‘fresh coat of paint’ effect that we believe is attracting them to the format.”

Arrow Films got into the 4K disc market in August 2020 with Pitch Black. Since then, the company has released more than a dozen 4K Ultra HD discs — including Flash Gordon, Dune (1984), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,
Tremors and True Romance (U.K. only). The company has many more in the pipeline.

“There is a real appetite from fans to rediscover classics and cult films in 4K UHD, and the format has really been embraced by our audience,” says Arrow Films’ Louise Buckler. “Titles such as Flash Gordon and Dune have exceeded our initial expectations. However, all of our 4K UHD releases have seen strong sales and great feedback from fans and reviewers alike.”

Again, the format’s quality is what attracts collectors, she says.

“We feel that the ability to present films in the highest-quality standard, replicated as closely to their 35mm origins as possible — while taking full advantage of the wider color spectrum and increased image detail that 4K HDR allows — are huge drivers for 4K UHD collectors,” Buckler says. “Careful consideration is undertaken when choosing which titles would truly benefit from the 4K UHD format. In order for the format to thrive, our 4K restorations have to look stunning while at the same time maintaining our long-held commitment to historical accuracy, which is something we believe UHD collectors and cinephiles truly value and appreciate.”

Perennial Favorites and Wish Lists

Each collector has both a selection of favorite titles and a wish list of titles they’d like to see on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.

“There are just some films that beg to be watched in 4K, with its superior colors and contrast,” says the Home Theater Forum’s Epstein. “Though I can sit here and recommend films like Mad Max, Blade Runner 2049 and 1917 as the best in class, I am more impressed with how the studios have been able to breathe new life into classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. I recently watched The Elephant Man in 4K and found its black and white presentation to be the pinnacle of what I thought the format had to offer.”

Tops on his 4K wish list are more classics from the 1930s through the 1960s, such as Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur (which he notes is rumored to be coming).

“There are some beautiful Technicolor films from that time period that would look amazing in 4K,” he says.

Home Theater Forum moderator and classic film expert Robert Crawford wants to see the following films in color and widescreen formats on 4K: Singin’ in the Rain, The Searchers, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The King and I, West Side Story, North by Northwest, Oklahoma! and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Middlemiss also is looking for classics.

“I’d like to see more classic films make it to the format, if for no other reason than the work that goes into a quality release also serves to preserve the film (Paramount and Sony’s work in this area is of note),” he says. “I also love it when a surprising title gets picked, and I’d love to see more ’80s and ’90s movies make their way to the format. The work of John Carpenter like They Live and The Fog are wonderful examples of titles that have made their way to 4K UHD.

“I’d also like to see films that barely made it to Blu-ray enjoy the wonders of what 4K can do. The source material doesn’t always make it possible, but I’d love to see some of Steve Martin’s films, like L.A. Story, All of Me and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, surprise us in UHD. We have good odds that the more celebrated filmmakers will see their works arrive on UHD, as we are seeing of Spielberg, but I’d love to see David Fincher’s work like The Game, Panic Room and Zodiac debut on 4K as well.

“My holy grail title is my favorite film, Aliens (1986). And I’d like to see other Cameron films debut on the format, particularly the long-promised-but-yet-to-materialize The Abyss.”

The Abyss is also on the long list of titles Hunt of The Digital Bits would like to see hit 4K.

“There are so many great catalog titles that deserve 4K release — Fox titles, Disney titles, Touchstone titles, Miramax titles,” Hunt says. “I could make a list of 10 to 20 titles right now that if they came out in 4K would sell like gangbusters — Kingdom of Heaven, Aliens, Tombstone, Speed Racer (2008), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Rock, The English Patient, Kill Bill 1 & 2, Pulp Fiction, Armageddon, Dark City, King Kong (1933), Forbidden Planet, The Right Stuff, The Abyss, True Lies, etc. I’d like to see more of those sorts of films in 4K.”

The studios do have an ear to the ground about these much-desired classics.

“In addition to releasing a great number of our theatrical and TV new-release titles on 4K, remastering and releasing older titles from our catalog is still an important part of our business that has a dedicated and vocal consumer base,” says Warner’s Wuthrich. “As long as the demand exists for our classic content in the highest quality, we will continue to offer restored and remastered titles for our audiences.”

As the holidays approach, collectors are making lists of top titles to purchase for the season and beyond.

“The ‘Star Trek’ set is fantastic; Dune is fantastic,” Hunt says. “This new Middle-Earth 4K set [of Peter Jackson films from Warner] looks interesting. I’m really looking forward to some of these new Criterion 4K titles — especially what they might be working on for next year. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has some nice MGM catalog titles coming. The Godfather films are coming from Paramount next year. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally get some classic James Bond films on physical 4K Ultra HD for the 60th anniversary of that franchise next year. There are lots of titles to be excited about.”

“This fourth quarter has some titles I cannot wait to get my hands on,” says Middlemiss. “Mulholland Dr. is one I am eagerly awaiting, not just because it’s among Criterion’s first foray into UHD, but it’s a stunning film with a particular look, and 4K can often show us films we love as if it’s the first time we’re seeing them, and that has always been the power of new home media formats. Other titles I am looking forward to are Kino Lorber’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Inglourious Basterds, Hard Target (the Jean-Claude Van Damme film), The Wolf of Wall Street and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune if it gets announced.”

Sam Posten has a list as well: Free Guy, The Thing, The Shawshank Redemption, F9, Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise and A Quiet Place Part II.

“There’s a lot of good stuff heading our way,” says Epstein.

“Columbia/Sony is releasing volume 2 of their ‘Classic Film Collection.’ Universal has its ‘Classic Monsters Collection,’ The Thing, Inglourious Basterds and Carlito’s Way on tap for release. Coming off of a stellar 4K release of Willy Wonka, Warner continues to put out exceptionally popular titles that include The Shawshank Redemption and The Outsiders. Criterion just announced their first set of 4K releases that include Citizen Kane and Mulholland Dr. Paramount has Scream and The Addams Family on 4K for the very first time. Disney has this year’s theatrical Jungle Cruise and classic titles Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Unbreakable coming out for the holiday season.

“As you can see, my wallet is going to be very busy.”

4K Ultra HD Blu-ray All-Time Top 50 Sellers as of 8/28/21

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