Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Warner Archive Instant: An Overview

I thought my look at the "Jimmy Stewart Show" on Monday might inspire some curiosity about Warner Archive Instant in general, so here is my overview. Depending on your own combination of financial resources, amount of leisure time, and cable contract (or lack thereof), you may look at Warner Archives' new streaming video service and ask, "Do I really need to pay 10 bucks a month for this when I already have Netflix and Hulu Plus?" I know I ask that, and the answer is no. But to me it's worth pinching a few pennies elsewhere and continuing with this because the selection is so good.

I got hooked on the two-week free trial (still available if you're interested), and I have kept it for a few months. Do I get to watch it as much as I would like? No. Do I wish it were just a little cheaper, like maybe 5 or 6 bucks per month? Yes. Do I think it could offer a bit more value for the money? Yes, but its value is increasing each week. The key is that while Warner Archive offered a smaller number of titles than expected on its launch, it is constantly adding new movies and TV shows (mostly the former) while not dropping current ones...except in the TV section (more on that later). Make no mistake, it's only a tiny portion of the Warner Archive Collection, plus some titles that aren't yet IN that collection, and you're gonna have to go somewhere like Classic Flix (hint, hint) if you want access to more of those vintage WB efforts. But the selection is varied and prestigious enough to warrant a look.

The service is available online and via a Roku set-top box. I'm not aware of other TV options right now, but I've read that they are coming. It is easy to install and use, but it does load slower than most of my other Roku channels. Once you get in, you can choose from hundreds of old movies, TV movies, and selections from old TV series, all of them owned by Warner Brothers but not all of them available on DVD, either through Warner Archive or elsewhere. Many movies are plucked from old standard retail box sets like the Gangsters Collections, but many are only on DVD through the Archive, and some hidden treasures are only found--so far--on this channel.

Selections appear as horizontal rows of titles, with a search box and a TV button at the very top. The first row is a New Additions section with about a dozen or two titles at a given time. Then you scroll down to see categories like Classic Comedies, Incendiary Cinema, Mondo/Cult, Guilty Pleasure, Sci-Fi, Drama, Musicals, Noir, and many more. The amount of titles in each category varies, and there is significant crossover among the rows, so you may see the same movie show up in multiple sections.

Each title is represented by DVD box art or some kind of movie poster image, and when you click it, you see a brief synopsis that usually includes minimal cast information, a basic plot summary, the running time, year of release, and the theatrical MPAA  rating if applicable.There is a "Watch Now" button to click, but unfortunately there is no "Save to Queue" option, mainly because there IS no queue. I'd really like to see WB add some kind of feature to make it easier to track titles we are interested in viewing. As the selection of titles grows--never a bad thing, of course--it does become more difficult to quickly spot movies you've been meaning to get to, or just to remember ones you might have made a mental note to look at later.

There are all kinds of movies, ranging from turkeys to classics. I was most interested in the rarest and oldest of the WB library, and that portion of the company's vast holdings is fairly well represented. A lot of the pre-codes and old crime movies have been seen on DVD or on TCM, but it's still cool to have them available here. Besides, there are some relative rarities here, though I think most of those are of the more recent variety. Don't expect to see the very top tier of classics on here. For example, you won't see "Casablanca" or "White Heat," but you will see Bogart titles like "Dark Passage" and Cagney titles like "Blonde Crazy." 

The Astaire/Rogers musicals aren't on here, but some of the Busby Berkley classics are. The "Silent" row is pretty sparse now, with a half-dozen movies, and the "Family" section could use some beefing up as well. I'd love to see more Noir titles, but then again, I own most of the old WB Film Noir Collections, so as long as I'm paying for this channel, I'd much rather see movies that are either not on video or are only available through the Archives. The fact is, I'm always gonna want to see more, more, more, from a pay service like this, and even a few hundred titles may seem small compared to the vast Netflix selection.

However, you won't find many if any of these particular titles on Netflix, and if you are a fan of classic movies, you probably feel marginalized by that company, anyway, in recent years. WB Archive Instant is not exactly Turner Classic Movies, but it's a lot more than the on demand offerings that you get on Comcast or FIOS. The easiest way to say it is that while it is still a work in progress, this as close to a real TCM on Demand as we are gonna get.

The most intriguing yet also baffling section is the TV section. For one thing, isolating it from the main page by making you click an extra button to get there is odd. The choices combine both predictability and randomness. In addition to the Jimmy Stewart Show, there are other one-season wonders like "Lucan" and "Jericho." I'm not surprised to see Warners standbys like "Adventures of Superman" and "Cheyenne," but I am disappointed it's in limited quantities. Similarly, classic series like "77 Sunset Strip" and "Hawaiian Eye" are represented in "Best of" form, not even in full seasons. TV Movies were all lumped together in one additional click-through section but now are dispersed in the movie categories. What is most vexing, half of Medical Center season 1 showed up one week, then disappeared a few weeks later. Half of season 1 of "Gilligan's Island" was up when I signed on but was removed, again without notice or explanation, a few weeks back.

It's all pretty easy to use and enjoy. There is a resume watching function, but it's not apparent at first. If you start something, leave it, and return later, you have to click the "Watch Now" before you are prompted to resume where you left off. I think this could be improved, but the queue function is the biggest thing that would make this more user friendly.

I'd love to see an expansion in the number of available titles. In particular, the TV section is not updated nearly as often as the main movie section. I kept the service after the trial mainly to keep watching "Jimmy Stewart," then continued exploring the movies and felt it was worth it. But if Warners can dig up some more obscurities like "Jericho," the TV section alone would be an enticement. After all, 10 bucks a month is a lot cheaper than paying 50 bucks for a season set.

I suppose at some point, Warner Brothers will start rotating its titles, and as new ones are added, some may be dropped. I hope that's not the case, and I hope that if it DOES happen, the channel will at least give better notice than Netflix does. For now, though, the catalogue is expanding slowly but surely with no end in sight. At launch, it didn't seem like such a good deal, but it adds value each week as it grows the library, and I am enjoying it right now. If it keeps this pricepoint and continues to bolster its selection, in a few months, this might really be something.for the enthusiast, if not necessarily something the general public is going to seek out.

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