The Cult of the Criterion Collection: The Company Dedicated to Gathering & Distributing the Greatest Films from Around the World

There was a time, not so very long ago, when many Amer­i­cans watch­ing movies at home nei­ther knew nor cared who direct­ed those movies. Nor did they feel par­tic­u­lar­ly com­fort­able with dia­logue that some­times came sub­ti­tled, or with the “black bars” that appeared below the frame. The con­sid­er­able evo­lu­tion of these audi­ences’ gen­er­al rela­tion­ship to film since then owes some­thing to the adop­tion of widescreen tele­vi­sions, but also to the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion: the home-video brand that has been tar­get­ing its pres­tige releas­es of acclaimed films square­ly at cinephiles — and even more so, at cinephiles with a col­lect­ing impulse — for four decades now.

“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,” writes the New York Times’ Mag­a­zine’s Joshua Hunt in a recent piece on how Cri­te­ri­on became a (or per­haps the) cin­e­mat­ic tastemak­er.

“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.”

With the com­ing of the more suc­cess­ful DVD for­mat in the late nine­teen-nineties, such audio-com­men­tary tracks became a sta­ple fea­ture of video releas­es, Cri­te­ri­on or oth­er­wise. They were a god­send to the cinephiles of my gen­er­a­tion com­ing of age in that era, a kind of infor­mal but inten­sive film school taught by not just expert schol­ars but, often, the auteurs them­selves. “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” — includ­ing a cer­tain Wes Ander­son, who would go on to record com­men­tary tracks for the Cri­te­ri­on releas­es of his own pic­tures.

At this point, Cri­te­ri­on has “become the arbiter of what makes a great movie, more so than any Hol­ly­wood stu­dio or awards cer­e­mo­ny.” It’s also amassed an unusu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed cus­tomer base, as explained in the Roy­al Ocean Film Soci­ety video “The Cult of the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion.” “We’re at a point in film cul­ture where brands are increas­ing­ly more pop­u­lar than prod­ucts,” says host Andrew Sal­adi­no, a self-con­fessed Cri­te­ri­on devo­tee. “More and more, it seems as though the films and the peo­ple who made them are sec­ondary to the name and logo of the com­pa­ny behind them,” a phe­nom­e­non that Cri­te­ri­on — itself a kind of media uni­verse — some­how both par­tic­i­pates in and ris­es above.

“While stu­dios and stream­ing ser­vices chase audi­ences by pro­duc­ing end­less sequels and spin­offs,” writes Hunt, “Cri­te­ri­on has built a brand that audi­ences trust to lead them.” I can tes­ti­fy to its hav­ing led me to the work of auteurs from Chris Mark­er to Jacques Tati, Aki­ra Kuro­sawa to Yasu­jiro Ozu, Robert Alt­man to Nico­las Roeg. Today, bud­ding cin­e­ma enthu­si­asts can even ben­e­fit from the advice of famous direc­tors and actors for nav­i­gat­ing its now‑1,650-title-strong cat­a­log through its “Cri­te­ri­on clos­et” video series. Recent­ly, that clos­et has host­ed the likes of Paul Gia­mat­ti, Willem Dafoe, and Wim Wen­ders, who pulls off the shelf a copy of his own Until the End of the World — which Cri­te­ri­on released, of course, in its near­ly five-hour-long direc­tor’s cut. “I always think this is maybe the best thing I’ve done in my life,” he says, “but then again, who am I to judge?”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Art of Restor­ing Clas­sic Films: Cri­te­ri­on Shows You How It Refreshed Two Hitch­cock Movies

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names His Top 10 Films in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

Steve Buscemi’s Top 10 Film Picks (from The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion)

Slavoj Žižek Names His Favorite Films from The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

120 Artists Pick Their Top 10 Films in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Mitch says:

    Cri­te­ri­on is sort of
    Beyond the Val­ley of the Brat­tle The­ater…
    Sec­ond gen­er­a­tion
    Co-found­ed by the son of a co-founder of the Brat­tle The­ater (1953, Cam­bridge MA

    The Brat was itself a co-founder of the Art House move­ment in Amer­i­ca, among oth­er things estab­lish­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­ny (Janus Films) that first brought to the US the hith­er-to unavail­able films of Kuro­sawa, Bergman, Truf­faut, etc. Janus con­tin­ues today in its mis­sion.

    This is all fab­u­lous.
    I moved to Cam­bridge 45 years ago (think­ing it would be for a few years) in part for the film cul­ture.

    Thank you for the effort to bring the Cri­te­ri­on project to wider atten­tion.

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