Chat-room speculation is circulating that Criterion, arguably the flagship boutique physical media company in the world, may be drawing down their UK/Region B operation.
Eagle-eyed fans are worried that ongoing stock issues with certain titles, combined with a downturn in the number of releases (just two a month in recent times), form part of a pattern suggesting Criterion could shutter their Region B arm and instead concentrate solely on the United States, where they enjoy much wider brand recognition and sit atop the boutique pile with a burgeoning streaming channel.
Criterion’s crown as boutique blu-ray champions has been slipping in recent years, despite their prestige and generally stellar output.
They were slow to adopt the 4K UHD format and in October last year they laid off 16 staffers in the United States as part of a reorganisation.
Their hegemony has been challenged by an ever-increasing number of upstarts, which are perhaps more pronounced in the UK where they were late to get a foothold.
Masters of Cinema (Eureka), Artificial Eye (Curzon), BFI, Arrow, Indicator and new label Radiance are among the companies fighting for a slice of the physical media pie.
There are only so many distribution rights to go around and 4K being region free has muddied the licensing waters further (Criterion are yet to put out any of their titles on 4K officially in the UK).
Criterion’s lovely-looking Small Axe boxset, based on the Steve McQueen series about Black life in London, is available in the United States and not the United Kingdom - a textbook example of rights issues that plague not just Criterion but all physical media labels.
Even streaming service MUBI, headquartered in London, has branched out to physical releases, blocking the path for Criterion Region A titles such as Petite Maman, Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World.
Criterion have always treated their Region B operation as the ugly step-child. It was only launched in April 2016 with six titles and since then the monthly releases have been regular, although scattershot. They are rarely synced with the offerings in the United States (and when they are, they’re not 4K).
In April one blu-ray forum member demonstrated how in 2023 Criterion were happy giving Region B some of their old titles (US release date in brackets):
Breakfast Club (Jan 2018)
Baron Munchausen (Jan 2023)
Vivre Sa Vie (Apr 2010)
Imitation of Life (Jan 2023)
Magnificent Obsession (Aug 2019)
All The Heaven Allows (Feb 2019)
Wanda (Mar 2019)
Mystery Train (Jun 2010)
Smooth Talk (Feb 2021)
Repulsion (Jul 2009)
Fists in Pocket (Sep 2019)
The Kid (Feb 2016)
It may be worth noting that Smooth Talk, expected in May, has been delayed until 26 June.
Add that to the fact that one year ago the RRP for a standard release was hiked from £17 to £23 and you understand the concern and anger from customers and collectors.
Not just that but two releases a month is now considered standard, not three. Retailers such as HMV currently say the Lone Wolf & Cub boxset “has now been discontinued and is no longer available.”.
It is the same story for Blow Out (which has recently been given a 4K upgrade in the United States). It’s also unavailable on Amazon, with the retailer saying: “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.”
Criterion only got around to actually putting out the disc for Region B in 2021. Three years later and some chancers are listing it as ‘OOP’ on eBay and trying to get £33 for it. For £10 more shoppers can import the 4K version from the United States.
Now, there is a chance they are just between printings.
Or, for those who don’t drink the Criterion Kool-Aid, it could even be good news that another UK label has picked up the rights and will put out their own 4K edition based on the new restoration.
But the signs are ominous and communication has never been Criterion’s strong suit. The ‘UKCriterion’ Twitter account is entirely unofficial and unaffiliated with the brand.
There was supposed to be an announcement for the July Region B releases at the end of April or at the latest early May but as of publication there is no sign thus far, and no explanation why not (when late in the United States they will often at least say so and provide a cheeky teaser of what the announcement will include).
I’ve reached out to Criterion themselves and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, responsible for the UK distribution, for comment on the delay, but thus far they are yet to reply.