WCFTR, now on laserdisc!

Matt St. John

The audiovisual holdings at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research span numerous formats and sizes, from 16mm film prints to 2-inch videotapes, and we recently welcomed laserdiscs into the fold!

Earlier this year, we received a donation of 425 titles on laserdisc from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. This new series in their collection supplements the paper materials that document their careers as prolific, leading scholars in film studies, and the film titles in the laserdisc series reflect their interests as researchers and collectors. While WCFTR has historically accepted donations of home media formats on just a few occasions, many of the films in this donation are not widely available, and others include features unreleased on newer formats. Beyond the specific titles, laserdiscs represent an important part of commercial home media’s history, as a release format with a unique status that never experienced widespread popularity. 

A Bloomingdale’s ad from the February 28, 1985 New York Times advertising a $799 player.

Introduced as a commercial product in North America in 1981, laserdiscs were geared toward collectors, as an early home video format known for better image and sound quality than VHS.* Many laserdisc releases also included supplemental features, and some appealed to collectors with special packaging or materials like liner notes, commemorative booklets, or lithographs. Despite the benefits for collectors, the format did present some drawbacks. Laserdisc players were expensive, and the 12-inch diameter discs could only hold one hour of media on each side, so the need to frequently flip or change the discs made for a cumbersome viewing experience. Laserdiscs never reached the commercial success of other home media formats like VHS or later DVD, but their contribution to the history of home media remains notable for the range of titles that were released and the elements created to set them apart from other formats. 

Hong Kong Godfather on laserdisc

The laserdiscs donated by Bordwell and Thompson were released between 1982 and 1999. Hollywood films appear in the collection, but the titles represent multiple national cinemas and historical periods. The majority of the laserdiscs are Hong Kong action films and other Asian films – many are connected to Bordwell’s research for the 2000 book Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, which is also documented through research materials in the paper series of the Bordwell/Thompson collection. These laserdiscs showcase the genre fare of a vibrant film industry, mostly from the 1990s, with films from major distributors including Golden Harvest and Mei Ah Entertainment. Here are just a few of the eye-catching titles on the list: Encounter of the Spooky Kind, Hong Kong Godfather, and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Just a Violinist.

The Criterion Collection’s laserdisc release of Halloween

Beyond the Hong Kong action films in the collection, other titles underscore the status of laserdiscs as a collectors format. The Criterion Collection started as a distributor of laserdiscs , and the thirteen Criterion titles now at WCFTR show the range of the company’s Hollywood releases in the 1980s and 1990s, with classic films such as Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Halloween. These releases include supplemental features, accompanying materials, and context for serious viewers, like the explanation of how to watch Halloween in order with the extra scenes filmed to replace graphic footage that couldn’t air on NBC. Other collector’s editions with unique materials include Disney releases of classic titles such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia and David Lynch’s sitcom On the Air.

We are grateful to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson for donating this exciting and extensive collection, which allows us to expand the types of media researchers can access at WCFTR. The finding aid for the collection will include the list of titles soon, and thanks to practicum student Jacob Wolf for processing the laserdiscs in spring 2023! 

*Information on the history of laserdiscs from James Kendrick’s article “Aspect Ratios and Joe Six-Packs: Home Theater Enthusiasts’ Battle to Legitimize the DVD Experience,” published in the Fall 2005 issue of Velvet Light Trap.