Then, Voyager

A brief history of Bob Stein and the The Voyager Company.
Part 1 of 2: The CD-ROM.


Bob Stein was never really a film buff, books and publishing were always his game. That’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy and understand film and technology, he just wanted to marry it all to the format and concept of the physical book. While doing research in the library during the early 1980s, he came upon interesting articles about the rising technology of optical video discs and their potential capabilities. He was very intrigued and started down the laser disc path. Over the next few years he worked as a consultant for companies such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Atari Research Group, and Warner Bros. During this time he wrote a paper for the EB touting the concept of “The Intelligent Encyclopedia” that could use the technology being developed on optical media. Other ideas developed at Atari/WB met with dead ends as this was the first loud death of the video game industry and the capacity and interest for innovation was little to nil.

It was during these days at WB that Bob and his wife Aleen purchased the electronic rights from RKO for “Citizen Kane” and “King Kong.” Execs didn’t think these old films were worth anything on the market and let the Steins have them for a small 10,000 dollar sum. With these properties Bob, Aleen, and a former WB executive named Roger Smith started a new venture with the name The Criterion Collection. The story of how they teamed up with Janus to form The Voyager Company will be told later in Part 2 of this story.

While the CC side of the house was building its following and impressive library of films on laser disc, Bob Stein turned his attention back to computer technology and it’s potential with the written word and music. By many accounts the first CD-ROM on the market in 1989, CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sold well over 130,000 copies in its day. Many other other titles followed in this vein including The Complete Maus, The Residents Freak Show, and Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel. Voyager also worked closely with Apple on educational titles like Who Built America? The two companies worked in tandem to bring an early prototype of the iBook to the Mac with 75 Expanded Books on floppy disc.

Voyager EB Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, Voyager EB, 1992.

Working with the Criterion Collection as an in house partner, Voyager developed and published 3 CD-ROMs with full movies and various supplements from the laser discs, as well as new opportunities for immersion. CD-ROM being a digital format, they were able present the movie and supplements in a much more interactive way than the analog linear limitations of the laser disc format. This is definitely the precursor to the DVD experience that was right around the corner. Please click thumbnails for demo of each disk.

VoySpinal Tap VoyHardDaysNight VoyAllMankind

Two other titles with Criterion content, but not an entire movie, were developed as well.

VoyCriterionMovies VoyMacbeth

By late 1996, the writing was on the wall. The Internet was beginning its reign, the DVD was only a few months away, and money was getting tight. Criterion’s profits were being eaten up by the CD-ROM side of the business, the Stein’s marriage was over, and the Janus side was eager to go it alone. A 35 million dollar buyout from Paul Allen at Microsoft was turned down. It was time to split up and move on. Bob Stein is still very active in the publishing industry with such ventures as The Institute for the Future of the Book. Aleen Stein developed Organa, a strong player in the children’s DVD industry, and it still an active co-owner of The Criterion Collection.

And of course, the fine folks at Janus took the Criterion Collection from the waning days of the laser disc to the heady days of the DVD, and now the smaller focus of the BD days of highest quality.

That story coming soon in Part 2 of Then, Voyager.


Note: This article was completely sourced from Internet information. Errors are those of the original articles, but editing and assumptions I take blame for.

Primary Sources:

Wired | Triple Canopy | Kairos | Edge