“Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want” – Devo
Call me a backwards curmudgeon, but I already miss physical media. While DVD and Blu-ray sales have continued to decline (and the outlook of 4K Blu-ray uncertain), streaming has become the mode of choice for most people. Yes, the writing’s been on the wall for quite a while, but the proverbial canary in the coal mine was the gradual shift in my voluminous Netflix DVD queue. Over the years, more and more films were banished to their version of purgatory, the “Saved” section, never to see the light of day again. My frustration has only increased as this phantom queue has become bloated, while the options for the active queue have shrunk. Lately, it’s become an all too common experience to feel the joy of learning about a new movie, only to have it crushed when I look for it on Netflix and discover there’s no availability date (or worse, the search yields nothing).
Don’t get me wrong. I find streaming services invaluable and undeniably convenient. With avenues such as Netflix streaming, Hulu, You Tube and countless others, you have access to thousands of movies and TV shows at the push of a button, no disc required. But there’s a downside to this instant gratification mindset. For those who want to delve deeper into the rabbit hole, streaming media just isn’t enough. With the perceived abundance of available titles, there are many more classics, oddballs, and forgotten gems that never make it to these digital shores. Not to say you can’t find quality programming (Hulu has a nice cross-section of the Criterion Collection), but we’re fooled into thinking more choices exist when too much of their movie catalog is dominated by dreck, such as the latest Evil Bong movie, or some direct-to-video excreta from The Asylum. Even when there’s worthwhile content, titles can come and go overnight.
There’s something to be said for media you can hold in your hand. As with book, LP or VHS collections, there’s a real, tangible connection that goes far beyond the mere paper and plastic. For some of us, the simple act of picking something up and holding it in our hands resonates with us. I purchased my very first laserdisc, Fantasia, before I even had a player. And I practically broke the bank with my massive, 9-disc Star Wars Definitive Collection. I wouldn’t dream of parting with my Criterion DVD of Hausu or one of my most recent acquisitions, a British Blu-ray of Quatermass and the Pit (the DVD has been out of print in the U.S. for at least a decade). To the collector/film buff, one of the pleasures of DVDs goes beyond the movie. The extra content can be a veritable gold mine, with featurettes, feature-length documentaries, photo galleries, trivia and if we’re really lucky, an audio commentary (or two). Sadly, such niceties are in danger of going the way of the trilobite in the streaming age. While iTunes offers customers the option to download audio commentaries for some movies, how many folks will actually purchase that extra content? I’m not a market analyst, but my guess is only a few dedicated cinephiles will bother. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. For the vast majority of consumers, it’s all about the movie, and nothing else.
Of course, this commoditization of movies is nothing new. Many moons ago, when I worked at a mom and pop (no, really… it was run by a mom and pop) video store, during VHS’s glory days, the oft-repeated customer mantra was: “What’s new, that’s good, that I haven’t seen yet?” To some of the less-discriminating clientele, this entailed a weekly ritual of indiscriminately reserving every major release of the week, and collecting their stack of tapes, to be consumed over the weekend (only to repeat the cycle the following week). The vast majority of these movies were the latest and supposedly greatest offerings from the Hollywood movie factory, with nary a thought to the multitude of classics, quirky independents, or foreign language films collecting dust on the shelves. Nothing’s really changed; only now we’re witnessing this behavior on a virtual scale.
DVD isn’t dead yet, although the undertaker is taking measurements. At the same time, the format appears to be experiencing a mini-renaissance, with “boutique” labels that cater to the enthusiasts. Does every movie demand a special edition or a place on the collector’s shelf? Probably not, but it’s nice to know they’re still around. So, what’s a budget-minded film fan to do? It’s not within my means to buy substantially more movies, nor is it possible to belong to every streaming service out there. For me, there will always be a push-pull between buying and renting, as long as the option still exists. There’s still a place for DVDs and their cousins to co-exist with streaming media. At the risk of sounding like someone from the skinny jeans/handlebar mustache crowd, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who will mourn the eventual passing of physical media. As books and LPs continue to enjoy a thriving niche market, let’s hope enough of us are still around who care about the spinning, silvery discs.