A couple of weeks ago, I went to New York, where I spent much of my time in a friend’s new apartment. It was bigger than the last place he and his family lived, but it looked familiar. They’d brought along much of the artwork and furniture from their past apartment, which looked good in the new surroundings. They’d settled into the new place nicely, but one feature was missing: a wall of movies. A screenwriter and fan of great films—I’m told the two often but don’t always go hand-in-hand—he’d once bought disc after disc and displayed them proudly. Where were they now? “They’re in those cardboard boxes,” I was told. “We still have to buy shelves for them.”
His lack of urgency is symptomatic, and I’ve come to share its symptoms. Where I once made a point of trying to pick up every film of note—or at least all the films I loved—on disc, I gave up that practice a long time ago. Some of this is a matter of changing priorities. (Adulthood in general and parenthood in particular can cause budgets to shift.) It’s also a matter of practicality: There’s always the question of where to keep all those movies. Mostly, however, it’s a matter of availability. Now that many movies can be found with a few clicks, it seems less imperative, even for someone who writes about film for a living, to keep a thousands-deep library of movies around. I still buy Blu-rays, but not like I used to, and always with an eye toward whether it’s something I really need. (Or something my kid will watch over and over.) Like my friend, I got out of the habit, and the habit has never returned. (Full disclosure: We still get a lot of free movies here at The Dissolve. Consider me an outlier in at least that respect.)
If I were to turn this into a physical-media-is-dying-or-dead-already column, it wouldn’t be anything you hadn’t read before, nor would it be entirely accurate. If DVDs or Blu-rays are on their way out, they’re taking their time. DVD’s demise has been predicted for a long time. Blu-rays, now in their ninth year, have never fully taken their place. And it’s true that neither format is conquering the world. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study released last year predicted that digital home-entertainment formats would surpass physical formats by 2016, and that DVDs would fall more than 28 percent between 2013 and 2018. Factor in Apple leading the trend away from optical drives, Netflix half-assing its disc-by-mail service after attempting to rename it (with a likely motive of selling it off), the death of Blockbuster, and the dramatic thinning of other video stores, and the future doesn’t look bright for films on physical media.
But that doesn’t mean it looks nonexistent. Even as Netflix’s emphasis shifts dramatically to streaming, as of July 2014, the disc service still had 6.26 million subscribers. In a piece headlined, “Who are the 6 million people still getting Netflix by mail? I’m one of them,” Guardian tech reporter Alex Hern lays out the most compelling arguments for films on disc, particularly on Blu-ray. They look better—even a 1080p stream can show signs of compression—they sound better, and they’re not dependent on the reliability of an Internet connection. Beyond this, they still make money, even if it isn’t as much money. Sony in particular has suffered from Blu-ray’s inability to become the next big thing, and the days of a movie redeeming its poor box-office performance by becoming a hit on DVD are over. Yet the medium persists. Writing for Forbes in 2013, Dade Hayes laid out six reasons movies would continue to exist on physical media. Some are more convincing than others two years later, but the final argument, that physical media continues to be a habit for much of the world, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, is the most compelling of all.
But who wants a future of Wal-Mart shelves bulging with grimly packaged, movie-only, no-frills editions? If movies on disc are going to survive, they’re going to have to reverse some alarming current trends and try some new innovations. Here are a few suggestions:
DVD is an outmoded technology. It’s impossible to overstate how important it was to the evolution of home viewing. Improving on the Laserdisc and bringing its innovations to a much broader market, the format emphasized presentation, making films look and sound better than ever before, and presenting them in their proper aspect ratio. DVDs also emphasized depth. The best ones doubled as annotated editions of films, using special features to contextualize them via audio commentaries, making-of docs, and other added elements. Gone were the days when a muddy, cropped VHS tape would have to do. DVDs will live on, but their time as the best format for current televisions has passed. They look fine, but those who care about having the best possible versions of notable films know that Blu-ray is superior to DVD, and that Blu-rays’ expanded storage capacity can let them hold more special features.
That’s your audience. And while economically, it might not be a large enough audience to support the suggestions I’m about to make, let’s indulge in a bit of blue-sky thinking and assume it is, or that it can be grown to be large enough.
This one’s a little too obvious, maybe, akin to telling car manufacturers to be more like BMW. The Criterion Collection is the gold standard for home video. But what the company does isn’t completely inimitable. Other companies could also package the films carefully, fill out discs with thoughtful features, and treat every film like it’s worthy of a Blu-ray in the first place. Criterion does this better than anyone, but there’s a huge gap between an exhaustive Criterion release and the now-standard, half-assed Blu-ray release. There were better 2014 films than Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, for instance, but few as fascinating, controversial, or so famously the product of a clash between a director and a studio who didn’t always see eye-to-eye. And while it’s probably too soon to perform a full look at the whole, uncensored story, surely the film’s Blu-ray—which lists at $41.99—should have included more than three 20-minute making-of featurettes. Part of what made DVDs so exciting in their golden age was the wide variety of features found on many discs—and expected of high-profile releases of Noah’s scale. Why should a superior technology be giving viewers less?
It’s not like people don’t want special features. They do, but this shouldn’t be abused. When Star Trek Into Darkness debuted on Blu-ray in fall 2013, Paramount split the film’s special features across different outlets, putting some on the version sold at Best Buy, some on the version sold at Target, and reserving others for those who purchased the film as an iTunes download. Buyers cried foul, and rightly so, since it seemed like an attempt to take advantage of the completist impulse of the most hardcore fans. This was an exceptional case, but an illustrative one: There’s still a demand for features-packed Blu-rays when they’re done right.
They should look good, too. Not to pile on Noah, but let’s take a look at that Blu-ray cover:
It gives a distinctive film the now-standard big-heads-and-title treatment. That might have made sense in the video-store days, when films had to compete for the eyes of those scanning the new-release wall at Blockbuster, but does it make sense today? Wouldn’t it make more sense to treat Blu-ray covers like book covers, and attempt to create something distinctive that will look appealing on a shelf for years to come? (See also, “Be more like The Criterion Collection.”)
This is being done a bit on the margins. Target shoppers can pick up an edition of Noah in wood packaging, which is slightly more attractive, even if it seems a bit at odds with the film’s environmental themes. Best Buy customers were offered a limited-edition SteelBook version. SteelBooks are an interesting phenomenon: Metal cases that usually feature unique artwork, and are usually pressed in limited editions. Their very existence reveals an audience for nicely packaged editions of movies, even when that movie is Transformers: Age Of Extinction.
We gave 48 Hrs. the Movie Of The Week treatment a few weeks back, so I ordered it on Blu-ray. What arrived looked and sounded fine—again, Blu-ray is a terrific format—but came in a garish package with no special features. This is no minor film: It’s the movie that made Eddie Murphy a movie star, and one of Walter Hill’s defining efforts. Admittedly, 48 Hrs. wasn’t served well in the DVD era either, but why not reverse that? If nothing else, consider including some liner notes from a film writer. (We are, on the whole, a perpetually underemployed bunch used to working for fees that won’t bust any budget.)
Catalog neglect has become such an issue that third parties have started taking up the slack. Olive Films, for instance, puts out everything from golden-age Hollywood titles to Cujo to Eat Drink Man Woman. Olive’s releases tend to lack special features, but just getting the movies out in the world virtually qualifies as a public service. Newer lines like Kino Lorber Studio Classics and Cohen Media Group have also filled in this enormous gap. But it’s now possible for even huge films to fall through the cracks, too. Founded in 2011, Twilight Time licenses studio films that might otherwise never see Blu-ray release, and puts them out in limited editions. These include a few obscurities, but also titles like Philadelphia and Sleepless In Seattle. The Twilight Time releases that have fallen out of print now fetch healthy prices on eBay. In other words: There’s an audience out there. If studios were to take a few more cues from the music industry, which has made events out of vinyl-catalog re-releases designed to appeal to audiophiles with a sense of history, they might be surprised by what they find.
Already following the suggestions above, Shout! Factory has done an exemplary job with home-video releases. It also made the canny move of creating Scream Factory, an imprint used for horror films ranging from bonafide classics like The Howling to less-respected films like Ghoulies and Ghoulies II. By treating every title, even the more dubious ones, with the respect of a fan, they’ve created an expectation of quality that’s allowed the imprint itself to develop a following. A fan of the genre who might not have heard of an obscure ’80s slasher film like New Year’s Evil will be more inclined to seek it out just because it carries the Scream Factory name.
Studios used to be better at this sort of thing. In DVD’s heyday, Warner Home Video often challenged Criterion with thoughtful releases, which often took the form of unofficial imprints within the main Warner imprint. Invaluable box sets dedicated to film noir, gangster movies, musicals, or particular directors and actors doubled as educations on their subjects, filling out discs with period shorts, cartoons, and other relevant bonus features. There’s no reason a cannily packaged Blu-ray set or specialist imprint couldn’t do the same. Sometimes it’s less a matter of finding an audience than cultivating one.
Finally, it’s time for everyone to acknowledge that we live in an age that hasn’t gotten rid of physical media yet, but doesn’t want always to rely on it. I love watching a movie on my television at home, but I also love the convenience of being able to watch on my tablet. Including digital copies as part of the package—a practice Criterion has yet to embrace—gives fans the best of both worlds. Here’s another case where the music industry could serve as a model: With digital downloads included as part of the purchase, music fans are able to have their LPs and their MP3s. Amazon has offered a similar incentive via its Kindle MatchBook, providing those who purchase physical copies of a book with the option of a digital copy at a small price, or for free. The future of media isn’t digital or physical. It’s digital and physical. We want to stream and download our movies, sure, but for many, maybe more than home-video companies imagine, we also want physical versions of the films we love. We, want in other words, to fill our shelves. Give us a reason.