The Beginning of the End for Physical Media for Movies?

It is no surprise that the idea of using DVDs and Blu-Rays to watch movies has become somewhat antiquated, especially with the rapid change in broadband availability making high-quality streams of movie not just a luxury but an expected part of any internet service. With the rise of the major streaming powerhouses of Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes as well as the proliferation of niche streaming services like FilmStruck (still not in Canada!), Shudder, and Fandor among others the need to own physical media has never been lower than before. I willingly confess that as someone who is overflowing with DVDs and Blu-Rays that I am an anomaly, an archaic relic of a bygone time, and that the market should definitely not try to cater to my needs. But still, news like this stings:

As David Ehrlich states, the issue is not the quality of the movie which to be honest is not one of Todd Haynes’ best (even if it is a decent movie). The issue is that this represents the first serious sign that the industry may be ready to abandon the physical media market altogether. And I have problems with that for several reasons.

But before I do that let me caveat this entire argument by saying that I have no interest in pitting digital against physical media. For the most part the advent of streaming has been a boon for cinephiles like me. My film education was kickstarted when Netflix showed up in my life, both in its original DVD-rental-by-mail model but especially when Netflix Instant showed up in 2007 because for some reason it was filled to the brim with classic movies that I was free to check out at the click of a button (unfortunately Netflix has seemingly purged its classic film catalog in the interim). And right now, as I live in Oshawa on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto area my appreciation of on-demand rental services like iTunes has only grown as there are no real video-rental options and my local library, while surprisingly robust in some areas, is still limited. The streaming services available to me have given me the ability to traverse all over the filmic landscape from my couch, and for that I am grateful.

And yet, this latest development troubles me. As the writer of Homebody Movies, a blog dedicated to my extensive home movie library it is a little bit of an existential crisis. For the first time my collection contains two movies (Wonderstruck and Kogonada’s Columbus) that are completely unavailable on DVD or Blu-Ray anywhere in the world. But beyond my potential existential crisis, I think this is problematic for the future of film in the long run for these following reasons:


The fact is that though many of us live in regions with multiple high-speed internet providers, it still is the case that large swaths of North America are stuck with only one internet provider with less-than-ideal speeds for HD streaming, let alone 4K which is where the direction is seemingly headed. And of course if we look at a more global vantage point, it is clear that high-speed internet still remains a luxury rather than a utility.

The problems that this poses for the cinephile should be clearly apparent. Without a consistently high-quality internet connection viewers will be forced to stream video either in a lower definition or not at all. And while most streaming services do have a download option for offline viewing, the fact is that a high-quality download of a movie will still take about 4 GB of space which in the absence of high-quality internet will still take an eternity to download while occupying a sizeable chunk of real estate on one’s hardrive.

And this of course assumes that you have any internet at all. When I moved to Canada for some reason or another it took me a good six weeks before I could get the internet hooked-up. While this major inconvenience allowed me the “thrill” of living in a throwback era it completely also crippled most of the home entertainment options in my household save for one: my physical home media collection. There is an elegant simplicity in knowing that as long as I had a device that could play a DVD or Blu-Ray then I could play any movie in my collection regardless of my current internet connectivity status.


One of the clear benefits of the advent of physical media was the sudden ability to share one’s favourite movies with your family and friends. Currently I have three DVDs sitting in front of my TV from one of those film-loving friends as she felt my movie education was severely Ronald Colman-deficient (and she was not wrong). And the handoff couldn’t have been simpler: she was coming over to my house for something else, brought the movies with her, and handed them to me as she walked through the door.

Now compare that with the two movies that I only own on digital: Wonderstruck and Columbus. The only way I can share those movies with her is either (1) she has to come over to my house to watch it, (2) she has to have a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription where fortunately both of those movies are currently streaming, (3) I have to share with her my iTunes password (which isn’t going to happen) and/or my Netflix/Amazon Prime password (slightly more likely to happen) so she can have access to it, or (4) she has to personally buy that movie for herself on iTunes.

And this is tragic because one of the clear vital life-bloods of the movie-fan community is being able to say “Hey check out this movie! And here’s my copy for you to borrow!” (I mean, that sentiment is at least 80% of the basis for this blog) And beyond the film-fan community, there are countless stories of directors, actors and actresses, cinematographers, and other people in the industry who began their careers by obsessively watching a bunch of movies from their favourite directors, actors and actresses, cinematographers etc. Most of that was made possible by the ease of shareability in home media. You could borrow a movie from your friends, from your local video rental store, from your local library, from the private collection of your film professor, or whatever other avenue you can think off with little complications. Digital media, as we have seen, is much harder to share.


To be fair, the amount of movies and TV shows that are available on streaming services has grown since Netflix introduced it more than a decade ago. Even up here in Canada, there is the big three of Netflix, Amazon, and CraveTV (basically for all things HBO and Showtime) and a proliferation of niche streaming services like Shudder (horror), Fandor and MUBI (ultra-niche classic and foreign movies), Sundance Now (indie), and Acorn TV (British TV shows). And with iTunes rental services to round up the proceedings there is now much more breadth and depth to what is available online. But there are still gaping holes that remain.

Currently Wong Kar Wai masterpieces In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express are nowhere to be found on any streaming services. The same is true for anime director Satoshi Kon where his greatest works Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are conspicuously absent. Not a single Roberto Rosselini movie is available for rent on iTunes. And with the general collapse of Netflix’s movie catalogue especially on the classic movie department (Netflix currently lists a grand total of 50 movies or so in their “Classic” section), it leaves fans of classic movies in generally dire straits, at least until FilmStruck finally decides to show up on our shores (if you are reading this FilmStruck executive, please bring this up here! I and my money eagerly await you!).

Of course there is also the issue that even if a particular movie is available on a specific platform it doesn’t mean that it will stay there indefinitely. At the end of every month there is always a slew of articles written about what is about to leave Netflix at the end of the month, prompting predictable cries of outrage from consumers who clearly don’t understand how licensing agreements work. Any movie or TV show that is not specifically owned by Netflix or Amazon or Hulu is subject to contracts that expire if they are not renewed. This is precisely why those three are increasingly looking to produce their own content over licensing some other studio’s material and with the advent of Disney’s own streaming service it is clear that the major studios are catching on and looking to create their own platforms for their products. The end result will probably mean that in a few years the only way a budding cinephile to have a well-rounded library of their favourites available to them online is by paying a plethora of monthly subscription fees to a multitude of streaming services totalling what will probably be the same amount as a traditional cable bill.


It is not immediately obvious to the casual observer but there is something fundamentally different between purchasing a physical DVD/Blu-Ray and purchasing the movie digitally on a service like Amazon or iTunes. When I purchase a physical copy of the movie, I in some sense own that movie. I can hold on to that movie as long as I want and granted I have a device to play the disc I can watch it in perpetuity. I can also pass it down to my children, re-sell it online, lend it to a friend, donate it to a library, and a plethora of other options that are granted to me as the owner of a disc. As long as I skirt away from any of the activities the FBI warning at the beginning of the movie tells me not to do, I’m golden.

However things get a little bit more complicated in the digital realm. When I “buy” a movie on iTunes what I am buying is merely the rights to watch the movie on my devices and to download a digital file of the movie (to burn said digital file onto a physical disc requires skirting around in some legal grey areas). And those rights, as you might surmise are not necessarily ones I may be able to hold in perpetuity.

I learned this first hand when I moved from the US to Canada a few years ago. My physical movie library was of course packed up in boxes and arrived at my new home without any drama or incident. Moving my digital library however proved to be close to impossible as my digital rights to the movie did not transcend national borders (fortunately at that point, all my digital movies had physical counterparts). In the case of iTunes at the time switching the countries of my Apple ID meant wiping all the previous digital purchases of my account. So for awhile all my iTunes movies had to live on its own external hardrive as that was the only way I could access them. They have since apparently ratified that problem as those lost movies showed up again a year ago.

I was not so lucky with the digital copies of movies that resided on other services like VUDU or Disney Movies Anywhere. Minus some VPN maneuvering those movies remained inaccessible to me and once news came out that all those services were closing in favour of the new Movies Anywhere service (only available in US) I basically lost close to a hundred digital copies of movies because there was no way to transfer my copies over to this new service. Again, fortunately at that point all my digital copies came from codes I got from my physical copies but it illustrated my point: rights to digital copies can be revoked. If Apple ever goes out of business or ends up shutting down iTunes, there is a chance that all my right to my digital purchases might be null and void.

Of course as much as I might talk about the superiority of physical media over digital streaming the fact is that there is one clear aspect in which digital streaming is superior to physical media and that is in the financial viability of physical media for the studios.

The collapse of the DVD market of the mid-2000s was catastrophic for studios because the revenue made from DVDs more than bolstered the bottom-lines of the major studios – they had once turned box-office bombs into movies that broke even and box-office smashes into cash cows. It was only a matter of time before DVDs and Blu-Rays shifted from becoming an ever diminishing source of revenue for the studios to becoming a liability, and the two titles I mentioned at the start are key bellwethers that the day of mass-produced physical media may be coming to an end. Both Columbus and Wonderstruck are passion project movies (with Columbus being an out-and-out art film) that bombed at the box office. In the past, these were exactly the kinds of projects that would disappear from theatres quickly only to reappear on the shelves of Target and WalMart in order to recoup its costs (during the heyday of  the DVD a movie could recoup $60-100 million dollars from DVD sales alone). The fact that neither one of those movies has a DVD release yet simply indicates that the production of the DVD is probably going to cost more than the studio would ever get back from sales.

In this way the DVD and Blu-Ray industry is probably going to increasingly reflect the same dynamics that afflict the rest of the film industry: the Marvels, Pixars, LEGOs, DCs, Disneys, and Harry Potters of the film industry are going to be fine. Uber blockbusters from well-known franchises are probably alway going to be profitable enough on DVD and Blu-Rays to make them viable. The same goes for other popular movies that may not have built-in franchise recognition but nonetheless made a splash in the box-office and/or during awards season. Genre fare like horror and sci-fi will also probably be fine. But for everyone else, it is probably only a matter of time before they too become “digital-only”. The lack of major overhead costs and ease of transmission of the digital market is going to prove too alluring for studios to pass up.

But if digital is the way of the future, I have two modest proposals for the home media industry:

1. Clear up the “ownership” issue

If I purchase a movie digitally, then it should be mine in perpetuity. I should be able to download the movie easily, and I should be given permission to burn it onto a DVD-R or Blu-Ray for my personal use without having to skirt along legal lines and use several different programs to do so. If it is possible for me to easily burn my digital music library onto CD-Rs through iTunes then I should be able to do that for my movie collection as well. Even if you want me to pay an extra fee for the privilege of doing so, it should be something that is accessible to the consumer.

I also shouldn’t have to worry about international borders with regards to my movie rights – purchasing a movie on iTunes should entitle me to access that movie no matter where I am and what country my account is under in the world. If they honestly cleared up that issue, all of my other complaints would be reduced to me moaning.

2. “Vinyl-ize” the physical media market

The emergence of iTunes famously destroyed the CD market for music as almost everyone (myself included) quickly digitized their music libraries and moved their music onto their phones. It is inevitable that something similar will eventually happen to movies.

And yet once the CD market’s collapse was complete something interesting happened in that vinyl, which for so long had been an outmoded format, suddenly came back in vogue and in force. Boasting superior sound, fancier packaging, and the social cache of hipster coolness, vinyl quickly has become the way most audiophiles consume their music.

So is it too much to ask that something similar happens to the home video market? In some small sense it is already happening with boutique home video companies like the Criterion Collection, Arrow Films, and Kino Lorber among others. Currently I have right next to me the re-release of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment by Arrow Films and the packaging is gorgeous. It features a hardcover booklet with essays on the movie. The Blu-Ray itself is jam packed with interviews by Billy Wilder, commentary tracks, video essays, and other fancy special features. It is also a lovingly restored 4K transfer of the movie. There is even cover art made specifically for the release. Sure, at close to three times the usual cost of a Blu-Ray its appeal will be strictly for crazed cinephiles like me, but the fact is that we will take the bullet for that cost in a heartbeat.

So keep making more of that stuff. The collapse of the home video market for the general public may be imminent, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a specialty market for the studios to step into. Keep digging into the film archives for classic gems (or at least willingly lend them out to the specialty companies to restore and release them). Produce fun box sets whether they be of old things like Alfred Hitchcock movies or new things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1 box-set. We will eat that crap up, and willingly part with our money for it.

Just don’t give up on physical media completely. Please?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s