OK, if you didn’t read the above article To sum it up, Paramount are releasing the new Star Trek: into darkness Blu-ray minus several bonus features which are to be saved as exclusives. One for online, others for different chain stores. This basically means, anyone buying the Blu-ray from any other source is not getting all the content produced for the disc and to get all the bonus features you will need to buy multiple copies of the disc. This is sort of like having to buy two copies of the same text book in order to get the footnotes.
Exclusivity deals happen all the time. Quite often, High street retailer HMV would get special exclusive cover art on their releases for example, and Blockbusters would get certain titles to rent well in advance of other high street outlets, usually on the proviso that they were for rental only. Distributors have always been open to giving certain retailers good offers to keep them sweet, especially if they place big orders and are promoting and selling lots of their product. The withholding of special features and content is a relatively new phenomenon and not a welcome one.
With the audio commentary being an exclusive to people watching the film online one can’t help but wonder if this is a subtle ‘nudge’ to get film fans watching more of their stuff on streaming. Sure it must be nice to sell a load of DVD’s but when people pay a monthly subscription fee and you don’t have to hand anything over one can’t help wonder if that’s not somehow more tempting. It eliminates secondary markets like used sales and rather than a one off payment, customers keep paying to watch.
When home video first became affordable, film studio’s were slow on the uptake. The technology had been around for years but had been too expensive for mass consumption. When players became affordable, the porn industry helped win the battle for VHS over Betamax and smaller companies began releasing their low-budget wares to great financial success, Hollywood was quick to get involved once it saw the sort of cash small independent companies were making bypassing theatres and putting titles straight out on video. Eventually big budget Hollywood fare would find itself gaining a second life on home video and some titles that didn’t perform well at the box office actually found their audience on video. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing came and went at cinema’s with little fanfare. Audiences were keener to see Steven Spielberg’s more upbeat and family friendly film about alien invaders than Carpenter’s bleak nihilistic body horror that felt tonally more in keeping with the films of the seventies. It was a film discovered on Home video and gradually became a huge hit through word of mouth and recently had a big budget prequel/remake released.
Other titles would end up going straight to video. To some it seemed like a dumping ground for bad films but quite often if a film underperformed in America the studios would release straight to video in other territories like the UK. It didn’t mean the films were always bad ones, there is a lot of affection for some of these straight to video titles even today. Smaller companies would make their films specifically for Home video. Where previously the films they produced might find themselves playing drive in and Grindhouse theatres, these films found themselves a far larger audience on home video and could gain global releases. When Hollywood all but stopped making Horror movies for most of the nineties, a lot of smaller companies started making titles to release directly onto home video and it’s pretty much a fact that the commercial end of Italian cinema stayed alive for years thanks to the format.
Another format that ran alongside video was Laserdisc. It had been around since the 70’s and offered far superior quality in both picture and sound to video formats. The downside was it was expensive to make and players cost a lot as did the discs.
Laserdisc was the collectors choice of format. It was never massively popular in Europe but it was the format of choice in parts of Asia and America. People who bought them in Britain and America tended to be the hardened film buffs who wanted to see their films in the best quality popular. Most films on video were ‘panned and scanned’ which removed detail from the top and sides of the image in order to fill square screens of televisions. Laser disc made the effort to present the film’s in their original aspect ratio preserving the entirety of the image. The other benefit to Laser was Bonus features. Aside from higher quality image and sound a film on Laserdisc could offer Audio commentary tracks from people involved with the film where they discuss the making of the film and can refer to specific scenes as they play on screen. They could also offer making-of documentary’s, deleted scenes and promotional material for the film such as trailers and poster art. For the casual film goer these things may seem irrelevant or unnecessary but for film fans these features could add an extra dimension to the experience of watching the film and turn the discs into collectors items. Like a hardcore music fan might have a vinyl collection a film fan could collect their favourite films with all the extras to watch again at their leisure. For academics the features were also incredibly useful for research and helping to record the history of film.
DVD, which most people are familiar with today was the result of the technology to store films on disc format becoming affordable. The format quickly made Laserdisc redundant as it offered comparable quality at a far lower price. At first some companies did try and short change the fans, the feature length documentary on the making of Jaws was significantly shorter on the first special edition release of the film in order to fit all the data on one disc. As the format matured however, more film fans grew to appreciate bonus features on a disc to the point its now an expected part of a films release on home video. Recently as Blu-ray was released a lot of titles that came to Blu-ray seemed to be missing a lot of bonus features from the DVD’s that annoyed me to the point I didn’t buy them. Hostel was ‘bare bones’ and contained NOTHING while Hellboy had all the features of the 2-disc edition but missed everything from the three disc directors cut.
One of Blu-rays main advantages is its enhanced quality. Modern televisions have a greater number of lines on the screen which means DVD releases look poorer quality than they did on older TV’s. The HD quality of Blu-ray manages to offer enough lines (1080) to offer greater quality. Blu-ray also offers more storage space to theoretically offer even more bonus material on a single disc. Sales on Blu-ray have been decent but not as exceptional as DVD, one theory suggests the gap between DVD and Blu-ray was too short but more likely the ability to Download and stream films is more to blame.
For the casual film fans, the people who would rather rent a film,watch it and return it, streaming offers a cheaper way to do that. As broadband speeds and higher quality Wi-Fi offers greater speeds for home internet the convenience of simply streaming a film has pretty much decimated the rental market to the point Blockbuster’s, pretty much the market leader in Home rental even up to a few years ago, is now all but extinct. As for Downloading, well it IS illegal for sure, but its also incredibly hard to police so with little chance of prosecution it’s very tempting for a lot of people to simply go online and download the films they want to see.
So, is physical media dead then?
No, not really. While fans can check out films they haven’t seen yet more cheaply via services like Netflix and Love Film, when it comes to tried and tested classics there is still a demand for the physical formats and part of the way that demand is being created is through bonus features. When I tunes began offering music for download it destroyed sales of singles on CD’s but not Album’s and music collectors continued to seek out albums on vinyl. In fact there has been a growing demand for vinyl, a lot of albums are still released on the format and FOPP a subsidiary of HMV was keeping the franchise chugging along with sales of the format.
Collectors and fans will always want their favourite titles on physical media. With films the trade-off is they want the best editions possible with the best bonus features. Smaller independent releasing companies Arrow, Second Sight the British Film institute and others are competing very vigorously at the minute with American companies such as Blue Underground, Criterion and Shout (scream) Factory for sales of cult films by trying to outdo each other with the quality of the transfers and bonus features. The rights holders often insist the titles are ‘region locked’ to prevent European fans playing American discs and vice versa but a lot of hardcore fans have already found ways round this and import discs are readily available on websites like Amazon. When a company drops the ball with a release the fans can be vitriolic. When Arrow released Bird with the Crystal plumage in the wrong aspect ratio the fans kicked up a storm..
Just check out the reviews, not good!
Streaming will most likely end up the primary way of seeing films, it wont always be as cheap as it is now. The success of Netflix and Love Film is already being noticed and expect to see more streaming sites coming soon. When the content and exclusives get spread over more and more streaming sites and it becomes more necessary to have multiple subscriptions to see everything, seeing a site that only has a few things you want to see it might prove to be the better option to simply buy those titles rather than take up a monthly subscription. Streaming might even offer the bonus features of physical media but the fans who buy their favourite films buy them for the complete package.
So when a company gets greedy, like Paramount are doing with Star Trek, they risk alienating the fans, destroying any goodwill and possibly even drive their customer base to illegal downloading. There is a dedicated fan base of film collectors out there who will only put up with so much shit, people who want to OWN the product they pay for to re-watch at their leisure. Streaming is great, and is a fantastic new revenue screen for companies but it will only dent sales of physical media not destroy them. There is plenty of money to be made if the studios and companies can engage with their fans.