The death of physical media has been predicted for some time now. With the end of CD singles thanks to MP3 downloads from services like ITUNES, the decline of the book shop thanks to kindle and the demise of Blockbuster to streaming it has seemed that this may be the case. These new digital formats are certainly easier and more convenient for users. I remember being out and about in Manchester last year during the heat wave. It got to dinner time and I was knackered. Fortunately I found a quiet Wetherspoon’s for a beer and burger, the air conditioning was at full blast and there was a socket to let me charge my phone. I sat with my beer watching A Comedy of Terrors on YouTube thanks to the solid Wi-Fi connection, the picture quality was superb and it cost me nothing. I also have several E-readers on my phone. One is Kindle, the other Cool reader and the memory card I use in my phone can store hundreds of books. Streaming services like Netflix offer me an even bigger library than some of the public domain material to be found on YouTube, so wherever I am if I find myself with a spare moment or two it’s easy to access a good book or movie.
It’s easy then to believe that the day of buying a book or a DVD in a shop is over. However as a film collector I can state with certainty it isn’t.
The trouble with a lot of online access is that we no longer own the things we pay for. It’s all too easy to access that kindle and find that for whatever reason those books have vanished…
Or the TV show you have been watching is no longer carried…
That means accessing the material you want is not going to be a certainty.
For the casual viewer this is hardly a problem but for the ardent bibliophile or cineaste the idea of not being able to access that favourite book or film is a real issue.
So then, the market for physical media may shrink, but it’s changing into something else entirely…
Music has already been through this. You can still buy CD’s but the popularity of the format is not what it once was. There has emerged a strong market for Vinyl both through online sellers and the traditional record shop. The music fan who just wants something to play in his car, or the casual listener with a digital mix-tape of MP3 downloads may have shunned the physical format but a lot of serious music buffs are still collecting and still spending money.
As a collector of film I’ve seen the market for home video change rapidly in the last few years. The casual film-goer no longer needs the long waits at the video rental outlet; Netflix and its ilk have ended this. However dead the rental market may be physical editions of films continue to sell. A strong and relatively lucrative collectors market for DVD’s and Blu-Rays has emerged that is more demanding for a quality product and prepared to spend more money in order to get it. Buyers these days demand the very best transfers of films, with the best sleeve art available and are prepared to scour the globe to get it. Even the major studios are issuing their films in collectable Steel book editions in order to tap into this market.
In America there are companies like Blue Underground, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse, Criterion and Scream Factory resurrecting classics in stunning new transfers with plenty of bonus features such as audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes and even alternate edits of films as complete packages for the collector to buy and keep. In the UK we have similar outfits such as Nucleus films, Arrow, Eureka and the British Film Institute all vying for the collectors pound and across Europe and Asia there are many more following suite all trying to top each other with quality of transfer and bonus features. These fans still use services like Netflix and Love film, if only to see if they like a film enough to warrant a purchase, or for more stuff to watch when cash reserves are low after an expensive purchase.
Reaction when a product has not lived up to expectations can be severe. When Arrow first launched their Arrow video imprint to specifically target the collectors market early transfers were somewhat ‘lacking’ especially from product sourced from Italy and some fans were relatively unforgiving. However Arrow listened to its critics and has upped its game somewhat. Newer releases such as Zombie flesh-eaters, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of Paradise and Phillip Kaufman’s 70’s Invasion of the Body snatchers have all boasted better transfers than their rivals. Recently they took on restoration expert James White to ensure their future releases are all first rate.
For the dedicated collector the marketplace has never been better. Online access has helped things. Amazon marketplace as well as other smaller (bust still reputable) sites like D&T mail order, Diabolik.com and MovieTyme all allow the dedicated collector to source films from across the globe. This means local companies can no longer stick out a release and expect it to sell. It HAS to be a top quality release or the collector can go elsewhere. Certain rights holders do still insist that discs are ‘region locked’ which prohibits Discs from one country playing on another but with DVD this issue was solved long ago with players that could be ‘hacked’ with a simple code. Some budget players these days are not even region locked and play discs from anywhere. The situation has been somewhat more difficult with regards to Blu-ray as the continual need to update firmware (the software on the player to let you play your discs) has meant many overrides being reset as Firmware updates can actively look at what your machine is doing and actively stop it. This also applies to games consoles as well; it’s rather unnerving and not especially popular with customers. Less technically literate consumers dropped the Blu-ray format entirely at the frustration of having discs not work thanks to the need to constantly update your machine. A lot of collectors get round this by either buying an American Player from EBAY, or more recently seeking out players that are still hackable (they do exist). The most galling thing about firmware updates is that it’s an idea of Sony own the Blu-ray format but have all but abandoned it in recent years.
The big question is, will future generations of films fans keep the collecting bug? I really hope so. If the number of sites offering streaming continues to grow, and the ability to find all your titles in one place diminishes there will always be a need for physical product.