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The future of physical media (maybe)
In his first blog of 2019, the news that retailer HMV has gone into administration prompts Slarek to reflect on a serious decline in physical media sales and the rise in digital as a delivery system, and how it might impact on the future for Blu-ray and DVD as home entertainment formats.
6 January 2019

A few years ago, I was talking to a British film producer of some note (I'm trying not to name-drop) and the conversation moved onto the subject of DVD and Blu-ray releases, which since this site's inception has been our primary stock-in-trade. His opening comment surprised me. "Almost none of my American friends watch films on disc anymore," he told me, "they just stream movies on Netflix." This was back in March of 2013, when Netflix had only been streaming movies and TV shows in the US for about four years (it had first made its name as a DVD rental service) and was at this time a relatively minor player on the UK home cinema scene, having only launched here early in 2012. I thus balked a little at this claim, but here we are six years later and Netflix has become a major force worldwide and expanded beyond streaming existing material into sometimes costly and intermittently award-winning original productions. And it's not the only film and TV streaming service available – in the UK at present we also have Amazon Prime, BFI Player, the Sky TV Store, Now TV, Wuaki, Curzon Home Cinema, Mubi, Google Play, iTunes, BBC iPlayer and a fair few others.

All of this has had a serious impact on the sales of DVD and Blu-ray discs on both sides of the Atlantic. According to statistics published by the Entertainment Retailers Association, sales of physical media – which include Blu-ray, DVD, CD and video games – have dropped from £5.7 billion in 2008 to £2 billion by the end of 2017, whilst spending on their digital equivalent has increased from £0.66 billion to £5.3 billion over the same period. Last week, the impact of this made headlines when one of Britain's most well-known music and video chain stores HMV went into administration, threatening the closure of 125 stores nationwide and putting over 2,200 jobs at risk.

There is, of course, more to this story than the switch to digital streaming and downloads as a preferred method of home entertainment delivery. For some years now, just about everyone I know has been buying the majority of their Blu-rays and DVDs from online stores, whether it be from worker-exploiting tax-dodgers like Amazon or directly from independent distributors like Arrow and Powerhouse Films. I do still make the occasional trip to HMV for the odd early release exclusive, or for their sometimes worthwhile multiple-disc sale deals or if I want to get my hands on a disc at very short notice. Every time I have done so in recent months, I've been struck by how few other customers are in the store, despite its prime location in the biggest shopping centre in the district.

While this move to streaming does theoretically make a wider range of films available at a lower cost, for disc enthusiasts and film devotees, this trend will nonetheless ring a few alarm bells. If all you want to do is watch the movie then streaming will often do the job, but given that we all tend to judge a disc release as much on the quality of the picture, sound and special features as the movie itself, the idea of stripping back on these elements (the picture quality of streamed HD content can be very good, but it still can't match that of a top-flight Blu-ray, and some of the sound mixes on streamed content are distinctly inferior to its disc equivalent) is more than a little worrying. Indeed, I can think of several times that I've caught a film on Netflix for the first time and liked it so much that I've then bought the Blu-ray for the superior image quality and the special features.

But there's more. Just because you can watch a film on Netflix now any time you want, that doesn't mean you'll be able to this time next year, as while new titles are added each month, many are also dropped, and on the day you are the mood to watch that favourite film you may just discover that it's no longer in your chosen streaming service's catalogue. It's also a little dispiriting to discover there are titles on streaming services in the incorrect aspect ratio, with some 2.35:1 films cropped at the sides to fit the 16:9 screen. Given the inconsistency of this, I'm guessing it's not a deliberate decision on the part of the people at Netflix or Amazon Prime or whoever, but a casualty of the fact that the content offered by such services has been purchased or leased from a wide variety of sources. This itself can lead to some peculiar hiccups. Having finally caught up with Paul Greengrass's Green Zone on Netflix and figuring that this was a film that my girlfriend would want to see, a few weeks later we ran it again, but in the time between that first viewing and the second the American print that I had watched had been replaced with the French one, something we were clued into from the start by the French language opening credits and captions. In an effort to disguise this, the French subtitles had been disabled, but this meant that the scenes in which characters speak Arabic – scenes whose dialogue is crucial to the plot – were missing the English subtitles the American print had by default. After five minutes of this, we stopped the film and the next day I nipped up to HMV and bought the Blu-ray. However, if you currently have a Netflix subscription and fancy watching the film even without the crucial English subtitles on the Arabic sequences, you're out of luck, because it's since been dropped from the company's UK catalogue. Having bought the disc, I can still watch it, of course. Let's not even get started on the subject of what happens if your internet connection suddenly fails (when mine went down once, it took BT almost a week to fix it) or stutters to the point where the picture drops in quality or starts intermittently freezing, or you live out in the sticks where high-speed broadband is still something of a luxury. And just imagine if a distributor decided to abandon disc distribution and make all of its titles available instead through its own streaming service, then charge you on a title-by-title basis and allow you to stream that title whenever you want to watch it on any device you choose. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well what happens if you've bought 30 titles from that distributor and it goes into administration? Ah…

The switch to digital is still ongoing and it seems inevitable that sooner or later it is going to become the prime delivery method for movies and TV, at least for the major studios. As a review site, we've certainly seen the number of news stories about upcoming disc releases diminish dramatically over the last few years – once we were getting several stories a day, but now we can sometimes go a week without a whisper. And from a cineaste's perspective, the prospect of movie-only digital releases of films for home viewing effectively takes us back to the VHS days, when all you got for you money was the movie and none of the wonderful supplementary material that you'll find on those DVD and Blu-ray releases that make it onto top ten lists each year.

So do I think physical media as a delivery format is as doomed as many others would have us believe? Well, yes and no. I do think it likely that the major studios will eventually stop putting out films on Blu-ray, DVD and UHD and make them available digitally on the iTunes model of high price digital rental for a limited period, followed by a DRM-encrusted digital download at similar price, plus a timed rental at a lower cost. This not only saves the distributors a packet on packaging and production, it also effectively kills the second-hand market (or at least the paid one) and allows them, if they wish, to keep the purchase price artificially high – when you haven't got a warehouse full of physical copies to get rid of in order to make way for the next title there's little incentive to throw anything into the bargain bin.

But while the major studios, whose discs rarely have much in the way of exciting special features anyway, may well abandon discs in the not-too-distant future, I suspect that independent companies such as Criterion, Arrow, Indicator, the BFI, Second Run, Shout Factory and the like will be sticking with the medium for some time to come. To return to my VHS analogy, it's worth remembering that while the general public was making VHS (and, for a while, Betamax) their format of choice for the home viewing of movies, cineastes – at least those with deep pockets – were buying films on laserdisc instead, on which the titles were viewable at a quality that far outstripped that or any home entertainment tape medium, usually in their correct aspect ratio and often resplendent with special features. It thus seems quite possible that Blu-ray discs will become the laserdiscs of tomorrow, and instead of being targeted at the mass market will be made specifically with the devoted film enthusiast in mind. Of course, the distributors I listed above have been doing just that for many years now and thus already have a business model that could continue to flourish even if the format becomes a specialist one. And by limiting many of their premium titles to a specific number of copies, I have to presume that distributors like Indicator and Arrow are better able to budget the cost of the production and manufacture of their releases in advance, and by continuing to do so would be able to prevent the cost of Blu-rays spiralling when the format no longer has a mass market appeal.

At least that's my hope. For all the space my disc collection takes up in my house, I hope to keep expanding it until whatever is going to eventually kill me does its job, and then someone else can get to enjoy them or pass them on to like-minded film devotees. It's worth noting that to this day if my girlfriend spots a film she wants to watch on Netflix and I have the title on Blu-ray, then I reach straight for the disc, and while I think of my digitally downloaded movies simply as a folder on a hard drive, I have always regarded my discs as a collection.