For decades the joy of home video relied upon physical media: Betamax, VHS, Laserdiscs, DVDs, Blu-rays. One after another, new formats improved not just our experience of “movies”, but also our relationship with them. Cassettes were first bringing us the bare bones: just the film. Eventually they evolved to give us a couple of trailers that we all hated while pressing the fast-forward. Laserdiscs were never as popular as cassettes. They remained a niche product (except in Japan, land of all exceptions) with advantages and drawbacks. Depending on who you ask, the drawbacks were kind of a minor problem: not as portable as cassettes, films being split over several disc sides and (among more) no freeze frame depending on the disc you have and the player you are using. The advantages, however, were amazing: clearly superior sound and image, a non-linear reading system based on disc chapters and (depending on the disc) some extras.
Those advantages changed the way we (who were lucky enough to be able to afford the format) related ourselves to the films. The linear transportation system of the cassettes pretty much made the existence of extras a bit silly, since going back and forth trying to locate extras took too long as we waited for the transport mechanism to move tape from one reel to the other. Rewinding or fast-forwarding was as anti-climax as it could be. Just ask any teenager from 1984 how angry we used to be when we got home from the rental shop only to find out we would have to rewind the whole film in order to start watching it. The rental shops knew it and started imposing fees on customers who were not kind enough to rewind.
Trying to locate one specific extra using rewind and fast-forward would never work. Non-linear chapters changed all that. Just like on the CD, with a Laserdisc we could jump from point A to point Z in seconds… well… if they were on the same disc.
DVDs brought together the best of both worlds: extreme portability, non-linearity, perfect sound and image, lots of space for extras without the need to change sides/discs, great price… and only one caveat: no recording from the TV (which helped prolong the life of VHS for a few more years). With the DVD, extras became a sure thing. The disc space was there and the always-perfect image was indeed perfect for the multiple rewindings and pausings at, for example, Sharon Stone’s megastar-making moment. Thanks to the DVD, something very important and fast was happening: we were spending more time around a film. It was not just the 90-minutes experience anymore: it was the supreme achievement of being truly entertained beyond the film. Suddenly, a new industry was born: the “extras industry”.
At a certain point, we were not buying THE MATRIX (1999) because of the film. We were buying the DVD because those extras were even more interesting than the film we already had seen on theaters. Marketing DVDs became a new art form and even those who could never afford the Laserdisc experience were now being able to see how a scene was made. Suddenly (and ironically) some DVD editions started bringing three, four or more discs just for extras – something Laserdisc never dared to do!
Director’s Cuts, Special Editions, Platinum Editions, Collector’s Editions, all became a staple in every shelf in every home. Plus: we were buying films and not just renting them. The first home video edition of GREMLINS (1984) was released on VHS in late 1985. The price? $79,95 (back then, movies were marketed and priced for rental shops. It took at least six months until the price dropped to $19,99 for direct sale). At that time, people did not have the urgency of owning a film. Rental was the business. DVDs changed all that. Did home video change or did we? Both.
After a steady sales growth that peaked around 2006, with the digital revolution well under way, disc sales started a steady decline. The same thing had already happened with music CDs years before. Faster internet, the too-easy to find and download movie file, Pirate Bay (and its many smaller incarnations), You Tube and the lawlessness that results from the impossibility of effectively enforcing copyright laws marked the twilight of the DVD. What about Blu-Ray? Ironically, the hi-def format that emerged as the winner after a brief (yet bloody) format war with HD-DVD did not really win anything. By the time it arrived, people were already abandoning paying for contend in favor of piracy. Plus: streaming is now the de facto way most paying consumers want to enjoy home video. Blu-Ray sales numbers never compensated the decline of DVD. As a whole, physical media seems to be going the VHS way.
It seems many of us are regressing to the 80’s when simply buying a film (to own) was an alien concept (and I have always wondered who bought the GREMLINS VHS tape in 1985 for $79,95 to have at home). Well, yes and no. The advent of Video on Demand (VoD) either through set-top boxes or subscription platforms like Netflix or Amazon made something that was not possible in the 80’s: it brought the entire rental shop into our own homes. Or better yet: we now live inside rental shops. Plus: the rentals are free. Well, they are not really free, but they taste that way with a monthly subscription that is very low against all that we can watch.
When living inside the rental shop, the urgency of owning a film is very limited and debatable. There are hundreds of films there just waiting for our finger on the remote. That sheer saturation of always-available content is a disincentive to ownership – especially to that portion of the audience that is too lazy to go buy a disc. And why would they? Most films will only be watched once, anyway.
But physical media is far from dead. Really. What is happening is just an advancement in the sophistication of our relationship with films. To some of us, physical media plays a role that VoD will never replace. With the untouchable, invisible, uncharacteristic, generic, inconsequential, fast, and cheap face of VoD, there is a celebratory dimension to physical media that makes more sense now than it ever did. Physical media is love, homage, Art, dedication, fandom, respectfulness, acknowledgement, and haptic. It has soul, a face, a body, a touch. Holding it on the hand gives one pleasure. Looking at it on the shelf or displayed inside a glass cabinet makes us feel we belong. It puts us in state of admiration, adoration, awe. It brings back memories, feelings, sounds and flavors. It captures our eyes, our desires… us.
What other reason on Earth would drive someone to spend $999,99 on a 31-disc abso-fucking-lutely gorgeous HARRY POTTER box? Or circa $600,00 on the highly collectable Platinum Series Special Extended Edition Collector’s Gift Set of the three LORD OF THE RINGS films? Or the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE: PHASE ONE – AVENGERS ASSEMBLED for $505,99? How about $259,99 on the ALIEN ANTHOLOGY EGG PACKING? For the same price you can also get the incredible THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON 2 whose discs come lodged inside a zombie head with a screwdriver stuck in the eye. To put it differently, if you were the person who bought for $2.250,00 on Ebay a replica of the lightsaber used by Obi-Wan Kenobi, would you be satisfied with a computer file of the films? Of course not.
In a way, our relationship with the films we adore (not just love) is reaching new plateaux never imagined before. Today, an 85-inch UHD TV costs over $5.000,00. That same TV will probably be much more affordable in less than three years. Things like High Dynamic Range and Dolby Atmos will also become more and more common in middle class homes. In that context films should speak closer to the ear of many moviegoers who will demand a type of wholeness only physical media can offer.
So physical media is not dead. It has its role inside a home video universe that is changing – from a cheap object into an object of desire for a special type of customer: the fan. There is no need to go to the $100,00+ price point to see that happening. The market is already offering highly desirable editions to those who also love the films but have a more modest spending fire power. For just $79,54 one can buy the DIE HARD collection inside a replica of the Nakatomi Plaza; and for only £19,99 one can get a Big Sleeve Edition of GUARDIANS OF GALAXY that resembles a Laserdisc edition (this is a UK-only edition). It holds a Blu-ray disc, a DVD (no actual Laserdisc here) and five large cards with exclusive key art.
Refusing to die easily, physical media is trying to make an offer you cannot refuse, regardless of how mush money you’ve got. And the studios are making them because, well, they sell and show a profit – otherwise physical media would already be where VHS is today.
The bad news lies elsewhere. In no moment I mentioned that Hungarian-Belgian-Dutch co-production that played at Un Certain Regard in Cannes, three years ago. Or that Argentinian art-house film that played at the IFFR last year. For those films, physical media is kinda dead. They don’t move enough audiences in order to justify the investment needed to turn mere discs into a more desirable object. They will eventually get a release on DVD with a low number of copies. Their audience is rarefied and will probably become more and more so, as those editions naturally fail to reflect the sophistication and care that is more and more in demand by those whose relationship with physical media is also evolving. We have traveled a long distance since the old generic typefaces and templates used in VHS.
The message is very simple: physical media as a celebration works fine for two kinds of films: the classics (where a timeless value is always renewing its viewers and being continuously rediscovered) and the films that have a large fan base (who look at the film as a part of them).
Beyond that, nobody knows. Of course physical media is just one slice of a larger cake. However, the evolution and future of Film favors the works that can adapt and make good use of the here and now. Other films, beware! Their slice lies somewhere else in this mess we call the digital revolution.