These are hard times for physical media devotees. The format isn’t dead yet – Blu-Rays and DVDs still represent 61% of home video spending – but it may as well be. Streaming, video-on-demand and digital downloads are becoming the standards for home viewing. Between 2007 and 2012, sales rose from $1.3 billion to $5.5 billion and researchers say online revenues will increase to ten times their 2007 level by 2017.
Digital superiority seems to be a foregone conclusion, and there’s a pressure for physical media lovers like me to concede that resistance is futile. We’re becoming extreme hobbyists, collecting the unnecessary and perpetually having to justify our unwillingness to succumb to the new status quo. We may as well be collecting stamps or beta tapes. When Ain’t It Cool’s Alan Cerny recently tweeted “I wish I knew how to quit you, physical media,” it struck me as a capsule of the current climate: it doesn’t matter how much we love discs, we know we’re supposed to be moving on.
As digital media progressed from revolution in 2006 (when iTunes started selling movies) to coup d’etat in 2010 (when Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu and Amazon Instant Video all hit their stride), I refused to capitulate. I had no desire to give up years of loyal dedication to the tangible in favor of the intangible. I’ve been committed to physical media since 2000, when I received my first DVD player for my eighteenth birthday and started out with two DVDs. By 2004, I was spending as much as $200 dollars every week on new releases and – thanks to a non-discriminating policy of buying any movie I wanted – my collection numbered in the hundreds, and I knew Ikea shelf dimensions by heart. We’ve all done that, right?
Economic realities would plug the flood of disposable early-twenties income (apparently you can’t pay bills by bartering with Michael Bay movies), but I still continued to add 20 to 30 discs a year to my collection. I diligently transitioned to Blu-Rays, maintained a Homeric wishlist of discs, and lost my sanity (and money) like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert over any Criterion or Black Friday sale.
Collecting meant something to me, and there was no way that would change. So I let the rise of downloads and streaming pass me by and – like Casablanca’s Rick – remained happily indifferent and uninvolved… until my Ilsa walked into my life. I moved in with her and found myself introduced to Netflix. I quickly discovered that not only did they conveniently house dozens of movies on my limitless queue, but they also provided many of the movies already sitting on my shelves and waiting invisibly on my wishlist.
Netflix downloading itself into my brain.
And that’s when the digital revolution seized me. It uploaded its ideology into my brain and quickly went viral. I became completely reprogrammed to start eyeing my shelves and wishlist with a Judasian contempt. “Do I need to own this if it’s on Netflix?”. A witch hunt began as I sifted out the unnecessary in my collection, and discs that had loyally served me for years disappeared. Vicious cutbacks saw my wishlist halved. After years of impassioned resistance, my physical library was giving way to a digital one.
The transition was so natural and so stealthy that it took me a while to realize I had been completely compromised. The unshakeable beliefs I’d held for years had been shaken and it ignited a cinematic identity crisis. I worried my days as a DVD/Blu-Ray worshiper were numbered. It felt like a sucker punch to the existential gut. This was who I had been for years. My former self was disappearing without so much as a conscious decision. It had simply been dismissed without regret or awareness. Something about that stung. More deeply than I would have ever expected or admitted.
Why was I so afraid of giving up physical media and losing what had become a way of life?
The growing obsolescence of physical media has increasingly put the onus on collectors like me to explain why we so stubbornly hold on to something so impractical. Yet, I’d never given much thought to the actual psychology behind my collecting beyond half-baked “I like the tactile” defenses. To love is to manifest love, so it seemed a given that to love movies was to collect movies. There was never a need to ascribe a mission statement to something that was so innately instinctual. But change and crisis provoke introspection, so I considered why I collected and, gradually, answers revealed themselves.
There was the practical explanation: access. I bought movies to build a substantial library that would cater to any spontaneous desire to re-watch a favorite. There was the possessive explanation: ownership. Movies make strong two-hour impressions and then dilute away into the elusive vapors of memory. But buying a movie allows us to possess a part of it. I can think as much as I want to about how much I love You Can Count On Me, but there’s something different about holding the DVD and feeling that it’s more than just an internal feeling. Owning discs lets me tangibly connect with movies and feel a part of them, which brings us to ground zero of the fear I felt over losing my collecting ways.
Movies are woven into the fabric of my life. I see them every day. I think about them every day. I have spent hours watching them, talking about them, processing them, writing about them, pursuing degrees about them. They are one of the great loves of my life and undoubtedly will be the longest commitment I’ll ever have (my girlfriend is a big fan of this statement). Movies are an inseparable part of who I am, but – more importantly – when purchased, they represent who I am. Looking in a mirror and looking at my collection achieve the same effect: I see myself reflected. The movies sitting on those shelves don’t just represent the scope of my taste. Each of those discs in some way sketches out who I am as a human being: my beliefs, joys, fears, sadness, hopes, and inspirations are spelled out when someone’s eyes jump from spine to spine in my collection. Those rows of discs are my autobiography.
It might be hard to understand for those who consider movies disposable entertainment, but this is what makes the transition to digital media so difficult – almost unfathomable – for me. If the act of lending a disc to someone feels like I’m intimately sharing a part of myself, then the abandonment of a disc is letting a piece of myself go. If I give into streaming and allow a communal library – curated by someone else, bloated with movies that don’t represent me – to become my collection, where will I see myself? That empty existential vacuum is what opened up before me as my digital consumption increased.
I recently stood in front of my shelves full of DVDs and Blu-Rays with no other intent than to simply take it in, the way I imagine someone who has a real Van Gogh hanging in their house might do. I hadn’t done that in a few months and, as I stood there, I really took in my collection – row by row, disc by disc and I realized something. I realized that my collection was impeccable. There wasn’t an ounce of cinematic fat on it. That had never happened in my collection before; there had always been more than a few discs I knew that I could probably live without. But now, every film on that shelf unequivocally deserved to be there. It was a perfect, flawless, distilled reflection of my tastes and who I am. The reflection was perfect.
That pride and wonder assured me that I’ll never stop being a collector of physical media. It wiped away any doubts. Yet that wasn’t really the most remarkable epiphany born that moment. I realized my collection could only have existed in this state because of digital media. I had a collection I’d never been more proud of, precisely because of Netflix, Hulu and others. Digital media wasn’t toxic; it was cleansing. As much as editing distills an article to its purest, most justifiable form, the same had happened to my collection. If my collection was my autobiography, digital media was the red pen that trimmed it to what was truly worth keeping.
Crises of faith can destroy our previous beliefs or strengthen them. As it turns out, digital media may have challenged my worship of movie buying, but in doing so it’s made me a more devoted, principled collector who is more committed than ever to ensuring that my collection succinctly and accurately reflects who I am. My adoption of digital media was never abandonment of the old ways. It was an evolution. And, like all evolutions, it prevents extinction.