It turns out you don’t really own the things you own. Earlier this week, in an attempt to turn his own personal cinematic hell into a teachable moment, Twitter user Anders da Silva shared his frustration at having movies he thought he’d purchased from Apple removed from his iTunes account. The post, understandably, went viral, and countless film publications picked up the story as a cautionary tale for those who think their premium version of Captain America: Civil War is actually something they’ll get to keep forever and ever. Meanwhile, physical media collectors took a well-earned victory lap, using this as justification for the wall of VHS tapes or DVDs they keep in their home.
All of which got me thinking: could this potentially be a tipping point in the narrative regarding physical media? Many moviegoers have watched in horror the past few years as video stores closed their doors; those that survive do so either through the generosity of wealthy patrons or a heartfelt crowdfunding campaign. But as people become more skeptical of digital information and possessions, it may be useful to compare discs and cassettes to other physical media that have seemingly survived the rise of digital competition. In short, if there’s room in this world for vinyl and paperbacks, there may be room for Blu-rays, too.
For years now, physical music and print books have not only fought off extinction, they’ve managed to carve out a niche for themselves as an alternative to digital distribution. While records and CDs are no competition for streaming services like Spotify, in 2017, physical music as a whole surpassed digital downloads in revenue, an accomplishment that had not occurred since 2011. For their part, print books — a medium that many have declared dead at various points over the past decade — have effectively pushed their digital counterparts out of the spotlight. Earlier this year, Pew Research Center released a study that showed the popularity of print book was far outpacing that of ebooks, with 39% of the people surveyed claiming to read only print editions versus 7% who read only ebooks.
Of course, neither records nor paperbacks serve as a perfect parallel for the film industry. Unlike those two forms of physical media, one cannot argue, at least in good faith, that VHS cassettes (333p) and DVDs (480p) are equal in quality to their streaming counterparts. While Blu-rays (1080p) and their 4K counterparts offer nowhere near the same selection as their predecessors, they are better formatted to the current generation of HD televisions; according to one 2015 study, for example, more than 81% of Americans own at least one high-definition television set, meaning that the vast majority of Americans have now outpaced the technological limitations of both VHS and DVD. People can (and should) make all kinds of arguments about the importance of physical media from an accessibility standpoint, but when it comes to exhibition, streaming has them beat.
There are also the price and format differences. A few weeks ago, Lionsgate announced that it will make a 4K transfer of John Carpenter’s Halloween available for purchase at the end of September. Buying this re-release on sale will set you back about $20, but you can purchase the same film for cheaper on Blu-ray ($10), DVD ($4.99), or even VHS through Amazon’s marketplace ($2). And as dedicated movie collectors know, these numbers can go up depending on the availability of specific re-releases and limited editions. The two-disc Blu-ray of Blood Rage, my personal favorite Thanksgiving-themed slasher, will only cost you $20, but the 2015 Arrow Video re-release is currently reselling for $79.95. While records may charge more or less depending on the edition, there’s a disparity between both quality and cost in physical media that isn’t matched with physical music and print books.
Combine all of these elements and you’re looking at an industry whose decline is as steep as it is foreboding. As reported by Variety earlier this year, physical disc sales continued to plummet in 2017, dropping 14% after a previous-year drop of 10%. Still, not everything is gloom. While digital film distribution remains on the rise, there has traditionally been a lag between when physical media cedes market share and digital media levels off. One lesson to be learned from physical music and print books is that digital growth is not an endless proposition; while ebooks and digital downloads were once hailed as the unquestionable future of both industries, after years of exponential growth, their progress began to slow as physical media solidified its status on the market. Physical media may never again be a major player on the home video market, but it can, like the other media, do enough to justify its existence.
And this overall trend ignores the specialization that’s already occurring in the field of home video distribution. A 2014 IndieWire feature on Shout! Factory, for example, explains how that company focuses on collectible products for smaller markets and avoids the sort of mass-produced titles that don’t come with a built-in audience. We’ve seen the rise of several boutique home video production companies in the past decade, each of whom offers something — like vinyl — that walks the line between collectability and utility. The general tone in that article is not that physical media deserves a place at the table, but that physical media has earned a place at the table. Shout! Factory is not a charity; every year they put out new physical media is a year that their numbers suggest it makes sense for them to do so.
It’s also worth noting that Generation Z — that allegedly self-absorbed and phone-addicted youth movement — has, in actuality, expressed a strong preference for value-driven organizations and physical media. Even as we wring our hands about the future of moviegoing and whether the theatrical experience is dead, this current generation of moviegoers has already shown a preference for physical media; if we can nurture/continue to nurture an interest in film history within their demographic, then they may help physical media find its equilibrium in the marketplace. What better way to follow a generation of millennials killing everything than to be the people who bring said things back?
In the end, it’s hard to say what the future holds for the home video market, but there are a few reasons to hope that the experience of Andres da Silva doesn’t have to be universal. If you love something, support the creators; if you love something enough to own it, make sure you buy a physical copy whose rights you control forever. Oh, and always be sure to support your local library. For many people, the streaming vs. physical conversation begins and ends with their branch’s DVD selection, and that’s something collectors can and should always feel good about.