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Opinion - The Impending Death of Physical Media

Image courtesy of Watch Mojo

Much has been made lately about the endangered nature of physical media when it comes to movies. [Although there could be a similar discussion about video games too, there’s enough variation there to warrant its own conversation. – Ed.] As we begin our long journey through 2024, we find ourselves in a shrinking arena: many Target stores have dropped DVD/Blu Ray sales entirely (although some do continue to offer a limited selection) and Best Buy is already living up to their word that they would discontinue sales this year…with reports that their stock continues to dwindle by the day. While my first impulse is to say that this is a tragedy in the making…the truth is, we’re already there. Everything that us physical media adherents warned of is indeed coming to pass. This is a multifaceted discussion and while I hope to cover as much as I can, there are likely things I’m going to forget…but it is my hope to cover what I feel are the main issues of this matter.

The first, most obvious issue to cover is the rise of streaming services and the fall of physical media sales. Of course, most people’s decisions are governed by a simple principle: convenience. As an introvert, I totally get that it’s far easier to turn on my TV and choose a movie as opposed to having to get in my car, deal with idiots on the road to get to the video store…only to deal with more morons that are either taking up the whole aisle, letting their little demon spawn run all over unchecked or, and possibly the worst, seeing the bastard that was one step ahead of you and grabbed the last copy of the one movie you came out of your seclusion for. Streaming allows for unlimited copies of movies, no extraneous people and a far better selection than any of the old-school video rental stores. [Ahem…most. Shout out to the saints at Scarecrow Video and any of the few remaining keepers of the flame! – Ed.] The other strong argument for streaming is space. Every physical media collector will have one complaint, guaranteed: I’m running out of room. DVDs and Blu Rays do indeed take up space and the more media you have, the more your storage capabilities diminish…and as both rents and real estate prices continue to go up and up, trying to accommodate the area needed to maintain and expand a collection can be pretty demanding. Streaming solves this by allowing access to seemingly unlimited films and the only space required is the amount of space your TV takes up. Unfortunately, these seeming strengths give rise to some pretty big weaknesses that we’ll talk about later.

Now, everyone is going to have a point to make when it comes to the reasons behind the fall of physical media, myself included. While every article you read on this will end up in a different place, we all start at the hardest fact of all: diminishing sales. Of course, tying this to the rise of streaming is obvious as trying to argue that these events are merely coincidental would be horribly naive. Streaming provides convenience. You don’t need to leave your home to procure a disc that’s going to take up space you may not have. Even if online shopping solves the first, you’re still left with the second. And even online shopping doesn’t solve the instant gratification that streaming provides. With this first domino flicked over though, we see this chain of events start to unfold: studios start to make less and less from their home video releases, leading to less money being spent on each release resulting in inferior or non-existent special features and weaker releases. This culminates in continued diminished sales because as people have less and less disposable income, it’s a tougher sell to push a product that is essentially the movie plus a couple of glorified EPKs as opposed to what studios used to release: the movie plus sometimes an entire second and/or third disc with in-depth looks at how the movie was made, associated subject material, etc. Thus, the ouroboros is complete.

I got a little technical there, so let’s have a small side discussion about what is an EPK…or an Electronic Press Kit. EPKs serve essentially as hype reels: a movie’s director and a handful of cast members or others associated with the production say a few words saying how awesome this film is and why you should rush out to see it as soon as it’s released. These would be sent to networks or other media outlets to get the public interested in seeing said upcoming film. TV networks in the 80s would typically use these as programming filler: if a show or event was running short until the next program, these could be thrown in to fill the time. Once the direct-to-video market began to boom, these would end up showing up at either the beginning or end of VHS tapes as studios or distributors would use them to plug other current or upcoming releases. As DVD began to take off, the EPK started to trot off into the sunset, being replaced by more comprehensive special features included on the disc such as ‘making of’ documentaries (either short in nature…running about 30 minutes give or take…to feature length covering all aspects of the filmmaking process), special effects breakdowns, storyboard to film comparisons, commentary tracks, so on and so forth. In this “golden age” of home media, a veritable banquet was present for anyone with even a passing interest on how films were made. Alas, these days would seemingly come to an end with the diminishing home media sales and studios less and less willing to spend any more than is necessary on physical releases and thus…the EPK returned. Only now, it’s being pitched as the ‘special features’ that it has gutted and replaced.

Okay, last tangent. [For now. – Ed.] Let’s take one least detour and talk about the special features that we as an audience are on the verge of losing. As I mentioned above, many discs in the aforementioned ‘golden age’ of physical media (probably starting when DVD hit its stride in the 2000s and ending in the early to mid-2010s as Netflix began its dominance and sales began to drop) had either fully comprehensive…at times to the point of being exhaustive…documentaries on how nearly every aspect of the film was crafted and put together or at least a good 30 minute peek behind the curtain…revealing some of the process behind the making of the movie. At the very least, it would give the viewer a better grasp of the core idea behind the film they were either going to watch or had just finished watching. Let me walk you through a very specific example. We here at the Cat do love our superhero movies, so let’s pull something from there. Back in 2000, at the very beginning of what would become the comic book movie boom that we find ourselves in what appears to be the waning days of the genre, very few outside the comic book fandom knew who the X-Men were. Now, while the film met with great success at the box office, the DVD included a ‘mockumentary’ to give the viewer a little more depth and insight into the world these characters inhabit as well as interviews covering who these characters are and why they’re important and being brought to the screen now. As superhero movies began to take off and additional characters that were less and less familiar (take Iron Man in 2008 for instance), not only would there be the usual documentary about how the film was made, but more often than not accompanying that was a blurb running around 30 minutes (maybe a little more, maybe a little less, depending on the character(s)) providing neophytes with if not a thorough history of the character then at least the major beats in their history. Fast forward to now and let’s take a look at the special features for WB/DC’s Black Adam…who most assuredly is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination. Is there anything talking about the antihero/villain’s origins? What about his longstanding status as Shazam’s antithesis/archenemy? The reasons why he might go back and forth from the side of evil to that of the good guys? What about his native country, the fictional Khandaq? What are his ties to the Justice Society, who also appears in the film? Who and what are the Justice Society…and how do they differ from the Justice League? Nope, nada, zilch and zero. What we’re treated to is how excited The Rock is to play the role, how Black Adam is one of his favorite characters and that “The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change” (AKA The Rock really wants to take on Henry Cavill’s Superman and ignore Zachary Levi’s Shazam). That’s pretty much it. And all of it repeated over 3 or 4 separate 8-minute EPKs. So, if you didn’t know anything about Black Adam and had lingering questions after watching the film…you were outta luck. And, if we’re being brutally honest, given both the lackluster box office and fairly meager domestic video sales, it’s pretty apparent that “The Rock really likes this guy!” is not sufficient to get the general public interested. Another point under this argument, while yes, learning about how to make movies is easier than ever with countless online resources and videos, the techniques used in some classic film or those used by lauded directors or productions are becoming increasingly lost due to the quickly disappearing nature of these special features. In recent memory, only Christopher Nolan’s films have retained this exhaustive coverage and that’s more likely due to the director’s influence and power within the industry. The moment his films start bombing, if they ever do, you’ll see how quickly his special features join all the others, morphing into hollow, superficial EPKs. To put it in other terms, the basic classes are free, but the advanced classes are becoming more and more hidden.

There is a positive here though: the rise of the boutique labels. Shout/Scream Factory. Arrow Video. Kino Lorber Studio Classics. And there are more popping up all the time. These smaller distributors will license films from the big studios and pick up the torch the big boys have dropped…providing the comprehensive special features that were on the way out. Whether they come in the form of the short or long-form documentaries about the making of the film, interviews with actors and crew about certain aspects of the film’s creation or even societal or pop-culture relevance of the film, there’s usually no shortage of material on these discs. But of course, there’s a trade-off. Neither the licenses for these films nor the creation of these features is free. Each of these distributors have to foot the bill for those and as such, the cost is indeed passed on to the consumer. So sure, they’re doing “The Lord’s work” as the phrase goes, but they’ve got bills to pay too. Their continued existence does lend credibility to the current argument that we may in fact be finding ourselves in a ‘second golden age’ of physical media: one that is far more limited in scope, much as collecting music on vinyl is a strong yet niche market, yet offering the best products available to date with unrivaled picture and sound quality as well as including those extras that cinephiles enjoy.

The remaining two points I’d like to bring up have been presented elsewhere rather frequently but remain no less pertinent…and frightening.

First up are the censorship concerns that emerge as the perception of films changes from complete artistic works to ‘content’. Heh, you know, I didn’t think about this as I sat down to write this but we find ourselves in yet another instance where one of the consistent themes of George Carlin’s comedy strikes all too frighteningly true: the language we use is vitally important to how we perceive and react to things. In our case, think about it, most people have a problem with censoring art…but it seems no one, not even supposed curators of film, has an issue with editing content. One is putting black boxes or painting over Renaissance masterpieces while the other is just taking some trimming shears to some schmuck’s YouTube video. No one gives a shit about “content”…and what do streaming services refer to the movies, TV shows, documentaries and so forth they offer as? Content. Language matters. With this shift in perception of these works, services like Amazon and Disney+ see nothing wrong with editing out questionable shots or entire scenes that may offend their perceived audience…even if no one really gives a shit about it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there…if only it did. Much has been made of late of the Criterion Collection editing a racist scene from William Friedkin’s ‘The French Connection’ on their streaming service. While, yes, a scene like that would likely never make into a film these days…even though it is a scene that helps to define the character of Popeye Doyle: he might be our protagonist, but one thing’s for sure, he sure as hell isn’t ‘the good guy’. It’s scenes like this that help to define 70s cinema as we found ourselves not wanting clear-cut good good guys and bad bad guys, opting instead for characters who were all of the shades of grey. Now, if it had been Disney+ that had done this, this news wouldn’t have made the waves that it did. But it was the Criterion Collection, a company founded on and trusted by the cinematic community for film restoration and preservation. In many ways, it felt like the ultimate betrayal…and by a company who should absolutely know better. It isn’t just limited to scenes though. To tie into the racism issue again, can anyone tell me the last time Disney’s Song of the South saw the light of day? While Wikipedia is insistent that the 1946 film has never had a home video release in the United States, I can’t help but remember seeing commercials for a VHS release back in the 80s. Whether or not this is the Mandela effect on my side or a corporate rewriting of history on the other we’ll leave to debate at another time (a google search however does indeed reveal the VHS I remember…sooooo…). But you can make this argument about far less controversial films. Ever wonder what happened to all the ‘erotic thrillers’ Cinemax built its reputation on back in the 90s? Me too. They’re gone. No current streaming service, including Cinemax itself, carries them. In fact, anything that would fall under the label of ‘soft core’ seems to have gone the way of the dodo or, at the very least, has been HEAVILY edited. [Further research on this indicates that there seems to be only one last stalwart bastion of this genre: Charles Band’s Full Moon Features streaming service. Granted, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given the studio creating more than their fair share of films in this genre! – Ed.] The fact of the matter is it doesn’t necessarily need to be offensive. Even if the film is of questionable taste, if it’s enough to offend even just a handful of people, these large companies won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Instead, they bank on the ever-shortening memory and attention span. There may be an uproar at first…but eventually it quiets down until it disappears. In another case of censorship by the majority against the minority: you ever notice that modern films are so much easier to find on streaming while you’ve REALLY gotta dig to get to classic films, if you find them at all? Now, in all fairness, as a child of the 80s it’s hard for me to think that films from both that decade and the 90s (and even some from the 2000s) qualify as classics these days but still, unless the film is firmly entrenched in popular culture, has a remake or sequel currently in the works or has a large cult following behind it, more than likely, you’re not going to find it on streaming. For example, sure, 1984’s Ghostbusters isn’t going anywhere anytime soon but good luck finding GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords from 1986 streaming anywhere. Granted, GoBots is by no means a ‘classic’…probably the furthest thing from it, really. But as a Transformers fan and given the re-introduction of rock-based transforming robots into the line, I bet I can find you an audience for this. Given how niche it is though, it definitely doesn’t have the clout to arrange a release and as such, this animated feature will continue to “proceed on its way to oblivion”. [We see what you did there…dork. – Ed.] Another matter to discuss here is Analysis Paralysis. How much time have you spent clicking through choice after choice, movie after movie, TV series after TV series then discovering that there’s nothing you really wanted to watch or, even worse, that you just spent all your free time LOOKING for something you could have been WATCHING? Infinite options are not always a good thing. While this doesn’t seem to immediately be a good thing, the fact of the matter is that the limitations of the old video stores was that if they didn’t have the movie you wanted, you looked for another one. Even better? This practice likely expanded your tastes or horizons. Just as echo chambers have set up in other forms of media, streaming gives you the perfect opportunity to just stay in your little hole, never branching out and discovering new things…leaving you to suckle off some algorithm for your entertainment needs.

Another recent turn of events has also brought up another important difference between streaming and physical media: ownership. Back in December of 2023, people who had bought digital shows from Discovery networks were greeted by the following message: “As of 31 December 2023, due to our content licensing arrangements with content providers, you will no longer be able to watch any of your previously purchased Discovery content and the content will be removed from your video library.” Now, while this didn’t come to pass (this time) given the furor from this statement forced Sony and Warner Bros/Discovery to renegotiate their licensing deal, it was enough to highlight what is probably the most overlooked aspect of digital media: You. Own. NOTHING. For the same price as someone who bought a physical copy of a show or movie, all you bought for your digital program was a license. In theory, this should entitle you to as many viewings as the physical media owner but in actuality, it ends up being a far more complicated issue. As studios rearrange and barter intellectual properties (IPs) amongst themselves or as components to some programs are held by different rights owners, it gets harder to get all of one’s ducks in a row, so to speak, in order to allow for an actual release on streaming that has any real staying power. In terms of physical media, the stars really only need to align once. Granted, once licenses expire and the discs go out of print, they’ll become harder to find and thus more expensive…but ultimately, they remain attainable. Once agreements expire for digital content, unless there’s an active and successful renegotiation…POOF. That $50 you spent to listen to a full season of some backwater bearded redneck schmucks talk about hunting ducks? Bye-bye. All gone…and with absolutely nothing to show for it.

I’m going to take a moment here in my conclusion to quote, in (most of) its entirety, Joe Bob Briggs’ rant on the second season episode of The Last Drive-In screening Hellbound: Hellrasier II:

It scares me that physical media is disappearing and I’ll tell you why. Just recently, I did a 148-minute commentary track for the movie ‘I Spit on your Grave – Déjà Vu’ which is the 40-years later sequel to the notorious rape-revenge movie from the 70s. One of the main reasons I was asked by director Meir Zarchi to do it was so that the upcoming Blu-ray release could beat back the haters because critics don’t like Meir Zarchi. They didn’t like him in 1979 and they don’t like him now. Distributors don’t like Meir Zarchi. They wouldn’t give him a deal in 1979 and they won’t give him a deal now. A major studio backed out of an agreement last year citing “the cultural environment”. Feminists don’t like Meir Zarchi. They called him a misogynist when the original ‘I Spit on your Grave’ first came out and the film has been the subject of impassioned debate in Women’s Studies classes in Film Studies departments ever since then. Fortunately, there was an exploitation marketer named Jerry Gross who took Meir’s original film, which was called ‘Day of the Woman’, retitled it, platformed it through a system of sub-distributors and fought the various protesters in every city, including Chicago where Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert stood out in front of theaters and told people not to go in. That was followed by a video release that allowed people all over the world to see the movie that was often banned in the very city where they watched the movie. So one of the most liberating moments in the history of free expression was the invention of VHS. Well today, all those sub-distributors are gone. Today VHS is a hipster hobby at best, a piece of metal crap in your garage probably. The chances of ‘I Spit on your Grave – Déjà Vu’ getting into a mainstream movie theater in 2020 are somewhere between zero and impossible. Fortunately, there’s the device called the Blu-ray player that allows anyone in the world to order a physical copy and watch it the next day. The Blu-ray player, in other words, is the Jerry Gross of our day. It’s our defense against a world of judgmental overlords who would very happily make Meir Zarchi’s film disappear. And pretty soon now, we won’t have that protection. Samsun announced that they will no longer manufacture 1080p or 4K Blu-ray players. These are state-of-the-art devices, the absolute best digital image quality ever achieved. But they showed up too late. As we know from the early days of video players, people don’t care about image quality. If people cared about image quality, Technicolor and Eastman Kodak would still be in business because film images have been getting progressively worse since the late 1930s. People care about convenience and price. So wer’re not quite at the end of physical media because Sony and Panasonic will probably show record sales this year because one of their main competitors just left the field. But it’s the first signal that pretty much everything is gonna be moving to ‘The Cloud’, right? The problem with ‘The Cloud’ is that someday The Cloud is gonna explode into a fine digital mist an trillions of cultural artifacts are gonna be lost. I don’t know how that’s gonna happen, whether it’s gonna be cyberterrorism or actual war or simple mismanagement but a whole bunch of stuff is gonna get burned up and everybody’s gonna be asking ‘Who do I sue?’, you know. Of course, all your physical media could burn up. Your house could burn down and take all your tapes and DVDs with it, but State Farm would replace it, right?!? The problem with The Cloud blowing up is that it takes a billion other people with you!  But that’s not even the worst result of moving away from physical media. The worst result is that the controversial movies and TV shows and music, especially the under-the-radar stuff like ‘I Spit on your Grave’, that stuff will simply not be there anymore. They will be censored into a digital void. And we won’t even notice it’s happening. Take it from a person that’s been dealing with censors his whole life. They’re not anything like the stereotype. The stereotype is Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, upholding Victorian morality. The stereotype is Thomas Bowdler, the English doctor who took all the naughty parts out of Shakespeare. The stereotype is Tipper Gore, dedicating herself to saving the youth of America by getting rid of rap music. I’ve only encountered one opponent like this: the Reverend Donald Wildman of Tupelo, Mississippi, a family values advocate who devoted himself to ridding the world of pornography in all its forms including high school sex comedies and horror films. Now, the Reverend, he was fun to debate with because his position was so pure. He really did think that movies could turn ordinary people into rapists and killers. But these aren’t real censors, these are crusaders. They eventually collapse under the weight of their own self-righteousness. The REAL censors are the people who say ‘Let’s just stay away from that topic.’ You know, they’re the retiring types. They wear grey cardigans and sensible shoes. They’re middle-managers at Disney. They’re creative executives at Fox. They’re lawyers at CBS. Their solution to any controversy is cancel the show, pull the film out of distribution, cut off the licensing. You know, Amos & Andy, for example, that’s one of the most influential radio and television series ever produced. It’s the model for the Honeymooners, Sanford & Son, All in the Family, many other “bro” series. But it hasn’t been widely seen since 1966 because CBS took it out of distribution and refused to license it. It’s crime? Racist stereotypes. If you haven’t seen the slasher film ‘Clownhouse’, you probably never will, unless you own the really hard to find DVD. It’s crime? The director was a convicted child molester. Don’t watch the “Sign my dick” scene from Victor Crowley on Amazon Prime because they took out the money shot. It’s crime? Showing a dick. Notice all of these are crimes of omission. They just make the film or the scene or the entire series unavailable…and these are the people who own The Cloud. These are the people who run streaming. Once the DVD players are gone and once the Blu-ray players are gone, all we’ll have left are faceless bureaucrats who are periodically cleansing their library of inconvenient titles. And they right or wrong, justice or injustice…questions like ‘has enough time passed to start running The Cosby Show again?’ And the little companies like Something Weird video, you know, knocking at the doors of the big streaming services? “No sir, I don’t think our company needs to be renting ‘Bigfoot Gets Laid’ at the current time. We’re doing just fine with Transformers 12. So it’ll be censorship of the minority by the majority. It’ll be silent. It’ll be legal. You won’t even notice it until the day you find out there’s a movie called ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, but you can’t watch it because all the rights have been purchased by an animal rights group so they can make sure it’s never seen again. Vladimir Putin will love it. Xi Jinping will love it. All you have to do is find the corrupting media influence wherever it resides in the cloud, push one button and viola, it’s gone! So much better than when they had those pesky home video devices, right? In those days, we couldn’t even be sure what they were watching. Media is better when it keeps track of the watcher. Media is better when it doesn’t just know what to feed you, it knows when to starve you.

Whew. Well, that was a lot to transcribe. Here we are, three years later and these words only gain meaning and, even worse…examples. Without constant vigilance and curation, we continue to run the risk of losing so much more of our cinematic history than we already have [Remember, the majority of silent films are completely lost. – Ed.]. It bears keeping in mind that what’s mainstream now can, with just a shift in public consensus, can become tomorrow’s counterculture or niche market. The films that have always been looked down upon…horror, sci-fi and other so-called “genre” films…are likely to be first on the chopping block (as they always have been), to say nothing of the “smut” that’s far tamer than what can be found on the internet. While one can hope that, to paraphrase Princess Leia, the more they tighten their grip, the more movies will slip through their fingers, the fact of the matter is as movie studios continue to devour each other whole, consuming movie library after movie library, the prospect of this grim, censored future is becoming all too real. With fewer and fewer options, viewers will be at the mercy of the few…and as Joe Bob pointed out, they’ll be determining what you watch: ‘ooh, that’s too offensive’, ‘this movie doesn’t fit with our perceived branding’, ‘this movie might turn stupid people into rapists or murderers (the old “I can handle it, but you can’t” argument)’, ‘this doesn’t fit with conservative/liberal morality and sensibilities’. So much of the political landscape anymore focuses on personal freedoms…yet it feels like less and less people are aware of this one. Even worse, they’re happy to march right along with the trend…so long as it’s convenient. So get out there. You like a movie, get it on disc. Hell, I’d start buying movies I didn’t like [I’m looking at you Cannibal Holocaust – Ed.] if I had the room to do so! Make damn sure you have it forever. And, most importantly, stick it to The Man who’s trying to tell you what you can watch and what you can’t.

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