There is no mistaking the air of panic surrounding DVD retail in the UK at the moment. Second hand DVD prices are dropping at both Amazon and CeX while the time between a DVD retailing at full RRP and it appearing on the bargain shelves is shrinking month by month. We may not be quite there yet but DVD and Blu-ray are clearly on their way to the great dead media bonfire in the sky.
The death of DVD is being driven by a series of cultural shifts that are combining to put pressure on traditional ways of selling and consuming media:
Firstly, not only is the internet now a way of life for most people, its support infrastructure is now reaching the point where it is changing the way we relate to computerised information. Since the early 1980s, the standard way of relating to a computer is to have a box in one’s home that one fills with stuff bought in shops. If we want to play a game, we go and buy it on a disc. If we want to try out a new piece of software, we go to a website and pay to download it and put it on our computer. However, with more and more people now using wireless broadband all the time, it is often easier to keep all of our stuff in someone else’s box and access it only when we need it. Hence the tendency to put photographs on Facebook and to use online apps likes Google docs. Ever mindful of an opportunity to sell something new, techies refer to this type of set-up as cloud computing and many commentators seem to believe that it is the future of home and business computing alike. In fact, Apple are so certain of this development that they are investing heavily in something they call ‘The Cloud’, a set of inter-connecting synchronisation routines that should allow people to access all of their files and media across all of their Apple products regardless of where they might be at the time. Those of us less concerned with Apple’s great catholic experience are happy to use services like Dropbox with roughly the same results.
This shift away from storing and running stuff on our home computers is also evident in the way that, despite a bizarre series of PR disasters and strange business decisions, the US company Netflix has managed to convince a sizeable chunk of Americans that, instead of buying and renting DVDs, they would be better off streaming films directly to their desktop computers, laptops and/or home media centres. Media and tech people knew that this type of thing was coming (Blu-ray was never anything more than an attempt to squeeze a bit more revenue from an endangered business model) but the speed with which American consumers have taken to online streaming seems to have caught the big media and technology companies on the hop. Nobody expected physical media to decline this soon and nobody expected that decline to progress quite so quickly. With Netflix preparing to launch in the UK and DVD rental companies like Lovefilm suddenly making more and more of their streaming capabilities, DVD retailers are sensing that the UK will soon go the way of the US and streaming media will soon replace physical media.
Secondly, much of the force behind the shift away from VHS and towards DVD was provided by the promise that DVD would offer us things that VHS simply could not. Aside from better picture and sound quality, this included extensive commentaries, deleted scenes and short documentaries providing endless amounts of detail on the films that people enjoyed enough to buy. The problem with this promise is that we do not tend to limit ourselves to buying only the films we love. Indeed, while the idea of watching documentaries about the making of The Godfather or Star Wars might be appealing, it is difficult to see much added value in a documentary about the making of The Hangover. As a result, DVD companies have tended not to deliver on their promise to produce extra content and most DVDs come with little more than a few extra trailers and some fluff interviews filmed to help promote the film upon its initial release. To make matters worse, the increased storage capacity of Blu-ray discs has prompted many DVD companies to try this trick again by re-releasing old films with even more extras and even more interviews but already, you can see that most Blu-rays come with little additional content and what content they do include tends to be worthless rubbish that serves no purpose other than to allow retailers to mention the extra content on the cover. The result is a situation whereby DVD and Blu-ray retailers are trying to sell their discs on the understanding that they contain loads of content that few people actually want to watch and nobody really wanted to produce in the first place. Blu-ray’s promise of all new content has only served to remind us of how much of a wasted opportunity DVD extras have become. No wonder people are increasingly failing to see the value in so-called ‘Extras’ and are opting instead for streaming media that gives them the film they want right now at a reasonable price.
Thirdly, like most consumer objects, DVD and Blu-ray discs serve the additional (and occasionally just as important) purpose of allowing their owners to stage-manage their public personas. Just as people would, once upon a time, line their offices with leather-clad books in an effort to appear erudite, people now do much the same with DVDs and Blu-rays. All of those shelves clustered around the TV do not simply place people’s media within easy reach; they also broadcast their tastes to anyone who happens to visit their home. Unfortunately, the shift away from bricks-and-mortar retail towards online retail has robbed consumer items of any cachet they might once have possessed. For example, I can remember when having a good number of Criterion box sets and the region-free DVD player on which to play them marked one out as a serious film fan and Criterion were swift to cash in on this realisation by effectively charging top dollar for luxury re-issues of films that were frequently available elsewhere for a good deal less money.
The power of the DVD as a symbol of one’s tastes and status has declined by virtue of the fact that nowadays most people have not only a DVD player but also a reasonable collection of DVDs and because all DVDs are equally accessible once one has a region-free player, there is no cachet to be had from owning a particular disc. As the economy grinds its heals and average home sizes shrink year-by-year, the fashion is increasingly for the kind of clutter-free existence facilitated by online streaming and digital media storage. Even the most beautifully designed of DVD cases cannot compete with the elegant minimalism of a TV surrounded by nothing but blank wall and a black box that discretely hums as it disgorges all the wonders of world cinema.
In short: people no longer want these bloody things cluttering up their homes and while the infrastructure is still not quite in place to allow a completely cloud-based media experience, our desire to step onwards and upwards to the next big thing will drive the market for that kind of experience just as it drains the energy and profitability from business models based upon putting boxes on shelves in high-street shops.
As with any sea change in the media landscape, there is always the fear that what we wind up with might be somehow less rewarding than what we currently have. Indeed, consult Lovefilm’s current streaming options and you will discover that it a good deal easier to find a rubbish Hollywood action movie than a brilliant independent or foreign-language film. Before independent, classic and foreign-language films find their way into the cloud there are numerous problems to solve not least the questions of rights and what is to happen to all of the people who currently make their living selling DVDs and Blu-rays. When it comes to larger films, these issues are not that much of a problem but given how many small films find their way to market through boutique DVD labels, there is a real danger that the shift to cloud media will silence some of the most distinctive curatorial voices in contemporary cinephilia.
To give you some inkling of what we might lose with the end of physical media, I’d like to direct your attentions to three of my favourite boutique DVD labels:
Launched in October 2007, Shameless Screen Entertainment specialise in releasing cult films with connections (either financial, linguistic or directorial) to the world of Italian exploitation cinema. Since its launch, Shameless have unleashed a number of great Italian giallis (including Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat and Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die?), post-apocalyptic SF movies (including The Bronx Warriors trilogy) and such classic horror films as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Aside from allowing these kinds of films to reach a British audience, Shameless also put a lot of effort into their DVD extras including interviews, commentaries and even new-edits of existing films where directors re-visit their old works in order to correct their ‘mistakes’. Shameless also sell their DVDs in eye-catching yellow cases that allow you to recognise them almost instantly. While many of Shameless’s films are perhaps more interesting than good, there is no denying the value of a DVD label that stands for a very particular kind of film and that unique curatorial voice would be lost if we all moved over to watching films on Netflix.
Best known for their art house multiplex on London’s Southbank, the British Film Institute also operates quite a prominently branded DVD label. Aside from releasing films of historical and academic interest, the BFI’s DVD label clearly also has quite a close relationship with its distribution arm meaning that many of the most interesting films released in cinemas (such as Herbert Pontin’s The Great White Wall and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins) find their way onto DVD thanks to the BFI. Consistently good, consistently interesting and consistently well supported by essays, commentaries and intriguing on-disc extras, the BFI label really is a mark of quality and a guarantee that the film you are about to purchase is worthy of both your time and your money.
Last but by no means least is Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. Often seen as a Region 2 version of the Criterion Collection, the backbone of the Masters of Cinema catalogue is indeed made up of the kind beautifully presented and critically supported prestige releases of classic films that have made Criterion such a well-known brand. However, aside from releasing established classics and lesser-known films by universally respected authors, Masters of Cinema has always tried to rescue under-appreciated films from obscurity and return them to the position of high-esteem of which fate and economics may have deprived them. Particularly note-worthy was their heroic attempt to rehabilitate Maurice Pialat, whose works disappeared from view in the English-speaking world. Similarly wonderful is Masters of Cinema’s decision to release both Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop at the end of January. Though well known in cinephile circles, neither of these films possess the levels of unquestioned cachet lavished on the like of Ozu or Lang. Were either of these films simply listings in a vast online database then it would be all too easy to overlook them but because they are being released by Masters of Cinema and because Masters of Cinema have a reputation for releasing great films, we know that these films are worth seeing.
As someone who uses these labels as a filtering system when determining which films I might be interested in watching, I am concerned that a shift towards cloud-based media might fatally undermine their capacity to function. As a result, I thought I’d put fingers to keyboard and come up with a couple of possible solutions to the problem of boutique DVD labels in a post-DVD world:
Firstly, I would like to be able to pay a monthly subscription directly to a DVD label and have them send me x number of new-releases every month. This thought occurred to me after I found myself reviewing (quite by accident) a number of films that Masters of Cinema have recently released. As I watched these films, it occurred to me that not only would I happily pay to own them (in fact, I have now purchased a couple), I would also pay to have films like them delivered to my home on a monthly basis. I trust Masters of Cinema’s judgement so much that I would be willing to enter into an open-ended commitment to buy x number of discs from them every single month.
A variation on this kind of subscription model is already offered by Audible who charges a certain amount every month for ‘credits’ that allow you to download one book. If there are no books that currently meet your requirements, Audible allows you to store up your credits and so, next time you feel the need to buy an audio book you can log on and choose several, thereby spending your credit back-log. This type of subscription model would tie audiences to their preferred label and provide these companies with a steady stream of income. Labels could even increase the sense of exclusivity by making the DVD boxes particularly nice and making certain titles exclusive to their websites thereby returning a degree of cachet to the process of buying and owning particular DVDs.
Secondly, the real players in cloud media are the studios. Whoever gets the streaming rights for the most desirable films will win the war and while people will doubtless be happy to pay subscriptions to more than one site, it seems clear to me that if streaming content is made available across dozens of sites then chances are that the format will not take off in the way that it should. Currently, battle lines are being drawn between Netflix, Amazon and the Apple iTunes store with the goal being to secure as much exclusive content as possible in order to lock people into being used to getting all of their digital media through one particular platform. Video game consoles are also an important part of this picture but because consoles have a limited lifespan and because gamers are only a sub-set of a much larger market, they are more peripheral figures despite their capacity to secure consumer loyalty to their own platforms.
With so much of an emphasis being placed upon breadth of coverage, it is easy to imagine a situation in which independent films are placed on a site with no distinction being made between big studio films and smaller films. Indeed, one of the great arguments in favour of long-tail economics and how they would benefit smaller content-providers is that Avatar would receive no more prominence in an online listing than Le Quattro Volte and so, in principle, people who go looking for Avatar might wind up discovering films about goats and animist re-incarnation. While this kind of equal footing might be good for film fans, it is not necessarily a good thing for boutique labels that cultivate a strong brand identity in the hope that their DVD boxes will stand out on a shelf. One solution to this problem would be for the boutique labels to assume an entirely curatorial role in having their own sub-pages within streaming hubs that allow you to identify ‘Shameless’ or ‘Masters of Cinema’ titles. Unfortunately, anyone and anything could set up this kind of curatorial service. In fact, I can imagine established critics earning some decent money by providing just such a filtration service for digital media consumers:
Want something to watch? Go check out Jonathan Rosenbaum of Film Crit Hulk’s iTunes page and find their latest recommendations!
While this type of service would benefit consumers, content providers and curators alike, it isn’t the kind of service that would keep the staff of a boutique DVD label in office supplies, let alone salaries. One solution to this problem would be for DVD labels to reinvent themselves as content producers in the sense that they would go out and find overlooked films and would then re-master them and make them available to subscribers alongside DVD-extra type material that could be either purchased or included as part of the subscription. I can certainly imagine myself paying to download a series of talks by Jonathan Rosenbaum or Tony Rayns regardless of whether I purchased the films they were talking about.
In the rush to move to the new technological environment, it is easy to spout capitalist platitudes about the need for businesses to evolve or die but the truth is that some technologies lend themselves more easily to certain kinds of product than others. While much of the promise of the DVD and Blu-ray formats have been squandered by DVD producers too lazy and cheap to make full use of the space, some DVD and Blu-ray retailers have produced extras that have added real value to what were often overlooked and forgotten films. I am as eager to move into the Cloud as the next guy but I don’t want my new environment to be less fun than the one I currently have and in order to make that happen, we need to find ways to ensure that critical and curatorial voices continue to be heard.