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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Throwback Thursday - Is Physical Media Dead rant

note: This was written for Grindhouse Purgatory a few years ago. I'm not sure that I still agree with eveyrthing that I wrote below but at the time this is how I felt. It was also intended to generate conversation about the death of physical media and how that made collectors as well as general film fans feel. It was successful then and I hope will do that here again. 


Is Physical Media Dead?

by John Shatzer

Normally on the pages of Grindhouse Purgatory I write reviews about Blu-Rays that have been released and whether it is worth double dipping on them. I came up with the idea of reviewing new releases on Blu-Ray because of all the conversations I’ve had about it with other fans. Eventually it also got me to thinking a bit more about the idea of purchasing movies again on new format and if that was something that I wanted to do. I’ve gone from VHS to DVD and then to Blu-Ray with some dabbling in Laser Disc along the way. Each change provided better quality, more material, and generally an improved experience. What they all had in common is that they involved having something in your hands. With the internet and new technology that isn’t always the case now and I found it very interesting how my own views on the subject have changed over the years.

To answer the question I posed in the title we must first look at the alternatives to physical media. There are really two legitimate options that spring to mind. One is the ability to stream thru services like Netflix, while the other is to purchase a digital copy from a source like iTunes. Both have advantages and disadvantages which we should look at. For the record I currently use Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Shudder for streaming. To purchase digital copies, I use iTunes and Amazon Prime. I mention this because much of what I’m going talk about is influenced by my personal experience with these particular services.

Streaming is an interesting way to consume movies. With the advent of high-speed internet it has become very convenient to use it to watch movies from the comfort of your own home. You don’t have to go to the video store to browse the shelves for that new release or old favorite. Instead you just flip thru the catalog of available titles and hit the play button. No more “they are all checked out” nonsense making you fight over getting the hot new release on Friday night. You want to watch a movie and they have it on the service, you watch it. All of this is available for one monthly payment instead of a rental situation. Want five movies or fifty movies in a given month, it doesn’t matter. This has also had one noticeable effect on my movie watching.

Streaming has allowed me to find some obscure movies that I would likely have never checked out. I watch a lot of crappy movies, but even I have passed up spending money on something that looks unappealing. With streaming I still have the option to check it out. If I don’t like the movie, I shut it off without feeling guilty about spending money on it. The most recent example of this is when I caught a flick called Slice. I wasn’t sold on the plot synopsis and would likely have put it right back on the shelf if I were in a traditional setting. But it wasn’t so I gave it a shot and really enjoyed the movie. Here a case can be made that this sort of service allows the consumer to take a chance on something that normally we wouldn’t. The big disadvantage to this is the availability to movies changes as the various services update their catalogs. Things are added and removed on a monthly basis, so you can’t always count on it being there when you want to watch it. That can be annoying if you are in the mood to watch a movie and can’t find it anymore.

          Purchasing digital copies mitigates this and is also convenient if you are waiting for a new release. I’m a huge nerd when it comes to checking out the latest horror or science fiction flick. Do any of you remember the guys that would be waiting at the big box stores on new release day with their list of what was coming out that week? Well I was one of them! I knew what was scheduled and of those what I wanted. If it wasn’t something likely to be hitting the local store, I had it preordered and ready to ship the day it was released. That took a lot of time and honestly was a bit silly. Sometimes it took me weeks to get to a movie that I just had to have the day it came out. Let me give you an example of how it works now. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich came out a few months ago. I was really excited to check it out, but the weekend it was released I was busy with family stuff. No big deal because I knew I could pop online and order a digital copy to watch whenever I had time. The process from purchase to opening credits took no more than five minutes. See the difference? I can add any new movie to my collection with a few clicks, so I never have to worry about them selling out or not being in stock at a later date. The idea that I could be missing out on something if I’m not in line the day of release is totally gone.

While I understand that not everyone is as obsessed with this as I used to be the point is that digital copies make it really easy to purchase and watch any movie you want at almost any time. The biggest downside to this is that in theory if the company that you purchased the movie from ever goes out of business you could lose your access to what you have purchased. That used to bother me until I realized that Amazon and Apple aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. The one thing that does bug me is the cost of these digital copies. They cost almost as much as the actual DVD or Blu-Ray would! Considering that they don’t have the manufacturing or shipping cost it seems like a cash grab.

I’ve made the case for streaming and digital copies but what are the arguments for owning physical copies of your favorites? Like many of you I’m a collector at heart. The very idea of owning a movie meant that I had it in my hands or at the very least sitting on my shelf. It needed to be available for me to pop on anytime that I wanted to. Want to watch that obscure zombie movie? It is sitting right there ready to go. Want to see hours of special features on your favorite horror flick? Again, it is sitting right there on the super-duper new Blu-Ray that in many cases I’ve recommended here before! These are things that can’t be provided consistently from streaming sites.

But wait. We can always purchase a digital copy to watch anytime that we want. Some of those even come with the special features you can get on the DVDs and Blu-Rays. This is almost the same as owning a physical copy. Theoretically a combination of streaming and digital could replace all of our collections. I have been shocked at the obscure stuff that took me years to collect suddenly showing up on these streaming services. Hell, there are movies that used to be a nightmare to track down suddenly on YouTube for free. Damn it I just made another argument against physical media.

If I’m to answer this question with my head and not my heart the days of collecting thousands of tapes, DVDs, and Blu-Rays is likely coming to a close. You only have to look at the stores to see this reality coming to pass. The media sections in every big box retailer is shrinking as the sales dwindle and the valuable real estate is reclaimed for merchandise that moves quicker. Most of these stores sell iTunes or Amazon Gift cards where the shelves of movies for sale used to be. Then is the answer to the question yes?

            At my age I’m not fond of change, especially when it comes to my hobbies. A few years ago I would never have said this but streaming and digital are decent ways to find and enjoy movies. The times they are a changing and I’m willing to go along for the ride. Recently I sold off more than sixty percent of my collection. I had neither the space to store them nor the energy to move them. I still have over two thousand movies in my collection and with that comes the last point that I want to make. You don’t have to get rid of any or all of your stuff. I still have DVDs and Blu-Rays of my favorites or movies that I know I will revisit on occasion. I still upgrade old DVDs with new Blu-Rays that have special features I’ve not seen before. The collector in me is still alive as I have multiple versions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Dawn of the Dead on both DVD and Blu-Ray. I’m never going to toss or sell the stuff that I love. But that doesn’t mean I have to run out and buy a copy of the latest horror movie that comes out not knowing if I will like it or not. If I want to watch a movie, I can get a digital copy or check it out when it hits a streaming service. If I really like it, I can buy a copy for my collection. This happened last year when I caught The Void and dug it so much, I went out and bought a copy.

It is sad to see the hobby changing. I loved having my own version of a video store in my house where I could sit surrounded by movies. But if you really think about it there are some huge advantages to where things are headed. Waiting for stuff to hit a streaming service is much cheaper than buying a bunch of DVDs that you will likely not watch more than once. Not having to worry about getting a copy of a popular horror release on the day it hits the stores is another. These are just a couple of the many reasons I think as fans we should embrace this new world. My final advice to you is enjoy what you have and take advantage of the technology. It’s the best of both worlds.

Back to the question I asked at the beginning. Is physical media dead? The easy answer is no. There will always be a market for Blu-Ray and whatever new format comes along to replace it. Though I do see a world where that will be a niche market as most everyone moves onto easier and more convenient ways to watch movies. That isn’t a bad it’s just different and I’m okay with it. Hopefully I haven’t rambled on too much and bored you to death. I’ll see you next time where I’ll let you know what Blu-Rays have the best new stuff on them… just in case you still want to buy something you can hold in your hands. As always feel free to email me at gutmunchers@gmail.com to let me know what you think about this or anything else.

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

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