Fuck streaming! Long live physical media!
Ok, so now I have your attention with my obviously click bait title, let me explain. Obviously I don’t really mean “fuck streaming”, at the moment I currently have streaming subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Brown Sugar, Shudder and, until recently, FilmStruck. I also rent movies from iTunes on my Apple TV and have a handful of ‘free-with-adverts’ streaming apps like Crackle, Midnight Pulp, Pluto, Shout TV and more. I am on board the streaming revolution train, stoking the fire of its engines with furious, zesty regularity.
However, as my wife recently found out, I own a lot - and I mean A LOT - of physical media. We just moved into a two bedroom apartment, from a one bedroom, and this meant I could, finally, get my stuff out of storage. I think I was even a little taken a-back by how much there was. Even emptying boxes of clothes would reveal 8 - 10 Blu-rays, DVDs or VHS lurking at the bottom, shoved into every nook and cranny of my life.
Now some people, I’m sure, read this and think I have a problem. They think I am out there, spending the rent and my non-existent kid’s college fund on special edition Blu-rays of rare Donald Pleasence movies that, surely, no one gives a crap about, driving my wife insane and never feeling sated - but it’s simply not true. My collection is mostly comprised of movies you simply can’t get anywhere else, often bought second hand or for as cheap as possible and special editions of movies, that I personally consider, classics and must-haves. I have a few box sets and I have some TV stuff but mostly it’s as described above. Do I feel a thrill at the size and eclecticness of it all? of course! Is it ruining my life? not in the slightest.
Now, back to streaming for a minute. With each new home media format we have lost more and more content - 50% of films released on VHS never saw the light of day on DVD, even less for Blu-ray (although that’s changing) and a lot, lot less for streaming. A single mom & pop video rental store would, on average, hold more movies than you could find on all the above mentioned streaming services combined. It’s not just rare, weird or “cult” films either - try finding stuff like The Fugitive, Terminator 2, Apocalypse Now, The Silence of the Lambs etc. on streaming services - and try finding them without having to check in 10 different places, wasting a ton of time and killing your will to live one click at a time.
Films also come and go from streaming sites. The amount of time and energy you expend to keep up with it all via weekly update emails from Netflix and Hulu that clog your inbox and time spent on sites like justwatch.com and canistream.it is crazy. Now, let me be clear, by streaming I mean a monthly subscription streaming site. I don’t mean HBO/Showtime/Starz style premium channels - do you really subscribe to any of them in the hope they might have The Fugitive streaming? (HBO does apparently - for now) and I don’t mean being able to rent the film from iTunes, VUDU or YouTube. Which brings me to the next issue - separation and multiplication.
Once Netflix dove headlong into the “original content” pool and started making some serious bank - with Hulu and Amazon quickly following - the streaming world, for predominantly film fans like me, became a lot less appealing. Film content and back catalogue streaming shrunk to make way for shit like Bosch, Fuller House, mumble core, middle of the road, crap films about reconnecting with an absentee father starring Ed Harris and endless true crime documentaries, that are no way as interesting as their trailer or the office water cooler/Facebook gossip would have you believe. The antidote to this seemed to be that smaller, more specialised and specific streaming sites like Brown Sugar and Shudder cropped up and for a moment, with Warner Archive, FilmStruck, Fandor and more giving it a go, we had a brief heyday of film-based streaming site bliss.
This is 2018 though and we’re not allowed nice things. Cable companies and monolithic cell phone giants are buying up studios and deciding the cost benefit ratio based on marketing driven, statistical, blue sky analysis of digital content providing versus, I don’t know, finding a way to use their legal child labor force to destroy more natural resources in a bid to own everything, including the polluted air we breathe?
Basically, like what happened with the cinemas, the studios are trying to decide what we watch, when we watch, how we watch and what it costs. Disney is starting a new streaming service, Warner are shutting all of theirs down with AT&T (their new evil overlords - cough - sorry owners) planning a big, new, combined streaming service, Apple and Facebook are, apparently, even getting in the game and more are soon to follow - and as they fall over each other to get-in on the streaming space and ‘define the parameters of digital for the proven demographic’ or whatever bollocks they say to each other in board rooms - companies like Shout Factory, Arrow, Kino Lorber, Blue Underground, Vinegar Syndrome, The BFI and more are quietly pillaging their back catalogue, classic and cult titles and releasing them on sweet, sweet Blu-rays for all to see.
I read an article recently that proclaimed “Blu-ray is not dead!” but then went on to talk about Blu-ray collectors like they're some outdated, small but loyal, twee group of mostly “boys” who are looking for rare and culty titles that only hipster film students and nerds who live in basements could possibly understand. Clearly the person who wrote the article has never heard of Shout Factory, Scream Factory, Blue Underground, Arrow, Arrow US, 88 Films, Olive, Kino Lorber, the BFI, Synapse, Vinegar Syndrome, Mill Creek etc. etc. - these companies are literally thriving off this stuff! and they’re being creative and inventive with new packaging, new artwork, additional action figures, merch etc.
Sure, the cynical amongst us might think - great you’ve wrapped up a turd in some new shiny packet and you’re charging me $40 for it but I prefer to think of it as giving certain movies the best life they can possibly have. Sure, there is certainly some shady, lazy crap going on like the “limited edition” scam of only doing a run of 1000 copies and letting ebay arseholes buy 15 of the things so they can create demand and sell them on for over $100 - but mostly it’s companies that realise part of being a film fan is being a fan of the art, the iconography and the nostalgia that surrounds it.
While streaming sites struggle to have interfaces that allow for random, video store style selections based on outrageous cover art and hyperbolic blurbs, physical media distributors have realised that they can go some way to make their presentations eye catching and interesting. Social media, Amazon algorithms and just browsing the aisles of either an indie video retailer, or some of the bigger Barnes and Noble DVD and Blu-ray sections, do the rest and can have you finding a delectable array of weird, wild and wonderful genre titles.
The chasm of unreleased VHS titles is closing thanks to these companies, classic films are being re-discovered, lost films are being unearthed, much maligned but beloved cult favourites are being given the special editions they deserve and the works of filmmakers like John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, William Lustig, Don Coscarelli, Joe Dante, Wes Craven and more are getting the remastered and restored treatment, with a shed-load of extras, that aren’t even afforded the likes of Spielberg and Lucas. It’s the world we hitherto only dreamed of.
Is the price tag higher than having a handful of streaming services? definitely but you’re paying for the fact that you own those films, you own that art and you own those extras - no one can take them from you! - Even iTunes came under scrutiny recently for revealing that even if you purchase a digital copy of a film, if the studio rescinds iTunes license to sell that title, then you lose your film and have no recourse to get that money back. Buy the VHS/DVD/Blu-ray then you can watch them any time you like, as often as you like and you don’t even need an overpriced internet connection to watch them. That’s real cord cutting!
And it’s far from just your fringe geeks who like this stuff I mean, shit, Shout Factory is putting out stuff like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and City Slickers. These are big, back catalogue, mainstream titles that the studios seemingly don't give a shit about and signed away. Also, it’s worth pointing out, because the studios seem to have forgotten, but 30-something geeks gave the studios hits with the Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Transformers etc. universes! The geeks basically got to a pop culture zenith about 3 years ago. It’s not their fault that along with them came an audience of attention span deprived, sugar riddled tweens, with all the intelligence of a hamster fart, that meant the great-corporate-mega-pandering began that watered down all that was weird, beautiful, subversive and interesting about geek-pop culture.
There’s plenty to share out there too! With the likes of Shout Factory, Arrow and the newly created Vestron Blu-ray series basically re-releasing your 80s and 90s video shop favourites, it’s allowing slightly smaller labels like Olive, Vinegar Syndrome, Blue Underground and then even smaller shops like Massacre Video to release anything and everything from art-house gems to shot-on-VHS indie, Americana weirdness.
The truth is you underestimate the fan, geek or nerd at your peril. Recently, in a genius decision by streaming platform Shudder, Joe Bob Briggs’ returned to the drive in on Friday the 13th 2018 to host a 24hr movie marathon. It broke the internet and Shudder’s servers failed to keep up with demand. In his next marathon, on Thanksgiving, in one of his segments, Joe Bob talked about the importance of the shared viewing experience and the fact that marketing departments will tell you that people only want to watch new movies, on their cell phone and by themselves but actually, the truth is, very often, the experience is actually best shared with others. It is just another occasion where marketing, statistics, perceived wisdom etc. says one thing, when the reality is different. Same goes for physical media, anyone in the ‘industry’ will tell you it’s failing and irrelevant and that streaming is the future but they are wrong and, I say, they don’t understand the fandom of film and the beauty of the medium - they only see it as a hollow commodity and an advertising opportunity that they can use to sell our children toys and sugary drinks.
Obviously, the ultimate solution, like everyone knows, is a mixture of both. It’s the freedom to be able to choose and to have as much available as possible. Streaming and cable TV seems to think they offer this but actually fails to deliver on it - that’s why physical media remains essential. I am just sick and tired of lazy articles postulating about the end of this or the downfall of that - or proclaiming that something lives again when it never went away.
The only rumble on the horizon is that, apparently, the number of Blu-ray production houses are dwindling or being bought up and closed down but recently vinyl surpassed digital sales in music and more and more vinyl pressing places are opening up to cope with demand - so the lesson here is “her life is in your hands, Dude.. her life is in your hands”.