The figures are in for 2016, revealing that streaming and download services have finally overtaken physical media as the prime format for home film-watching. It's a decisive win for convenience culture, but will we come to regret it...?
To put my cards on the table, I'm a video shop guy. I'm 40 years old now, so I was there when the home entertainment industry started - as a wide eyed kid in single digits, I spent my childhood in quirky little local shops and eventually branches of Ritz Video, the UK's first significant chain. In my early teen years, Ritz was bought out by Blockbuster - the global behemoth and by my late teens, I was working for them. So began a career of sorts working in a total of 13 different video shops, from different Blockbusters, to regional chains, to funky indie stores, to eventually going into business with my dad and starting our own little chain of video shops.
Our shops - which we named Videosyncratic - eventually closed their doors in 2011, struck down by a combination of factors.The window of time between rental release and retail narrowed from around 6 months to the same day, removing the exclusivity which the rental industry had been built on. Some distributors then started making separate rental and retail versions of DVDs - the retail versions would cost between £7 and £10 and come packed with special features, the rental version would cost us around £60, have no special features, often coming in far less attractive packaging and would usually be 'accidentally' delayed in arrival by a week or three.
This was also a period in which Sunday newspapers were slipping free DVDs into their supplements each week and in which higher broadband speeds were allowing canny young people to illegally download pretty much any film they fancied without wasting a penny of their precious pocket money. This was also right around the time of the credit crunch, so expendable cash had shrunk in every family's pocket. The humble video shop was doomed. Within a few years, even the mighty Blockbuster had been felled and now video shops have been consigned to the past. Our next generation of teenagers will be amused by the notion they ever existed.
The way we consume films has changed. Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime have, in the last few years, swiftly ushered in an age of slick convenience. You can't buy an Apple computer with a built-in DVD drive anymore. Charity shops, boot sales and recycling centres are now heaving with DVDs and Blu Rays as consumers free up their living rooms of physical media, safe in the knowledge that every film they could ever want to see is now available to them on their phone, tablet, computer and Smart TV. They can watch anything, anywhere, anytime and that's the happy ending we've all dreamed of.
I love a good horror movie, me. Sometimes, I can't help but frame life to a horror film narrative and it strikes me that it's always at this moment, when the untroubled group of happy people are frolicking and cockily enjoying their entitlement and privilege that something rises from the grave to attack.
So here are some thoughts to arm yourself with against the vengeful spirit of DVD:
1. You don't technically own the films you download. Effectively, you're leasing the content. Where you would have been able to give, or sell, a DVD you owned on to anyone you chose, your iTunes account does not allow for this. When someone dies, iTunes has the right to terminate the account and negate all 'ownership' of its contents.
2. Films can disappear in a digital landscape. Between November and January, Netflix US is reported to have dropped 163 movies from it's catalogue and added only 131. Commentary suggests that Netflix is shifting its focus to generating its own material. Which is fine, but when the market moves fully to streaming and the market leader has the power to decide what content is made available to consumers, what happens to a lot of older or quirkier films or even just films where the rights-holders expect to be paid fairly in the future? When you put all of your eggs in the streaming basket, there is no guarantee that the films you want to see will be available to you ever again.
3. Digital film preservation is not proven to be safe. We might assume that once something exists digitally, it is safe forever, but that is not necessarily the case. Famously, when Toy Story was released on DVD, Pixar discovered that almost a fifth of the original digital files they stored had corrupted - so the DVD had to be mastered from a 35mm celluloid print. Hard drives, discs and chips physically degrade FAR faster than film. Also, digital file formats quickly become obsolete and software updates render whole technologies useless. Film preservation - traditionally an under-funded area already - will struggle to preserve modern films reliably. And don't expect your streaming service to be investing in preservation.
4. What if the internet goes down? We've all got very used to internet access, we consider it almost a basic human right, but what happens if we lose our access? Or are subject to attacks? When you put all of your film access into an online state, you'd better be confident in your provider.
It's all happened very quickly and convenience will always win out - that's exactly the premise that video rental was built on almost 40 years ago, but it's worth giving it some thought and maybe hanging on to your favourite DVDs and keeping hold of that DVD player.
Perhaps the saddest thing about completing our move to streaming films is the total loss of the warm culture of the video shop. The fun evenings spent picking out films, the knowledgeable, yet surly, staff. The comfort of knowing that most of cinema history was preserved and available to us for a couple of quid, just down the street.
If you loved and miss video shops, check out my new book Videosyncratic right here: VIDEOSYNCRATIC. LIFE. IN VIDEO SHOPS.