Buying DVDs and Blu-rays is still quite straighforward, but instead of good curation, we now seem to be getting more and more sponsored listings instead.
Once upon a time, we had video rental shops.
You youngsters may not remember such places, where the citizens of a couple of postcode areas would do battle over the handful of copies of Gremlins that the store in question could afford. The rental stores were small local shops, run by local people (not in a League Of Gentlemen kind of way). The reason many of us starting devouring the titles in the more niche genre sections of said stores was in part down to the fact that the waiting list for sodding Gremlins and Ghostbusters was so long.
Then bigger stores got interested. When VHS to buy came along, the high street shops started stocking their shelves, but also by this stage there were bigger chain video stores. My local was Ritz, eventually gobbled up by Blockbuster. Ritz had more buying power, so when Home Alone for instance arrived on the rental circuit in 1991 in the UK, there were now dozens of copies that you couldn’t get hold of, rather than a few. Inevitably, these bigger stores led to the decline of the smaller ones.
Then it was Blockbuster Video’s turn to be eaten, in much the same savage way it’d devoured those around them in the first place. Sympathy in the early days was not in abundance. The DVD market came along, taking away the rental film business (no matter how hard stores fought to keep hold of it), and people’s habits changed. Now they were buying more films, rather than renting them. Blockbuster suffered. Blockbuster never really recovered either.
For it was the new-fangled public access to the world wide web that was the killer. Blockbuster couldn’t adapt, and when it infamously turned down a chance to buy a stake in Netflix (taking pride of place in the book of Amazing Business Decisions Of Our Time), its number was soon up. It took with it the idea of going to the video store in the evening to browse the shelves and pick something to watch. Now, online stores had to try and replicate that instead.
Now I’m perfectly aware it’s taken me five and a bit paragraphs to get somewhere near the point, but I felt it was worth setting the scene. Before the internet, you went into a shop, and browsed titles. Even the earliest film retailing websites – your Play.coms, Blackstars, Videozones – actually looking for a film was easy (I’ve looked back at the lost etailers of the 1990s and early 2000s here). There was a lot of competition, so if you wanted someone to buy something from you, you made it straightforward to do so. It still sort of is. But not easy as it perhaps should be.
Over time, of course, the number of etailers has dwindled, and when it comes to purchasing the likes of DVDs and Blu-rays, the majority of the market is now held by Amazon. The majority of everything is held by Amazon, but this is a DVD article, so we’ll just concentrate there.
There are other outlets: the HMV website is good, Zavvi has lots of offers too, Base.com is still fighting, and there are many who sell via eBay. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that most people now look to get their discs from, yep, Amazon.
What’s more, Amazon is decent enough if you know what you’re looking for. Tap Top Gun: Maverick into the search bar at the top of the site, and you’re presented with options to buy the film on assorted disc formats, or as a digital download. All suitably reasonable. Generally too, if you’re specific about what you’re looking for, Amazon is decent enough at returning a relevant result.
However, as it’s more and more looked to push us towards buying digital downloads or streaming via its Prime Video service, it does seem to be throwing more and more obstacles in the way of actually browsing discs. Amazon, I’d suggest, now makes more money from the advertising on its site around DVD releases than the discs themselves. I may be wrong, but it certainly feels that way.
I do have a vested interest here. Each week for this very site, I compile a calendar of upcoming DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray physical media releases, and Amazon’s coming soon section is one of the main sources I rely on.
But once you get into the longer grass of that, it’s a bit of a mess.
Firstly, there’s no simple list of what’s coming, arranged in a nice and easy way. You can rank everything by release date, but it’s a few clicks to get that far.
Then though, you have to get past the ‘sponsored’ listing. I don’t like the sponsored listing. This happens on searches too, I should note. I popped The Hunger Games DVD into the search box, and the first result was a sponsored ad for a series of books. This was placed above the main collection of results, but it still left me thinking that I’d searched for one thing, and been presented with something else. Again, I’m sure it’s a more lucrative business for Amazon than the margin on an older DVD, but it’s bloody irritating from where I sit.
The sponsored listings seem to infest everything. I chose to browse upcoming DVDs by their release date, with the furthest away first. On the first page of results I get a listing for Logan on 4K disc, and a listing too for an Ingmar Bergman boxset from the BFI. Both of these are already on sale, and in the case of Logan, it has been for some time. But are they upcoming releases? No. Are they sitting in the way of more upcoming releases? Yes. Does it get on my tits? Damn straight.
I’m reliably informed that this all gets worse if you look to buy clothes, where you’re wading through sponsored results and promotions on your page of results. And I fully appreciate this is all a bit in the realm of first world problems. But why is the first result for a Batman Returns search in the DVD & Blu-ray section a sponsored deal for a Batman dressing gown, aimed at three-year olds? Have they not seen the film Batman Returns? Don’t they remember all the parental complaints over the Happy Meal back in 1992?
I include a screenshot of proof of this, incidentally, not just because it has a spectacular typo in it. Yeah, glass houses, I know. But it did make me laugh.
That said, if you search for certain films from certain studios, their results always appear at the top. Look closely, and you see why: they’re sponsored.
I remember many years ago one film marketing person telling me that for a DVD release, they had to put their promotional spend into Amazon, to basically ensure the release in question was prominent when people went Amazon shopping. It’s not that without that spend their disc release wouldn’t appear at the top of the search results for it. It just took the doubt away.
I should acknowledge that Amazon is one of the few companies growing its investment in films, and in cinema releases too, so I do see that it’s putting money into the industry. As traditional as it seems to be to punch the company, there are upsides to its work.
I’m just someone who’s increasingly missing some degree of care and curation in the way in which films to buy and watch are presented. I think, going to a web retailer, looking for a DVD should be as simple as searching for it, and it appearing as the first result. Idealistic perhaps, but the care seems to be slipping away a bit. That, or I’m getting old and grumpy.
Call me Mr Picky Pants though, but when I search for Con Air, I’d like the first result to not be a sponsored promo for ‘Qiilu Air-con Condenser,Vehicle Universal Oil Air-con Condenser Modification Aluminum Alloy Accessory(13 rows)’…
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