More than ever, physical media needs our help

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After a bruising week or two for DVDs, Blu-rays and Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays, a few thoughts on the era that’s slipping away in front of us.

You don’t have to hang around too long on the internet to find some kind of discussion of the Marvel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

It’s a movie widely available on disc and streaming, that’s been analysed and enjoyed in web pieces, Twitter watch-a-longs and must-watch lists. And once you’ve caught such an article, you may find yourself tempted to give it another spin. A good plan, too: it’s a really good film, that improves for me with each viewing. It’s also very easy to find in pretty much any format, should you want to watch it.

It’s little secret that its directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, were influenced by 70s political thrillers when putting the film together. By brilliant films such as Three Days Of The Condor, The Conversation, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. You may or may not go along with those influences, but at the least, it’s worth checking out those four films if you haven’t already.

Hmmm. But what’s this? Three Days Of The Condor is available on Sky but not on Netflix or Prime Video to stream. The Parallax View is available to rent, as is All The President’s Men. But the stunning The Conversation – the film that Francis Ford Coppola sandwiched in between his first two Godfather films – isn’t available on any UK streaming service outside of Sky Movies.

Of course, those films built on other films and influenced others. You wouldn’t have The Star Chamber (pictured below) and Arlington Road without The Parallax View. Only one of those two films is available on any UK streaming service, though.

This is just one rabbit hole, and we’re not far down on it. Every film mentioned thus far is on my physical media shelf in one format or another. Any of them I can watch in a couple of minutes, irrespective of the status of my internet connection. Each of them is constantly available to me, and not affected by the whims and deals and ebbs and flows of streaming services. They’re not affected if the service I bought them through ceases, either.

It’s been a rough week or two for physical media.

At the end of last week, it was revealed that Disney is pulling back from live action catalogue titles on the Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray format. I’ve read some of the reaction to this, with some logical arguments about that being a premium, niche format. But it also comes at a point where, outside of new releases and cycling regular catalogue performers, Disney has barely been doing much with the Blu-ray or DVD formats at all. Instead, it’s directed its energies towards its excellent Disney+ service.

There are currently estimated to be around 500 films on Disney+ (a service, of course, with a PG-13/12A limit). Following its acquisition of 20th Century Fox and subsidiaries, Disney now owns tens of thousands of movies in total. Appreciating that it also offers films via Hulu in the US and via on demand services, it’s possible to get a chunk of them. That’s at least as things stand.

Thankfully, a good number of those have been released on physical media in one form or another over the past 40 years. However, cherish those copies and expect a lively second hand market. It no longer fits the business model of Disney to support the declining physical media market, even though its still a profitable business.

But this is corporations, and shareholders come first. Of course, Disney now is sending a $200m blockbuster to Disney+ as well, as it increases its stranglehold on its distribution network, But as it happens, this is all bigger than just Disney.

Earlier this week, more bad news broke. Layoffs at Warner Bros were revealed, included cuts to its home entertainment arm. Warner has been brilliant too, with its Archive Collection of Blu-rays continually finding a way to get interesting older films to market, irrespective of how much profit they won’t make. It’s initiatives like that I really fear for. And the stories at Warner Bros and Disney are the ones that have come to light.

None of this is a bash at streaming, to be clear. The convenience of it is really something. But digital services should surely work in tandem with physical. With something permanent. But that’s not going to be the case. They don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but it feels like that’s the way we may be heading.

I’ve made this point several times on this site, but streaming comes with issues.  Part of the problem with streaming, the problem with digital services – and I’m a great user of both, to be clear – is the choice involved feels a bit like a hall of mirrors. Query any of your streaming services of choice for a straight A-Z list of all the films it’s offering, you won’t get it. Find a menu that fits more than, say, 20 films on it. You’re lucky to find it. The reason, in part, is it’s not in those services’ interests to play their hands and show you the limits of your choice. A mix of mainstream titles to suit 90% of the audience 90% of the time, and some niche fodder for those wanting to explore a bit.

Granted, there are niche streaming services too, such as Curzon At Home, BFI Player, Shudder and the Arrow Video Channel. But it all starts to tot up the more services you add, and the choice is fluid. Perhaps it’s me that’s the problem. If I decide I want to watch 1990’s excellent Pump Up The Volume, I don’t want to wait until a streaming service can unpickle the rights to add it to its service. I’ll just put my disc of it on, thanks.

This all overlooks the extra features of physical releases too, that themselves are feeling like endangered species. I should note that Disney+, to its credit, has some excellent supplemental and behind the scenes material on its service. Apple chucks in extras from time to time too, albeit on an exclusive basis when it can get them. But again: we were spoilt. A generation of filmlovers between the late 90s and later 2000s got to see extra supplemental material as a norm. Now, Netflix won’t even let you watch the end credits of a film by default, before trying to get you onto something else.

An era is slipping away again in front of our eyes. Perhaps it’s already too late. But heck, it does feel like it’s worth fighting for.

The thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, then, is I don’t think that film needs advocates so much, and I don’t think it needs continual support. I’m not knocking those who do champion it, to be clear. In my teens, I bored people to death about Back To The Future Part II, and was hardly spreading the word about independent cinema. But if you’re on this site, I can but assume you have more than a passing interest in film. We’re not the easiest to find, after all.

I can’t help but feel, then, that more than ever we need to fight for the smaller films, for the labels who are keeping the physical media flag flying. That we need to shout loudly when a company is willing to gamble on a catalogue release, and support it if we can. Not blindly, of course. But there’s a subset of the studio system that’s not just abandoned cinema – the medium that’s made it suitably rich – in its hour of need, but also physical media. The same companies that coined it in when DVD exploded are, it seems, first out the door again whilst the likes of 88 Films, Arrow, Criterion, Anti Worlds, 101 Films and more are putting in shifts.

The big studios and the big films will be okay. No matter how good or bad the next Jurassic World film is, it’ll appear in boxsets for the rest of time, and we don’t need to clamour for it to get a release. The same goes with the big movies. But even medium-sized films are struggling for a decent physical release now. And as for catalogue titles, with over a century and a quarter of cinema to waiting to be further explored? Well, it’s looking like darker times.

I’m aware there’s a hodge-podge of points in this article, but I can’t help but feel they overlap to some degree. That we’re heading to an ecosystem where only the biggest films get a physical release and get the lion’s share of conversation, and where studios increasingly look to divert films to digital services instead, rather than as well as. Where smaller companies are left fighting the fight and needing our support more than ever. Film and cinema has to change, of course. It needs to evolve. But it’s always, rightly, had a physical foundation. Who can say that’ll still be the case, on this path, in 20 years time?

Lead image: BigStock

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