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Long Live the DVD: Why I’ll Never Give Up Physical Media

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 6, 2013 | Comments ()


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Earlier this year, something big happened: Netflix made more money from its streaming services than it did from DVD and Blu-ray rentals. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll group both formats together as “discs” in this piece.) Streaming subscribers have outweighed disc users of the service for a while now, but this is the first time the streaming’s actually brought in more cash. That GigaOm piece goes into more detail about what that means for Netflix’s bottom line, specifically how they can’t just drop the disc service overnight: for starters, the disc service has nicer profit margins, and streaming content means regularly renegotiating licenses for what’s available, resulting in the cyclical addition and deletion of huge blocks of film and TV, like the “Streamageddon” that saw 1,800 titles vanish at once. That’s important to me, too, as a user and fan of Netflix. But it’s not what matters most, and it’s not what will ultimately keep me buying or renting physical media until studios stop making it.

There’s the picture and sound quality, obviously. DVD was great, and Blu-ray’s even better, and both disc formats offer a viewing experience that surpasses the tape that defined home video for years. Watching something on disc means seeing it in a format that respects the aesthetics as much as possible. I’m not just talking about Netflix’s practice of cropping movies to fit a standard 16:9 HDTV display, though the company’s apparently taken measures to address some of their badly formatted films. And I’m not just talking about Netflix’s spotty HD offerings, since some of that HD isn’t really HD and other programs are only now starting to be offered in what the company calls “super HD,” or what you might expect from high definition. I’m talking about a consistency that is not currently possible with streaming. Physical disc media quality doesn’t fluctuate based on Internet usage spikes in my home or neighborhood. It just plays. I can also cancel or change my Internet service without worrying about how it’ll affect my disc experience. All I need is electricity and a TV.

Tied to that, there’s also the sense of ownership that comes with physical media. Netflix is, after all, a rental-based membership program. It’s like your local library, if the library had an infinite supply of some books but had never heard of others, and if it reserved the right to just throw your favorite book away whenever it wanted. But buying a disc means — and it feels dumb to have to write something so obvious — being able to watch it whenever you want. It isn’t beholden to licensing deals, or Internet service, or recurring membership in a digital service. It’s a thing you get to experience on your own time, as often as you’d like. That ownership is nothing to brush off, either, and it’s not exactly a free trade to give that up in exchange for the ability to occasionally stream certain titles. If you like something enough to want to watch it just once a year, it’s probably worth buying. The odds that it will always be available to stream at the time of your choosing and on your preferred device are impossible to predict; the odds that you can press “Power” on your Blu-ray or DVD player and sit back and enjoy a movie make for a much safer bet. There’s also the ease of sharing that comes with discs. I’ve loaned movies to friends before, pressing films into their hands and saying “This is great. You need to see this.” And they’ve done the same for me. That fluidity is, of course, not possible with digital content.

But a big part of the power of physical media is just that: its tangible nature. Discs aren’t movies, but they contain them. They’re the vessels we use to take ourselves to those places we never want to stop visiting. NPR’s music blog, The Record, just ran a great piece about the power of music archives, and it’s worth quoting at length:

“In other words, music is not a thing, but things are important to music. You can’t really understand 1920s blues without learning how to shimmy and slow drag. Gospel becomes richer once you hold the songbooks, and the prayerbooks, that created a holy framework for its squalls and deep harmonies. You can’t grasp what made one artist popular and another obscure without examining the nascent music industry that packaged and put them on the road — a road that, in the time of Paramount records, was segregated and rough. Even on the most personal level — buying the argument that a song can be an unvarnished outpouring of one touched soul — it’s incredibly enriching to discover the stuff an artist kept around, the notes that hold answers in their margins, the lucky charms and ritual objects of an artistic life.”

In the same way, these DVD cases and Blu-ray slipcovers, these flimsy cardboard boxes and essay-filled inserts, become as much a part of the movie experience as the films themselves. These objects become things we put on shelves, that we pack into boxes and move to new houses and unpack all over again, that we stack and shuffle and maybe pass down. There are collector’s editions, special releases, out-of-print titles, Criterion packages, thrift-store finds, personal favorites, treasured oddities. The discs themselves become part of the autobiographical experience of being a movie lover. For instance: My favorite film is Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and my family bought me the Criterion edition of the DVD for Christmas in (I believe) 2000. But when I opened the gift, I saw that the disc had accidentally cracked in shipping. I attempted to swap it out for an unbroken copy at the nearest Barnes & Noble, but instead of the Criterion version, the clerk brought out the basic edition. I shook my head and drove across town to get the real deal, and that disc was the one that went back to college with me, that moved across the country with me, that I watched over and over.

In the way books become dog-eared and cracked after years of love, discs become worn and scuffed and decorated with the marks of their own journeys. When I run my fingers along the movies on my shelf, I don’t just remember the films, or the individual viewing experiences that might stand out. I remember buying this or that disc, or sharing a movie with a friend, or how I loaned this particular copy to someone hoping they’d love it, only to be crestfallen when they didn’t. There are discs I’ve bought from friends, discs I’ve borrowed and forgotten to return, and the ghosts of those discs I’ve either lost or misplaced along the way. And these things — these physical, fleeting things — matter. The movies in my hand bring with them the memories of my time with them. That’s something digital streaming content just can’t replace. You have to feel it.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Strand

    I can stream TV, sure... but when I pop in a Blu-ray to watch an effects-driven movie, it's almost like "Wow. I had no idea my TV could look like this." I'm still something of a physical book luddite, so there's that.

  • babykangarootribbiani

    It;s funny you posted this today, cause I had almost this exact thought yesterday. I watch an episode of that 70;s show almost daily on netflix instant and last week, I started seeing the notice it would be taken off November 1st. Upon seeing that, I recalled seeing that 70;s show complete series box set in the Half Price Books across town a month ago, and yesterday I rode the bus for an hour through the rain and lo and behold, it was still there and it was twenty five dollars. i was overjoyed to find it but when i showed it to my mother she just asked "why would you need that? it;s on netflix." this is is her question/answer whenever i buy a movie or TV show, and I can never seem to make her grasp my lack of faith in Netflix. I love your library example because it;s very relatable and reminds me that if I get a book from the library and really love it, I probably do go buy it somewhere because I want to read it over and over again, on my time. Furthermore, I have a collection of almost 200 movies, almost none of which are on Netflix. Every so often I;ll see one of my movies pop on there, but for the most part, Netflix movies make me glad I have my real movie collection, smiling proudly at me from the bookcase in my room (I also have a bookcase of TV shows, six of which I own the complete series of). I do like having Netflix, which I got at the beginning of this year because I wanted to start watching Mad Men, and when I finished that, I watched Parks and Recreation, and when I finished that, I watched New Girl, and then Brothers and Sisters, and so on. Netflix has gotten me to watch a lot of shows I might not have otherwise, but almost nothing I;ve gone to Netflix with the intent of searching for I;d found. I gave away my seasons of Gossip Girl because they;re on Netflix and Heroes and Glee, partly because thye;re on Netflix and partly because even if they weren;t and I couldn;t watch them it wouldn;t be a big deal cause those aren;t my big shows. When you get your wisdom teeth out, you dodn;t want to have to worry your internet won;t work or a show has been wiped off the face of Netflix, you just want to watch your DVDs of Friends or Full House or Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Will and Grace, because they;re there and they;re real.

  • Tadd Winter

    PREACH IT!

    Wonderfully written and exactly my view. While I actually will pay a littler more to get a digital copy (usually both formats are included as well) and I have even used software to rip some of my favorites on my computer so I can have them on the go, I will always be a sucker for the hard copies.

    The whole cloud thing is cool and convenient but it doesn't feel real in a lot of ways, stuff on my hard drive is better but nowhere near my collection.

  • e jerry powell

    Hear, hear.

  • NateMan

    Music I buy almost exclusively online, because I almost always listen on my phone. Ditto with audiobooks. But when it comes to movies and video games, I much prefer physical discs. Movies especially; not living near a game store and suffering from impulse control, I sometimes break down and take advantage of the PSN. But movies I always get the discs. Blu-Ray to me looks better than any 10mbps connection gives me, and extras are nice.

  • This was a good post and you should feel good for having written it.

    I remember a few years back a good friend of mine was out of work. Naturally, he didn't have money to spend on gifts and what-not for various occasions, but he also didn't want to have to make excuses because of that either. So we came up with a work-around. Whenever an occasion that involved gift-giving on either of our parts would come up, we'd go to Cheapo, or Half-Price Books, or some similar store and trawl the .99 DVD bins. We'd look for the most god-awful horror movies we could find from those bins and give them to each other as gifts.

    It became a competition of sorts, to see who could find the 'best' worst movie. I still have a lot of those horrible DVD's, and I occasionally drag them out and inflict them on people, just so I'm not the only one who has ever seen Gary Busey be 'The Gingerdead Man.'

  • brutalkitten

    Have you watched Thankskilling?? If you haven't seen it, look for it! It could be this year's holiday movie for you. It had a budget of $3500, if that tells you anything.

  • HEAR HEAR.
    I still buy CDs and DVDs. I still even have some VHS and tapes around.

  • RilesSD

    Great piece, Dan. I do love physical copies. I still buy CDs, LPs and DVDs/Blu-Rays. Although I recently decided to move mainly buying ebooks now, it's due to being able to read at night on my iPad without keeping my wife up and lack of storage space, rather than liking the e-version better. I will still buy a book if it's meaningful somehow. I recently moved and I've been struggling to figure out what to do with my physical CDs. Do I really need or have the space for boxes and boxes of jewel cases?

    A great new feature that I'm loving on Amazon is AutoRip. For certain CD's, when you buy the physical CD they give you the digital version in the cloud immediately. I just bought Eminem yesterday, and wanted the actual CD, but also wanted to hear it before I received the shipment. Boom - AutoRip. Just did the same today for two Rodriguez (Sugarman) CDs.

  • jja

    I was just thinking along these lines yesterday, when I grabbed my deluxe edition (or whatever) of the 1938 Errol Flynn "Adventures of Robin Hood" from the shelf and popped it in. I don't watch the DVDs I have nearly as much as I used to (partly because of streaming, partly because of, well, life, partly because I've probably finally gotten tired of some of them) but when I opened that pleasantly origami-like cardboard package, I thought about how nice it was to do that.

  • Majicou

    It's like ebooks, of course there are people who have nostalgia for the physical copies, but the next generation is just going to be used to the next technology.

  • HerGuyWednesday

    I agree, and feel the same way about books, records, and CDs. I don't know why, but I like having a tangible, physical thing. It also gets me to have to watch/read/listen to something without the use of my computer, which is getting increasingly rare.

  • Matt Baen

    Digital corporations are trying to get rid of the very concept of private consumer ownership of media and replace it with all of us being perpetual renters of the cloud. In short order we've gone through these phases: analog physical media > digital physical media > digital download > digital streaming.

    Store that sold physical media are largely gone; soon enough so will physical media itself. Transportable, loanable, resellable physical copies of media. Greed-scum corporations want total control of not only access; they want to maintain ownership rights even after you buy it. Soon enough we'll work for them and be paid in access, online serfs of the digital company town.

    If you cannot read, hear, or view something without being online, you don't really own it.

  • I'm a huge lover and defender of books as physical media, but for some reason I've never considered DVDs in the same light. This is the closest I've come to changing my mind.
    Beautiful writing as always, Dan.

  • Robert

    I swore I read that they're going to try to stream at 4K quality soon, too. Super HD has been slowly rolling out on certain titles since August. That's when I first saw it. It's not that much better than the regular streaming. I wouldn't know there was a difference if it didn't tell me.

    I prefer discs, but I was terrible about actually returning the discs to Netflix so I was losing money. Streaming requires no real effort. I scroll till I find something and watch. I have Netflix and Hulu streaming (which I use more for simulcast anime and Criterion Collection than anything else at this point) and pick up physical discs as necessary from the Redbox down the street. I watch so much in theaters with my MoviePass subscription that I only wind up buying 9/10 and above titles for my own collection (So I'll be getting Stoker, Short Term 12, Gravity, Warm Bodies, and Frances Ha this year so far). The rest will, inevitably, make it to a streaming service some day for rewatches.

  • BWeaves

    OK, as a non-streamer, I always check out the extras, including subtitling and sound choices.

    If I stream, do I get to pick subtitling and sound choices?

    Because, even though I can hear, I find English subtitles really help when there's a lot of slang, or foreign English accents (you know what I mean), or to keep track of characters' names (Game of Thrones, cough, cough).

  • Subtitles depends on the show's producer. But I've had several documentaries on netflix that have CC option.

  • selucius

    Apple TV has subtitles, but I don't think I had the same option when streaming Netflix through the Wii. I require them for pretty much any British show.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I'm not positive on Netflix, but a good deal of Hulu Plus titles seem to have CC options. I get what you mean about the English "slang" accents - I had to do the first half dozen episode of "Misfits" with subtitles because I couldn't understand a word Kelly said.

  • calliope1975

    I had never used the Hulu CC until Misfits and specifically for Kelly. And I'm usually pretty good at understanding different accents and dialects.

  • BendinIntheWind

    Same! At first I felt super dumb, but when Nathan yells "Are we supposed to understand that? It's just *noise* coming out of her mouth!" I feel vindicated.

  • Ian Fay

    For me, the big loss on streaming is the extras.

    Netflix streaming never has commentary tracks, behind the scenes stuff, etc.

    Most of the Blurays I buy are for those.

  • I tend to buy 'Director's Cuts' and 'Unrated' versions for the same reasons.

  • Sassy Pikachu

    That's the same reason I try to find the collector's edition ones, because there are more behind the scene stuff.

  • I buy the DVD and, if they give me the free digital copy, I put it into my iTunes account. If not, I rip it and use Plex to stream it to my tablet. But I do keep my DVD and will watch it.

    But I enjoy Netflix for the myriad of titles that I wouldn't go out of my way to buy, but sound intriguing enough to watch. Mostly that's documentaries -- which I devour on Netflix -- but that also includes cheap, schlocky horror or B-movie titles like Lockout. I like that Netflix gives those properties a second lease on life.

  • e jerry powell

    Hear, hear some more.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I feel obligated to jump in anytime someone mentions "Lockout" just to declare how much I freaking love that movie.

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