This week, it was revealed that Disney has ceased production on 4K UHD titles in their extensive catalog, including their vast number of properties acquired during the merger with Fox. For film fans in the know, this news was disappointing but depressingly unsurprising. As noted by The Film Stage, this seemed to signal another step in the company’s increasing move towards a digital future. It’s unknown if Disney would be generous enough to offer licenses to companies such as Arrow, Shout! Factory, or Criterion for exclusive editions, but given their history, it seems dishearteningly unlikely. Even though Disney later denied this claim, it did little to alleviate the fears of many film fans who are aware of the changing tides and what it means for the medium as a whole.
Lately, I’ve been buying way more DVDs and books than ever. I’ve engaged in multiple heated eBay bidding wars over out-of-print Pedro Almodovar films and have even invested in some South Korean prints of hard-to-find titles. My current project is to find a good quality copy of Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s a return to my adolescence, wherein I bought basically every DVD I could afford whenever I went shopping, and thus discovered some of my favorite filmmakers, like Almodovar and David Lynch. This is a positive side of being a loner with disposable income, but it’s also begun to feel like a wholly necessary project as both a pop culture writer and lover of art. For a solid year or so, between when I finally moved out of my parents’ house and I got a new laptop without a disc drive, I lost the means to watch DVDs and I felt their absence keenly. Relying on streaming services just wasn’t the same, as evidenced by the time I got ready to curl up with another of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, only to find that Netflix had removed it from their platform.
You’d think it would be a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t trust media monopolies or corporate entities who prize profit above all else. Yet I find myself in the midst of evermore tedious arguments with people who insist that things aren’t all that bad. Why buy DVDs or books or CDs/vinyl when we have Netflix, Kindle, and Spotify? Everything’s so accessible now, and said access has never been more democratic, right? What’s to worry about? Sure, you have to keep paying a monthly subscription fee for the now-increasing number of available streaming services just to access everything you want but that’s no biggie, right? As long as your internet connection never goes down, the world is your oyster.
The digital age and the conglomerates who control it with an iron fist have done a remarkable job in deceiving the public into believing that they outright own the content they stream or download. That may be why we are surprised afresh every single time that film we want to stream is suddenly unavailable. It’s a system that does everything in its power to discourage you from investing in the old ways. My dad has essentially stopped buying physical copies of video games because they’re never on the disc anyway and he’s sick of multiple hours of downloading just to get what he paid for. Not only have we been conditioned to accept the questionable confines of digital media, we’ve been forced to accept compromised versions of this content. Think of how many incredible movies left on streaming are presented in the wrong aspect ratio, or how many times you’ve bought an ebook only for its formatting to be nigh unreadable.
The past century of Hollywood has shown two things: You can’t trust media conglomerates to allow free or easy access to the things they own, and they’ve never given two hoots about preserving their own history. Disney is especially infamous for the former thanks to its wholly manufactured vault of superiority and limited period offers. This practice of making their most iconic titles available only for a short time before they’re ‘put in the vault’ for several years or possibly decades created this notion of scarcity that had customers running to the shops. That practice may be dying off in the age of Disney+ but that only further adds to the illusion. It doesn’t help that there are more than a few Disney titles and infamous works that are simply unavailable in any shape, way, or form, for better or worse. The company is also infamous in its restriction of repertory screenings of their work, something that’s only gotten worse since they purchased Fox. Say goodbye to your special Halloween screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Questions have already arisen over how Disney intends to treat its new indie division, Fox Searchlight, after many arthouse cinemas reported trouble in accessing prints of Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life. In this smothering market, audiences never win. They are beholden to utterly false notions of availability and exclusivity that benefit nobody but the corporate powers with all the money.
Hollywood has never given much care to preserving its past. The vast majority of silent films made in the first decade of the industry’s life simply do not exist anymore, having been lost to time or destroyed by studios who saw no worth in what was seen at the time as frivolous entertainment. Art matters and it should be given the appropriate archival treatment, even if the industry to this day seems utterly unconcerned with such matters. In the digital age, that job increasingly falls on the shoulders of fans. We’re entering a period where physical media is no longer a priority for studios, so it’s no wonder we’re all panicking about the status of film, music, gaming, etc. If media monopolies only view decades of cultural magnitude as a means to make money then they will never worry about its preservation. Why care about, say, the work of 1940s Fox if ‘general audiences’, however they are defined, aren’t willing to pay lots of money to access them? It may not matter to them, but to me and many others, this is a medium worth fighting for.
It’s not just about our past; it’s an issue of our present too. The industry is already increasingly uninterested in indie cinema, with so many of those titles going straight to streaming. What happens if Netflix one day shuts down. Will we simply never be able to see Da 5 Bloods again? Or the exclusive series it didn’t give DVD releases to?
The endgame of this system is a world in which nobody owns the things they love. Instead, we will all operate on a pay-per-use system, which would create a money-printing machine for the five media monopolies that run practically everything. This isn’t a tract against digital media, which has certainly opened up access on many levels and offered an alternative to the traditional theatrical model. It has its purposes, but beware a single-minded reliance on such near-ethereal concepts. If you have the means, go and buy the pop culture you love so that you outright own it. Don’t let it be dependent on the whims of petty conglomerates operating on a too-big-to-fail system that will inevitably crumble.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and fight for some Bob Fosse DVDs on eBay.
Header Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (at the University of Illinois Music and Performing Arts Library)