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.