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A Case for Physical Media

By Derek May:


Change is inevitable, that’s simply a fact of life. But it’s also painful (a fact that’s harder to swallow). Some changes are good for everyone, and some are simply for the good of a few. In the case of the dwindling availability of physical media, I’m going to argue that it’s the latter, and that at the very least, we deserve a choice.


So what am I talking about when I say “physical media”? Basically, I mean those real, tactile objects that we can hold in our hands and place on our shelf. I’m talking about DVD/Blu-Rays, CDs, records, books, etc. I know, I know, I’ve already lost every reader born after 2000, and you’re probably expecting a tangent about how I also had to walk uphill 20 miles in the snow to get to school (ridiculous: it was no more than 5, and it was really only once).


But then again, maybe I’m not that far off after all. Hear me out.


With the advent of 8-tracks and CDs, vinyl record production crashed and was but a scratchy memory for generations. And yet, improbably, 2023 is seeing not only a massive resurgence of older albums being re-released on vinyl record but also brand-new albums—as in made this year—right there in stores beside them! I hadn’t even seen a record player since I lived with my parents, but a few years ago, my wife bought one and has expanded a decent collection of ginormous discs of her own.


Who would have thunk it?


The most common reason given for this sudden demand is that there’s just something about the sound coming off a record. Somehow, people talk of it as being richer, more alive. Personally, I can’t hear it (I’ll stick to my CDs), but what I can most definitely relate to is the excitement of the tangible. Of holding something that you own, that’s yours. When you’re in the mood for something but you don’t quite know what, there’s something about scanning your eyes across a shelf, waiting for that perfect title to grab you. Or pulling them out and thumbing through the covers, daring one to snap you back to a time, place, or mood. It’s something you just don’t get scrolling down a digital list or asking Alexa to guess your taste.

First and foremost, I’m a collector. I collect a lot of things. But perhaps my biggest collection is my movies. I have well over a thousand titles, all organized (much to my wife’s chagrin) by themes, genres, and types rather than simply alphabetized. Anything I’m in the mood for is literally at my fingertips: action, comedy, drama, romance. I have just about every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie he’s ever done. I have every Marvel Cinematic Universe film (except Eternals, even I’m not that hardcore). But as hard as I’ve tried, my collection is woefully, painfully incomplete.


I have Daredevil seasons one and two, but not three. I have Jessica Jones season 1, but not two. I have almost all the Predator movies, but I’m missing one of my new favorites, last year’s Prey. Why? Because these do not exist in physical form. I cannot set them on my shelf next to their brethren. And that’s a real shame, even painful, for a collector like me.



But you may argue that despite that, these titles remain easily accessible. All are available on various streamers. And that’s true: for now. As we’ve seen recently, major streamers such as Disney+ and Max have discovered that it’s more financially beneficial to pull content off their services. And if they don’t exist in any physical sense, that means they are gone—POOF!—no longer available to anyone anywhere. While I personally loathed the new Willow series, it had its fans, but after Disney+ decided to remove the entire series just months after its release, those fans are now denied their chance to revisit that world, or for new viewers to love it or hate it. The same is true for the recent family film Crater, as well as a show I truly loved: The Word According to Jeff Goldblum (that one hurts). Max pulled one of its biggest series, Westworld, altogether, along with several other shows. And don’t even get me started on what happened with Batgirl.


While not all of these productions were blockbusters, they all had some audience invested enough to want to revisit them at some point, and if one of the main arguments against having a physical release is that these works are readily available on streamers, then the other half of the deal is that they have to actually BE on the streamers.


Another argument I hear is that you don’t really need it physically if you can purchase it digitally. A valid-enough point. However: first, I let’s revisit a point above: owning your collection digitally just doesn’t have the same tangible satisfaction as owning a physical copy. While you may be saving a ton of room in your home, and that’s certainly a plus, I’d argue there’s a certain “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” aspect that occurs—you have the ownership, but perhaps not the same pride in your “collection.”


Secondly, for years studios have been offering customers the variety platter: you could buy a Blu-ray that came with both a DVD and a digital copy. This works beautifully for consumers both ahead of and behind the curve. It also offered the purchaser flexibility and opportunity for where and how they choose to watch. Not bad. But with fewer titles being physically offered each year, choice becomes limited as well, while prices become prohibitive. You’d think an advantage to buying digital only would be savings; after all, it shouldn’t cost more to sell or consume something that exists only in the ether. And yet, media isn’t much (if at all) cheaper in digital form. Even renting has gotten ridiculous. It can cost anywhere from $3–$20 just to rent a film for a night (be still my Blockbuster heart!). Yet, believe it or not, a saving grace here is—you guessed it—physical media. I can rent a disc from Redbox down the street for $2 a night.


Another drawback to digital-only is the lack of extras typically available. While some digital purchases may include a few bonus features, it can often be luck of the draw as to which titles do and if they contain the same breadth and variety as a disc. I own many a title that includes hours of bonus material that I rarely see offered through digital-only and which are most-often completely absent through subscription services. Certainly, endless behind-the-scenes featurettes and commentaries aren’t for everyone, but for those of us who relish digging into the making of our favorite productions, mining for those nuggets of insight, these are often as much of a draw as the works themselves.


Let us also not ignore the convenience-of-use factor. With a disc, I never have to worry about my internet speed or definition choice. When fast-forwarding or rewinding, there’s no buffer lag or risk of crash. And if I physically own a title, I feel far less obligated to remain subscribed to one of the dozens of streamers, hostage to their whims of rotating content and whose collective fees begin to add up far beyond what I might pay for a one-off media purchase.


And sure, I’ve been talking a lot about movies specifically, but the same could be said for books or music. While there are certainly people who prefer to read on their tablets (sometimes out of necessity for enlarging the text), many collectors will tell you about the variety of folio editions, with new insights or, sometimes, even autographs. And with CDs, there’s certainly a massive incentive to remain disc free (most cars and computers no longer even have disc players), but there is still a market for admirers of cover art and liner notes.


But there is hope on the horizon. After choosing to cease all its physical media releases in Australia last month, leading to quite the furor, Disney has shifted gears and announced a physical release for several of its popular series, including the first two seasons of The Mandalorian. Additionally, HULU just announced that Prey will be released physically in October. Since these products had only ever been available to subscribers (which seemed to be the point), the fact that these releases are happening suggests that studios recognize the existing and continuing market for physical media. In addition, a brand-new, super-deluxe release of the Beatles’ Let It Be album is coming soon, 50 years after it’s initial release.


Much like the rebirth of vinyl, does this mean our beloved touchstones may rise once more as well? This collector, for one, sure hopes so. And if the studios are smart, they’ll see the writing on the wall, or at least the money left on the table. To prove it, you need look no further than the varied online shops selling bootleg physical copies of every one of these movies, shows, or albums that aren’t officially available to the masses. These sellers aren’t creating a market, they’re responding to it.


So I’m challenging these creators—nay, begging them—to simply give us the choice. Things have and will continue to change, but some of are still happy continue the path that we’ve been on, that creators have put us on, for decades now. For those who want it, let us fill our shelves, let us complete our collections, and let us bask in the satisfaction of ownership not tied to the whims of a streamer. Is that really too much to ask?

 

Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which released its second season in July 2022.

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