11 Dec 2023

Is there a future for physical media?

From Widescreen, 11:39 am on 11 December 2023

The market for DVD and Blu-ray is shrinking along with the shelf space, but is it really the end for physical media, asks Dan Slevin.

DVDs and Blu-rays on a shelving unit

Photo: Dan Slevin

It’s that time of year where, used to look forward to unwrapping a selection of DVDs and Blu-rays that I found under my Christmas tree.

They were always a neat present. It meant that a film you loved could be watched and rewatched whenever you wanted. You might be lucky enough to get a box set of your favourite TV show, something to treasure and put on display to show your fandom.

Or, if the gift giver wasn’t sure whether you would like something or already owned it, you might get a voucher giving you the freedom of the store.

And, let’s not forget, there was also the regular trip to the video shop. To check out the new releases, or the back catalogue. To see what had been dropped into the $8-for-8 section so you could take a bit of a risk.

Pack shot for the limited edition Alien Anthology Iluminated egg statue edition

“This Alien Anthology Limited Edition Collector's Set features "The Guardian"--an illuminated statue sculpted by Sideshow Collectibles® that protects the precious disc cargo housed within.” According to the blurb. Photo: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

But now we do most of our browsing in front of the TV and many of us just pick the options that the streamer chooses to put in front of us when we log on. Those services also feel no guilt when we are half way through a show and it simply disappears, or the post-cliffhanger season doesn’t get a greenlight, leaving you hanging.

And even a digital purchase doesn’t automatically mean permanence. PlayStation owners who bought Discovery titles from the PlayStation store last week found that they had all disappeared – the rights had expired which meant that your rights had expired, too.

That’s why I still love physical media. Stuff you own that no one can take away.

This morning I did a little test to confirm that physical media is in a pretty parlous state in Aotearoa. I compared the number of titles available for purchase on the websites for JB Hi-Fi in Australia with New Zealand and the difference was stark. Australia has 9722 titles listed under their Movies & TV Shows category. In New Zealand, it’s only 3836.

Around the world, physical media is now seen as a collectors product rather than the commodity cash-cow that it once was. Films come with little extras like postcards, books of essays, plastic medallions, lenticular boxes, steelbook covers, that provide that extra frisson of rarity that a collector wants. But increasingly, the thing that makes a Blu-ray or UHD collectible is its own very existence, its own rarity.

Person holding the cover for the Blu-ray edition of Breathless which is not available in New Zealand.

The Fun City Editions release of Breathless from 1983 which is not available in New Zealand. Photo: Fun City Editions

Boutique labels like Shout! Factory, Arrow, Kino Lorber, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Fun City Editions and the venerable Criterion are cutting deals with the studios for rights to restore and release classic films with lots of extras. But these titles are only available via a ruinously expensive personal importation method as there are no retailers to bring them in.

This rundown of the best physical media releases in the US has no titles that have also been released here (except Avatar: The Way of Water which appears to be out of print on 4K).

I’ve often thought that there would be enough collectors here in Aotearoa to justify importing a few of these titles and selling them online but that’s currently not a feasible option because it is not legal to sell discs here without an official Film and Video Labelling Body classification sticker and if the film you want to sell has never been available in New Zealand before (or is in a new format or edition that isn’t in the government’s database), it could cost you as much as $1124.40 (plus 6c a sticker).

The regime hasn’t significantly changed since it was introduced in 1993, when we were still deeply worried about video nasties and the like. This is not the case for books, by the way. You can import books from a wholesaler overseas and start selling right away – no government permission is needed.

There is one independent local company that is still committed to releasing DVD and Blu-ray titles for the collectors market and that is Madman Entertainment. They bring in anime titles through their relationship with Crunchyroll, classic films and box sets under the Imprint label and DVDs of recent cinema releases that they have distributed. Some Umbrella titles also appear in New Zealand thanks to Madman.

Pack shot for the Imprint Films box set of Marlon Brando movies

The new Marlon Brando box set from Imprint Films Photo: Imprint Films

But we do miss out on so much and you can’t help getting the feeling that the whole industry in New Zealand is slowly circling the drain. The less titles that are released here, the less shelf space they are given in store. The fewer sales that are made, the less space is given in stores to DVD and Blu-ray or UHD players, meaning that when devices breakdown they are unlikely to be replaced, reducing the market even further.

What needs to happen is for physical versions of films and TV to become cool again, like music has managed to do with the return to vinyl. Collectors and fans appear to be willing to pay a pretty penny for a reissued records these days. But what’s the equivalent artisan or analogue format that romantics would pay a premium for? Super-8? VHS?

Any ideas are gratefully received as my physical media addiction is looking like it might be going cold turkey in 2024.

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