Disc Or Die: The Danger of Physical Media’s Slow Extinction

DVD and Blu-ray aren't done yet - or they shouldn't be, if you really care about movies.

Last week, we had a close call. Todd Haynes’s most recent film, the wonderful (but commercially underwhelming) Wonderstruck, debuted on Amazon Prime on January 19, as an unsurprising exclusive – after all, it was financed by Amazon Studios, the online retailer/streaming service’s film production arm, and that kind of online ownership is surely an important element in the calculations that precede such an investment. So hey, great, Wonderstruck is streaming on Amazon Prime right now. You should go watch it!

This was the worrisome part:

This turned out, thankfully, to be a false alarm. There was a bit of an uproar among the film nerd sect of Twitter, and by the time I reached out to Amazon for a confirmation the next day, a publicity rep responded, “We are planning a physical/DVD/Blu Ray release, we have yet to announce the date.” They subsequently informed Mr. Ehrlich that the film would be available in “approximately two weeks” (though that was a week ago and it’s still not up on the site for pre-order). So hey, crisis averted, physical media is saved, right?

Not so much. We’ve talked before about the degree to which studios and home media have shifted away from the physical media model, leaning into a digital-only model in spite of evidence that consumers aren’t all ready to make the switch. According to the Digital Entertainment Group, last year’s total digital sales – subscription services (like Prime and Netflix), VOD rentals, and electronic sell-through – totaled $13 billion, compared to $4.7 billion for “packaged goods,” aka DVD and Blu-ray. So yes, that’s around a third of the revenue, and a drop from the previous year. But $4.7 billion is also nothing to sneeze at – those consumers are still there, and still buying discs, and also not a discrete group. The most recent Nielsen study on buying habits found that only 12% of respondents had shifted entirely to “digital viewing methods”; 20% are still exclusively buying physical discs.

Granted, that study is a couple of years old, and the trendlines are absolutely shifting. But it’s clear, throughout these studies, that a healthy chunk of the people who reliably buy movies, buy on disc. And why shouldn’t they? Streaming services are notoriously unreliable, changing out their catalogues every month, based less upon the necessity of a comprehensive library than the whims of licensing deals. If you’ve got a dodgy wifi signal or an old device, you may end up watching a blocky, pixelated version of a movie – or the service may be streaming one that’s improperly formatted anyway. FilmStruck aside, streaming services still rarely bother to include the bonus features that attracted so many movie buffs to DVD and Blu-ray in the first place. And when you own a movie on disc, you own it – to do with as you please, whether that means ripping it to a device, loaning it to a friend, or just being at peace with the comfortable thought that it’s sitting on your shelf whenever you want it. (Hi, did this just get too personal?) With a digital file, eh, it’s a bit more complicated.

But in this brave new world, none of that matters. I write a weekly buying and streaming guide for this site (why yes you may, it’s right here), where (along with that week’s new streaming service options of note) new releases are listed on their disc release date. Yet I regularly get emails from publicists asking if I would mind instead spotlighting their films’ Digital HD release – i.e., the date, usually two weeks before the movie hits disc and is available for rental, when early-bird consumers can own the digital version, usually for somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20. (If I had a dollar for every one of those emails I’ve received, well, I could buy a whole bunch of Blu-rays.) And look, I get it, it’s a win-win for the studios – they get to pocket about as much on those sales as they do on the discs, without incurring the costs of manufacturing the discs.

So that’s a case of companies trying to make more money, and there’s nothing surprising about that. But it’s also indicative of the troubling way the winds are blowing. Amazon may have backed off Wonderstruck, but there is still no Blu-ray release (or even an announcement) for Netflix’s brilliant Okja, which hit that service clear back in June. (Likewise last year’s Meyerowitz Stories or Mudbound, and if you think it’s just a matter of time, well, they still haven’t put 2015’s Beast of No Nation out on disc either.) Last year, Magnolia – one of the most reliable and prolific of independent film distributors – quietly began to adopt a tiered model for their home video releases, with only their higher-profile titles getting a disc release, and smaller ones going Digital HD only. So if you want to own My Scientology Movie, The Commune, Burden, or Cezanne et Moi on disc, you’re shit outta luck.

And maybe that’s fine, and Gen-Xers like me are the only ones who care. But as long as streaming availability for classic movies is spotty, and services keep slashing their catalogues to make room for more original content, and putting together a decent package of niche services costs as much as a cable bill, well, you’ll have to pry my discs out of my cold, dead hands.