Lately, there’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the impending demise of physical media. Sales are plummeting, the popularity of streaming services just keeps going up, yadda yadda yadda. And while it’s certainly true that there are fewer places than ever to buy (or especially rent) DVDs and Blu-rays, I was curious about how actual consumer desire stacked up against the reality of media consumption.
So yesterday, I tossed a question out upon the social media winds. It was a simple question, one we all probably ask ourselves several times a week. What do you feel like watching right now? The only stipulation I added was it had to be something you could conceivably watch. So, no lost movies (like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight), no future movies (like Avengers 4) and no unmade or imaginary movies (like the alternate reality where David Lynch lost his mind and said, “As a matter of fact, George, I’d love to direct Revenge Of The Jedi for you. Sounds like a hoot!”)
I ended up with a list of some 80 movies from all across the cinematic spectrum. Classics both new and old, cult favorites, foreign movies, you name it. (Pat yourselves on the back, folks. You have excellent and eclectic tastes in films.) Surprisingly few people wanted to see something currently in theaters (of those, Deadpool 2 was the clear favorite…sorry, Han). And, perhaps not surprisingly given the Electric Theatre’s reputation for spotlighting movies not available on DVD, a handful of people tossed out movies that simply aren’t available except on VHS or in the vaults of the Library of Congress (yes, I want to see The Day The Clown Cried just as much as you do). Even with those outliers and ignoring individual formats that some people specified (we don’t all have access to 70mm projectors and even if we do, we can’t usually control what screens on ‘em), this seemed like a pretty good control group to see where and how movies were available.
I checked all the big streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and FilmStruck). I dug around for both physical and digital availability. I even checked premium add-on services for channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz, as well as underdog digital library Hoopla (available for free if you have a library card from many major cities). The results were somewhat surprising.
The big loser turned out to be Amazon Prime, followed closely by Hulu. Of the 80 movies I checked, Amazon Prime had exactly one (the 1998 Minnie Driver obscurity Uncorked, also known as At Sachem Farm). Amazon’s usefulness goes up slightly if you add a premium channel like Starz but even then, the results aren’t great. Hulu fared only slightly better with two titles (The Matrix and Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Not that these services don’t have movies worth watching. Both definitely do, particularly Amazon Prime, if you’re willing to dig. But if either of them happen to have the specific movie you want to see when you want to see it, it’s probably just a coincidence.
I wasn’t really expecting too much from Hoopla and it delivered on those low expectations, although they did have a couple titles (Barefoot In The Park and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). Hoopla’s a strange animal. I’ve watched a number of documentaries on the service, as well as a handful of B and C-list catalog titles. The most surprising thing about Hoopla’s library is the relatively large number of live-action Disney movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Stuff like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the Apple Dumpling Gang saga. Even Disney short changes these movies, which is probably how they ended up on Hoopla. These titles aren’t exactly easy to find in stores (and, for the most part, not really worth owning unless you’re a hardcore Disney collector), so personally, I think it’s kind of cool that they’re available to check out here. Hoopla’s a great resource for e-books, audio books and music but they’re definitely still playing catch-up in the movie department.
As for Netflix, the mighty king of all streaming…well, kinda sucks. They only had four titles on my list: Burn After Reading, The Godfather, Inside Man and L.A. Confidential. Some of these other movies used to be on there and may well be again someday. But that does you no good if you want to watch them right now. This, of course, is one of the biggest drawbacks to streaming. Stuff comes and goes and it’s a colossal pain in the ass trying to track anything down. I have a Roku and you’d think the search function on there would help with that. You would be wrong. There’s nothing out there that provides a comprehensive and accurate search across all streaming services. If you want to find your movie, you’ve got to search all sorts of places individually. Ain’t nobody got time for that (except for me, evidently, while writing this article).
The biggest blind spot in most search engines is FilmStruck. This is a problem because they’re definitely a player, coming up with no less than 9 movies on my list. Good ones, too. I knew they’d have Criterion titles like Seven Samurai and Before The Rain and TCM-certified classics like Casablanca. But I was surprised to discover Dersu Uzala, Network, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, The Producers (the original, not that musical remake thing) and Cameron Crowe’s Singles. If you’re truly interested in movies and not just TV shows and original content, you should definitely consider adding FilmStruck to your lineup.
It should come as a surprise to no one that most of the movies on my list were not available on any streaming service. The older the movie, the less likely it was to show up. But the news isn’t all great for the you-can-pry-my-discs-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands crowd. Of the movies that were available on DVD and/or Blu-ray, almost all of them are also available to buy or rent digitally. There were just over a dozen that you can only get on disc. Granted, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other titles like that out there but the tide is definitely turning.
Look, nothing would have pleased me more than to run this little experiment and be able to say, “Ha ha! Physical media is the only way to go! Toldja!” But the reality is, that’s just no longer the case. I am a collector by nature and will continue to add discs to my library for as long as I’m able. But I’ve also embraced the digital age. I’ve long been an advocate for releasing obscure catalog movies on DVD but my concern was never primarily about the physical object. It’s about availability. As long as you have access to something, I don’t really care all that much what form it takes.
I’ve heard all the arguments against digital downloads and probably made most of them myself at one time or another. Some of them are incontrovertible matters of taste to do with the tactile sensation of holding an object and seeing it on a shelf. No question, that is of great importance to a lot of people. But some of them are also a little tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory based. Can a studio just revoke your digital license at will and disappear a movie from your digital library? Technically…sure, I guess. But has that ever happened to you? In my experience, it’s more likely to be the opposite scenario. I’d be more than happy to delete that copy of Fantastic Four from my digital library. I can guarantee I’ll never want to watch it again. But now it seems I’m stuck carrying it around for the rest of my life like a bad tattoo you had done on an all-night drunk.
Here’s the bottom line. Say you’re sitting around at home, thinking, “I’d really like to watch Movie X.” If you really, really love Movie X, you should own it, on disc if possible or, if you don’t like clutter or can’t be bothered to move from the couch, on digital. Both are equally valid. But if you don’t, your options are limited. Once upon a time, you could have gone to the video store and rented it but those days, for better or worse, are largely behind us. Relying on streaming services like Netflix is worse than a crapshoot. The odds are heavily stacked against you finding Movie X at the exact moment you want to watch it. But if you’re willing to rent or buy it digitally, your odds just got a whole lot better.
Streaming services have, by and large, failed to fulfill the promise of putting the entire history of film at your fingertips. They have their purpose but, as I’ve argued before, they’re a replacement for cable television, not video stores and libraries. The only way to ensure your access to Movie X is by purchasing it for yourself. And increasingly, that doesn’t have to mean owning hundreds and hundreds of discs. The future of home entertainment is not going to come with an eject button. As long as our access to these movies continues to increase, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.