For years now, people have been talking about the decline and eventual end of physical media. As more and more streaming services launch and saturate an already oversaturated market, the need for physical media looks to be diminishing. Why would anyone want to have a physical copy of something when it is readily available at the push of a button? Ease and convenience certainly factor into why people might ditch those cumbersome discs, but there is more to physical media than streaming. In showcasing my love for VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K, I would like to offer my perspective on physical media and to show there is more to offer than just the film.
For a little bit of history with me, I have always been a movie geek. As a child of the ’80s, some of my first memories come from popping in tapes of Rocky IV and Robocop into my family’s top-loader VCR. The fondness for all things film continued through my teenage years as I discovered the DVD format and the possibilities that came within. After obtaining my first DVD player, I distinctly recall the first films that graced my movie library: Bringing Out the Dead and Bowfinger.
As I have gotten older, I have found myself in love with film, but more so, in love with the behind-the-scenes aspects. Growing up, as I could not afford Laserdisc, I would hear about famous deleted scenes like the “Spider Pit” sequence from King Kong, the pie fight in Dr. Strangelove, the Jitterbug number from The Wizard of Oz, or the tidal wave in The Abyss. Knowing that there was more than what made it onto screen fascinated me just as much as the product presented. As DVD came around, I was finally able to access the additional content beyond the feature film. Not all deleted scenes were winners, and most, rightfully, got the chop—though that started the itch with my love of bonus features.
The advent of technology for home video exploded after we crossed the millennium, with film companies beginning to cater to the film enthusiast. Instead of a movie with trailers and an EPK puff-piece, companies such as Fox and New Line took DVD to a new level. Fox offered a premium series entitled the Five Star Collection for big-budget films like The Abyss, Speed, and Independence Day. Under the Five Star banner, the supplements included large-scale documentaries, seamless branching options, and 3D motion menus. Not to be outdone, New Line Cinema would launch two different video series: the Platinum Series and Infinifilm. Under Platinum, New Line would include commentaries, deleted scenes, and making-of documentaries. As an offshoot to Platinum, Infinifilm followed what Platinum had to offer, adding more in-depth features regarding the title you were watching. Infinifilm was a great idea but was overly-ambitious for the time.
And the love for physical media was not relegated to the disc. The early 2000s was equivalent to the Wild West when it came to packaging the disc(s). Brian De Palma’s Scarface had an anniversary release encased in a faux-alligator that included the original 1932 Scarface plus a money clip and reproduction cards.
The first two Evil Dead films had a special edition released, with each film housed in the Necronomicon. Time Life released the entire The Real Ghostbusters! TV show in a firehouse reproduction case. Then there was Ridley Scott’s release of Blade Runner that came in an individually numbered briefcase. Along with five(!) versions of the film, you get production documents, a Spinner die-case, and a replica of Gaff’s origami unicorn.
With all this zeal towards the home video market, and technology only getting better, things looked up for us who appreciated a well-put-together home video package. Then, something happened.
That something was the High-Definition Disc War between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. In the mid-2000s, high-definition became more commonplace. As had occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with VHS and Betamax battling it out, the generation of home entertainment became a battlefield. After a long, protracted war, Blu-ray won out, and the next evolution of physical media began.
With Blu-ray taking over the physical media market, the love and care that we collectors were used to took a noticeable dip in quality. As the years went on, what was once an exciting format, became stale and rote. Yes, we still got releases for new and old films, but it felt like it came off an assembly line instead of a package made with love and care. That technology and looking up I had mentioned earlier? It did not seem to find its way to Blu-ray. 3D menus? Just standard screens with menu options. Bonus features? Yeah, there were some, but they didn’t feel special. Maybe some deleted scenes and a talking head documentary, but it felt lackluster. It ringed hollow. And the packaging? Just plastic cases, usually with garish Photoshop work on the cover. It left one depressed because it was sad to see such a bright corner of the film industry dim so darkly.
As the 2010s came to a close, though, boutique labels began making noise and catering to those who yearn for the physical media of yesteryear.
Labels such as Arrow Video, Shout! Factory, Blue Underground and MVD saw that there were consumers out there—pining for someone to step in and provide a physical media service. From big-budget films to obscure sexploitation and the complete Al Adamson collection(!), these labels understand the consumer and bring a touch of class back to a medium that big entertainment companies left in the dust.
And it’s not just digging up relics of the past, polishing them up, and releasing them to make a quick buck. Films that you would not expect to get a lavish release are sometimes the ones that get the most love. For instance, horror fans should be familiar with the ’80s horror franchise, House. It’s charming, entertaining, and forgettable. Even with that distinction, the series spawned three sequels with wildly varied results. Instead of releasing the series bare-bones with nothing to offer, Arrow Video gave all four films an HD transfer, loaded the discs with documentaries, commentaries, and regarding House III: The Horror Show, two different versions of the film. That is a ton of work and love for, arguably, a film series that didn’t deserve such treatment. Add on to this boxset a 60-page book, and you have to stand back in awe with what Arrow Video did for the House franchise.
Now, I’m not going to say that the House franchise didn’t deserve a special edition, but in the annals of horror film history, no one would consider this franchise top-tier. And that is my point. Sure, we expect the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises to come loaded with goodies. It’s more impressive when a film you don’t expect gets the same five-star treatment that a prestige film series would get. As a collector, it feels more rewarding viewing a lesser-known film—packed to the gills with supplements because it shows that the labels gave as much love to the movie as the person watching it.
There are multiple content creators who breakdown the play-by-play on the A/V front—this isn’t something that interests me. I do not have the latest 4K television or world-class home theater system. Other people out there would do a much better job at the technical restorations of a disc. That is not what I want to spend my time detailing. Instead, what I would like to do is a thorough look-through of a physical media release. Film is art, and the physical media releases are an extension of the creative teams’ brushstrokes.
So, why do I still collect physical media? It allows me the freedom to enjoy others’ creations when I want to. No longer abiding by streaming platforms offering certain movies for limited times. No, the discs that house the art I want to watch are there for me at a moment’s notice. Going back to the House franchise, if the mood strikes and I have a hankering for House IV: The Repossession, is that available to me right now? What if I had to know director Lewis Abernathy’s thoughts on the talking pizza scene? I don’t think I will find anything to satiate my thirst for knowledge via streaming.
And that is the point I would like to make. Streaming has its advantages, yes, but for die-hard film fans and collectors, physical media will always come first. It’s not just about the film, though that comes first and foremost. I want to understand all aspects of the film and show my appreciation for the labels that supply those bonus features.
There was an old saying when DVD started to gain traction, referring to the discs as film school-in-a-box. It meant that with the commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and additional supplements, one could find themselves understanding the basics of filmmaking techniques. During the rise in Blu-ray, some of that luster wore off in favor of assembly-line products. Thankfully, labels such as Arrow, Vestron, Kino Lorber, and others have rescued this idea—identifying that there is still a market for physical media. These labels show they are fans as well—putting together illustrious packages that one would never have envisioned just a few years ago. I love all aspects of film, and boutique labels know others like me appreciate the work they put in. It’s a win-win on both sides, and I can’t imagine giving up physical media anytime soon.