Despite the rise of Netflix and end of Xtra-vision, for many viewers DVD & Blu-Ray remain more important than ever...
The recent announcement that Xtra-vision would cease trading marked the end of an era.
For some, the era of physical media ended years ago - with the arrival of digital television, perhaps, or as their hard-drives quickly filled with gigabytes of shadily but easily procured movie files. For others it was a more gradual process, with Netflix and the like slowly but fundamentally altering their viewing habits. Others again may have held out up until now, perhaps cursed with sub-par internet connections or simply fond of the ease and accessibility of visiting a video shop.
HMV and a few other retail outlets hang on in a handful of locations (alongside a few local rental stores), and DVD box-set culture hasn’t completely died out yet (perhaps thanks to HBO’s refusal to hop on the Netflix train). Still, there’s little escaping the fact that DVD - and its younger sibling Blu-Ray, which never took off the way DVD did - is more or less a spent force in Ireland.
And yet… for some loyal film fans DVD & Blu-Ray are not only alive & kicking, they remain as essential as ever.
Film aficionados are likely to have heard of Criterion - the American company long-known for their lavish releases of a huge range of films. Having come to prominence in the Laserdisc era, Criterion releases have won a loyal fanbase thanks to their stellar picture quality, generous extras, beautiful package art and informative booklets. The breadth of their catalogue is dizzying, covering everything from blockbusters like Armageddon to the most obscure, niche world and experimental cinema. Despite their often high prices - out-of-print titles often reach crazy prices on eBay - you very much get what you pay for.
For years, there wasn’t really an equivalent for Irish and British film fans, beyond going to the hassle of owning a multi-region DVD player and importing Criterion releases (customs & shipping often adding to the already premium pricing). There was the occasional impressive DVD release - remember the Lord of the Rings extended editions? - but they were usually restricted to only the biggest hits. However, over the last few years in particular a number of companies have developed to not only counter Criterion, but in some cases even surpass them. While you won't find their releases all in your local video shop, online retail has allowed these distributors to flourish - or at least survive.
Masters of Cinema
Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series has been around since 2001, and their catalogue has continued to grow and impress in recent years. From bonafide classics such as Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Nashville through a huge variety of cult and world cinema, the main thing tying the catalogue together is the lavish attention given to every single title. They recently released The Quiet Man on Blu-Ray. Whether it’s discovering rare gems - this writer is particularly fond of beyond bonkers Japanese horror-comedy House (Hausu) - or digging into near-definitive editions of all-time greats, it’s an ever-expanding ‘curated’ catalogue that consistently surprises and impresses. Naturally, it all comes with great artwork, extras and booklets.
Arrow Films, meanwhile, have been around since the early 1990s, but it is only within the last few that they have made serious waves for DVD & Blu-Ray collectors. Their ‘Arrow Video’ range has become something of a one-stop shop for loving releases of all manner of genre fare.
The company treats their releases of horror, b-movies and exploitation movies with a sort of reverence, and have naturally earned legions of loyal customers and fans as a result. Their limited releases - such as a collector’s edition of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome late last year - often sell out before they’re even released. A common complaint on Arrow’s Facebook page is that they offer more worthwhile releases than many of their fans can actually keep up with.
Arrow have also expanded into more traditionally ‘respectable’ material with their Arrow Academy range, giving Masters of Cinema a run for their money.
To give an example: one of their most recent releases is the Jacques Rivette Collection, a selection of hard-to-find titles from the French director (whose death was sadly announced last week). It includes Out 1, Rivette’s 13-hour magnum opus that has been pretty much impossible to find in the past. For fans, its release was like a second Christmas (it would have been ‘Christmas came early’, but it ended up being delayed from its original 2015 release date). Again, the production was second-to-none, including a full hardcover book featuring writing on the director’s work.
These are not the only companies still fighting the good fight. The British Film Institute continues to put out high-quality releases of classics and obscurities, as do veteran distributor Artificial Eye. Other companies have focused on particular niches - like Second Run for smaller but acclaimed films from around the world, or Third Window Films for Asian cinema. Then there's Mr Bongo, documentary specialists Dogwoof, New Wave Films... There’s plenty of others too, ensuring a marketplace that is as diverse as it is busy.
So what's the advantages?
There are still some technical advantages when it comes to physical media. While the ongoing transition to Ultra HD will eventually give streaming and downloads an edge, in its current state Blu-Ray boasts superior quality to streamed HD content. There’s a certain ‘vinyl vs digital’ aspect to the debate here, with some of the benefits unlikely to be seen by casual viewers. But streamed content is heavily compressed and therefore often boasts a less vivid image, lower quality sound and more digital artefacts - assuming it maintains a consistent connection in the first place.
DVD is naturally an ancient technology at this point, and the image quality below even standard definition streaming or downloads (although the upscalers included in most Blu-Ray players typically give DVD a bit of a quality boost). It is just about acceptable viewing quality - basically, it's still better than VHS. However, it has one very significant benefit over Blu-Ray: it’s cheap. This allows smaller distributors and companies to put out films affordably and easily.
Given that downloads and streams typically result in nothing like the return of even a modest DVD release, the value of DVD production means that specialist distributors like Second Run or Third Window Films can get smaller, niche releases out there for an enthusiast audience. These are films that would be unlikely to get translated or released at all otherwise. As streaming services improve, we’re more likely to see more smaller films appearing on there exclusively, but for now it can’t quite sustain the niche markets physical media can.
Above all else, however, it’s the sheer volume of content available on physical media that ensures it remains essential for many viewers. Even allowing for releases that may be out-of-print or only available in other territories, countless thousands of great films are only legally available on DVD & Blu-Ray.
In the general scheme of things, the Netflix catalogue - even with apparently soon-to-be-blocked multi-region trickery - can be extremely limited when trying to track down particular films. Films come and go all the time on digital outlets - physical media has a much more reliable shelf-life (although sadly disc rot is a concern for older DVDs in particular).
It is more than understandable why discs have been rendered redundant for so many viewers. They’re still expensive - and some viewers may understandably not be interested in paying for media at all anymore beyond a small monthly subscription. The digital alternatives are becoming more robust. Many viewers will have no interest whatsoever in a full boxset of the yakuza classic Battles Without Honour and Humanity, let alone paying a premium price for it. And even some enthusiastic film fans will have little interest in extras like eye-catching box art, steel boxes or building a ‘collection’.
However, physical media has refused to go gently into the night. Like the persistence of the vinyl market, committed distributors, retailers and fans have managed to keep things busy and, many would argue, absolutely essential. How long it can last is anybody's guess, with the market only growing more challenging every year. For now, however, DVD & Blu-Ray remain relevant.
Physical media is dead. Long live physical media!