Long Live the Round Disc
Why we’d have to be stupid to let hard copies go away
You and I, we love movies. We might even love music. Possibly books. We might’ve been happy living our lives going to movie theaters, watching videos or DVDs at home, putting on a record or a CD, then cracking open a paperback. It worked pretty well, nobody had any complaints really. But we live during the time of a massive technological shift that’s changing everything we do, including our viewing, listening and reading. Come to think of it it’s changing our way of life.
There are countless great things about digital technology, but there are also some huge drawbacks to abandoning some of the old ways. In our lust for the latest gadgets and conveniences I wonder if we’ve put enough thought into what we’re on the verge of giving up.
I wanted to finish this column before Saturday, because that’s been declared the first annual Independent Video Store Day. But one thing that got me thinking about these issues a few months ago, I was maybe gonna get a new computer. Some new models of Mini Macs had just come out. They’re way faster than the old piece of shit I have, and not as expensive as I thought they would be. The only drawback I noticed: no optical drive.
It’s true, most people don’t load software from CDs anymore, it’s mostly downloads. Fair enough. But that was never the reason why optical drives have been an expected built-in feature on all computers for years. College kids watch DVDs on their laptops, and people like me listen to CDs on their computers. Come on man, I did what you asked. You lured me into getting rid of my stereo, I play music on my computer and then I put the songs I want to on my iPod. Pour one on the curb for Steve Jobs and everything, but pretending the optical drive is obsolete is a dick move by Apple. It’s an abusive monopolistic type of strategy: make it less convenient to use long established high quality formats (forcing you to buy a separate external drive to do something that used to be built-in) in hopes that more people won’t want to bother and will start using iTunes.
NOT WANTING TO BOTHER
The shifts from VHS to DVD and from that-old-ass-TV-I-had-for-years to HD were caused by a rise in quality. After I saw what BARBARELLA looked like on DVD I wasn’t gonna go back to the tape. Unfortunately some of the other shifts we’re making are more like a home-cooked-meal to TV-dinner type of shift. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s easier and cheaper.
This next complaint would’ve started a shit storm if I brought it up just a couple months ago, because it’s about Netflix. I think I got a safe window here because people are mad that they raised their prices. Before that people loved that corporation more than their own grandmas. Richard Corliss learned that when he had the nerve to write in Time Magazine about his “misgivings about the service’s usefulness, especially compared with that of a real, well-stocked video store, and about the possibly harmful effect that Netflix and other online retail outfits may have on American society.” Admittedly the headline (“Why Netflix Stinks”) sounded more inflammatory than the article itself and got people’s blood pumping so they didn’t notice what the actual article said, which was mainly that he misses going to the really great video store that used to be in his neighborhood and wishes he wasn’t forced to give it up for a service that he doesn’t think is as good. But by the hostile reactions he got in various rebuttals and comments sections you’d think the headline used the n-word three times divided up by reader’s unlisted home phone numbers.
People never got that defensive about corporate chains like Blockbuster, Starbucks, Subway or Best Buy, but Netflix was different. It was okay, even cool, to wrap your identity up in their branding. Like Corliss said you couldn’t impulse-rent because you had to wait for the mail, and the selection wasn’t as good as some video stores, but it was a good deal because you pay the monthly fee and get them to mail you a whole bunch of movies. It made rental stores, who if they weren’t part of a big chain had to pay more for their movies as well as cover all the overhead of having a building and electricity and employees, seem expensive. But as it turns out, what Netflix was charging wasn’t enough to cover their overhead either.
That was the Netflix rope-a-dope that went mostly uncommented on. What most people saw as just a raise in prices was also an admission that their business model wasn’t sustainable. Getting to rent movies for that much cheaper than a store seemed impossible because it was. Using the time-honored “first rock is free” method of salesmanship they got people hooked, then brought the price up a little. Honestly, the prices now are still cheap, but they devalued movie rentals with their previous prices to the point where their customers can’t comprehend that.
Unlike the crack dealer I’m comparing them to, Netflix lost some customers with that move. DVD by mail is not as good of a service as crack delivery, it turns out. But they don’t care, because they don’t even want to be in that business anyway. They split off the mail order side of the business and even tried to rename it so they could kill it off. That’s the larger admission: not only was their previous price structure not going to be profitable, their new one isn’t either. They want out of the game. They don’t want to send you stuff, that’s a pain in the ass. They just want you to push a button to have a shitty compressed version of a movie pumped into your house like the food in MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS (a weird 1989 movie listed on the Netflix websight but not currently available):
In the movie they have everything piped into their houses because it’s some kind of post-apocalyptic situation where it’s dangerous to go outside. We just have everything piped into our houses because we want to.
Of course you can’t deny the many advantages of these new technologies. For the artist (or owner of the art) there’s the matter of not having to print up copies of a DVD, record or book and ship them to people, you can just have a file available for download. That makes it easier to make art available at less financial risk, and therefore it encourages the weird and the obscure. The advent of print-on-demand books got me into the world of publishing, and it was an ebook that attracted my real publisher. Also we’ve all read about that girl in her 20s who became a millionaire writing vampire ebooks, and we all tried to figure out how to get in on that shit. The new gold rush. I wouldn’t even have to get rich, just pay the bills that way and I’d fall in love with the Kindle, even though I don’t personally plan to ever get one.
For the viewer/listener/reader, I guess the advantage is storage. Your copy of BARBARELLA is not an object, it doesn’t exist as physical matter, so you don’t have to make space for it. We got tired of all the shit in our apartment so we switched to digital files. Then we got tired of our hard drives dying and losing all our files so they want us to be on “The Cloud,” storing our files somewhere else, through the air. Another great way to convince everybody they gotta pay a monthly bill to a corporation for something they never previously thought they needed.
But I don’t know if that’ll catch on. Maybe they’ll come up with something better. I can see why people are down with switching to files instead of hard copies, but let’s just be sure everybody understands what we’re signing on to. This is the main point I want people to consider, so I’m gonna bold this shit: We’re not just using a newer technology, we’re agreeing to a re-definition of what it means to buy art and/or entertainment.
When you buy a DVD, or a CD, or a book, you aren’t buying “intellectual property,” you’re buying a vessel that contains a movie or an album or a story or what have you. You own that vessel. It belongs to you. If you get sick of it and don’t want it anymore, or if you just need the money, you can go sell them to a pawn shop or a used bookstore, or on ebay. But you can’t sell a file used. When you buy a file on iTunes or Amazon you don’t own anything, you’ve just licensed some software for home use.
It’s a weird philosophical shift, but not necessarily a big deal for most people if they don’t get hard up for money and need to sell off their shit sometimes. Or if they have things that are more valuable they could sell, like tools, jewelry or music equipment. Fair enough. But there are other ramifications. Changing the definition of buying these things also limits the possibilities of archiving them.
Let’s say the Weinstein Company buys the American rights to a great Asian film and don’t bother to release it for a couple years. What you can do now, you can find out if there’s an English-subtitled Asian release of that movie and you can import it. You might need a region free player, but you can get it, or you can watch it on VLC player (if your computer has an optical drive – ah, shit!). The Weinsteins don’t want this, so if they find out an American company is selling the import they’ll send cease-and-desist orders and scare them away. Everybody knows they have no legal ground for that, it’s just a good bully tactic because they have more money and lawyers than you do, so fuck you. Eventually they’ll release their version, Bey Logan will have a pretty good commentary track on it, everything’s fine now. Later, if they stop making that DVD, you can still find used copies for sale online, or you can rent it from a video store, maybe even borrow it for free from a library.
Now imagine this happening in a future where movies only come as downloads or streams. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that the Weinsteins and other companies won’t suddenly turn into our best buddies because of the new technology. There might still be guys out there who act like dicks, is what I’m thinking. It seems possible, anyway.
In this scenario I’m not sure how different regions will be controlled. I assume they will be able to stop overseas companies from streaming or uploading the movie to American computers, but I’m not sure how exactly that will work. But after they release that movie, if they decide it’s no longer in their interest to keep it available, or if they lose the rights and nobody else picks it up, or if they decide they want to keep it out of circulation so they can do a new version later, or whatever, it will disappear. There will be no archive.
Right now, out of print means “harder to get.” You can legally buy it, it just might be more expensive, depending on supply and demand. But without hard copies you simply can’t legally buy it. If the corporations aren’t making it available at that moment then getting it will be illegal. We’ve already seen that corporations can track who is uploading a file, who is downloading it, and that they are sometimes willing to prosecute people for it. If Disney doesn’t want you to see TRON before TRON LEGACY comes out, you won’t fucking see TRON. If they want to put PINOCCHIO in the vault for a while then you’re not seeing it. Sorry.
And out-of-printness won’t only be at a corporation’s discretion. It will also come from economics. Let’s say Netflix has HOLY MOUNTAIN available for instant viewing. (I don’t think they do, this is just a hypothetical example using a movie that oughta fuckin be available at all times.) That means the Netflix corporation has made a deal with whoever owns HOLY MOUNTAIN to have the exclusive rights to stream it for such-and-such window of time. Once that window ends they may decide not enough people are interested in the Sanctuary of 1,000 Testicles to be worth paying for that contract again. Then it’s gone until some other company can pony up the cash.
I mean, don’t panic. I still have the dvd and the blu-ray sitting on my shelf. I’d be happy to loan it to you. But for movies that come out in a post hard copy world you won’t be able to count on my shelf.
So you see, we’re making space in our apartments, but we’re giving up our tried and true system of archiving.
I believe our boner for supreme convenience will cause us to wake up one morning lying next to an ugly corporate monster. And wearing a wedding ring. Just as nerds have increasingly learned to call their beloved characters and mythologies by business terms like “franchises” and “properties,” movie fans have learned that they’re no longer watching movies, they’re watching “content.” In this world there’s no room for a piece of art or a story or a historic document, there’s only catalogs and rights packages and availability windows.
Will there still be room for companies like Criterion or the old Anchor Bay, groups of movie lovers with a passion for a certain type of film, who search out the ones they love most, lovingly assemble them for us, try to share them with us in the best presentation possible? Or will there just be a list of titles on channel 0 that we scroll through with our remote while an infomercial for some new Kate Hudson movie plays? Where in on-demand world is there room for anybody who gives a shit? We’re not asking for tender loving care, we’re asking for content. Shove a tube in my head and stuff that shit in there as fast as you can.
Ideally the future would include the convenience of the computery business but retain the availability of discs and books. Plenty of options for everybody. I think this is what most people assume will happen. But is it really feasible? Video stores, record stores and book stores have been falling at an alarming rate. Not too long ago we used to worry about chain stores putting locally owned ones out of business, now even those monoliths have trouble surviving, so we’ve seen the death of Hollywood Video, Borders Books, Tower Records, the bankruptcy of Blockbuster Video, and I heard Barnes and Noble isn’t doing too good either. If these companies, with the massive advantage of the deals they get by buying products by the cubic shitload, are not able to survive, imagine how hard it is for the little guy. In New York, the legendary Mondo Kim’s found that it was more profitable to sell off their building than to stay in business. In your town the independent video and record stores, if there are any, are probably struggling. I shouldn’t even say independent. The video and record stores, period.
I like going into stores. I like browsing, exploring, stumbling across things by accident. It’s a huge part of what I do here, because as much research as I do to find movies I want to see, sometimes it doesn’t beat just picking up a box and seeing Rowdy Roddy Piper or a crazy tagline or painting on the cover and realizing I never heard of that one before. Sometimes I even like human interaction: Have you seen this one? Have you heard anything about it?
When “brick and mortar” stores are gone and replaced by our computers we won’t only be losing that experience, we’ll be losing an entire segment of business. In a world of streaming and on-demand there is no such thing as an indie, is there? Under the current rules we just have to pick the store we trust to gather all the things we like. Even the so-called “Blockbuster Exclusives,” by law another video store was allowed to rent them out if they purchase them. Under the new rules of no-hard-copy we are giving complete control of what is available either to one monolithic corporation or (more likely I think) we’ll have to assemble our viewing piecemeal from a series of competing services who own the rights to different movies. There’s no going to the place you like best, there’s no supporting a business in your neighborhood that sponsors local events and charities, there might not even be not-supporting-the-one-that-gives-to-the-anti-gay-groups. There’s just you, your screen, and the corporation that shits the content at you.
Well, the solution is to keep hard copies alive at least as a niche industry. I don’t know if it’s gonna be possible to keep these places in business, but it might be. I thought vinyl was gone forever in the ’90s, but there are still record stores in Seattle today that sell records, new and used. And I don’t know, it seems like the studios wouldn’t want to abandon hard copies of some kind. How are they gonna double dip on files? How are they gonna do special editions? How are they gonna get you to buy your dad a file of THE GREAT ESCAPE for Christmas?
But I don’t know. Who’s gonna sell the blu-rays to us if the stores can’t afford to stay in business? I guess just Amazon. If the post office can afford to stay in business.
I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad about how they get their movies, and I know there are many parts of the world where you don’t really have a choice other than Netflix, On Demand or a fuckin vending machine in a Safeway parking lot. But that’s sad, isn’t it? I wish you guys had a choice, and I want to keep mine. Since I spend so much of my time watching movies and writing about them, this is my way of life. And I think it’s worth protecting. I’ll continue to support my local businesses as long as they hang in there.
Please feel free to sing the praises of your favorite local video, record or book store in the comments. Living or dead. (Or if you know the solution to all this that would be even better, please post that.)
The convenience trap: What the changes at Netflix reveal about an insidious trend (Onion AV Club)
Special thanks to L. Jiminez for opening my eyes to the Netflix rope-a-dope
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.