Mar 26, 2012

Cinematters: I'm not jumping in the stream

Lovefilm is now, for the first time, seeing more use of its download service than its postal disc rental service, and an awkwardly worded (like there's another kind) Daily Mail headline today tells us of... "'The end of movies on disc': Online 'streaming' films will outnumber DVDs and Blu-Rays combined for first time this year". What they mean - despite the fact that the headline suggests more availability - is that streams will have more indvidual sales and views this year than films on disc. I'm not sold on streaming, for several reasons.

I'll start with the one that will probably carry the least real weight, but which means the most to me. I like stuff. It's really that simple. Since I was 12 years old I've been building a collection of films, first on VHS, then on DVD and now on Blu Ray. My film collection is a very personal thing, I genuinely feel like, as a whole, it's a reflection of me. It's a reflection of what I like, a reflection of what I'm interested in, a reflection of how I've developed as a movie fan over the years. Look into my DVD Aficionado account and, hopefully, you'll see something of me staring back at you. How well you think that reflects on me as a person is really down to you... does owning an uncut Cannibal Holocaust make me sick? Does owning The Princess Bride on Blu Ray make me a hopeless romantic? Are both those things true? Certainly both of those films are important to me, they are things I enjoy owning and - importantly - having on display.

When I moved into my current office / bedroom about five years ago one of the things I was most pleased about was that the extra space allowed me to get most of my DVD collection (all but the TV shows, and things like newspaper DVDs that never had Amaray cases to begin with) out of the wallets I had had them stored in and put them back on the shelves in their cases, meaning that right around my room there would be a colourful display of films, which would also be much easier to access and less liable to get damaged than they had been in the wallets. The main collection is alphabetised as you go around the room, but on top of some of the shelves are special director and actor collections for people I'm an especially big fan of from Joe Dante to Tilda Swinton. HERE's a picture of my Jennifer Jason Leigh collection, by far the largest collection I have of one actor's work. Here's the problem I have with streaming, and indeed with downloading... you can't do this with a file. It's true, the collection pictured has a couple of DVDs in it that came sleeveless, and one DVD full of films that were proving hard - or prohibitively expensive - to find, and which I did download, when I can replace them for copies that lend themselves better to being displayed you can bet I will do so, but that selection of films has been accrued over many year, involved much searching through charity shops and many lucky finds, I can look at it and have connections not just to the films but to the time I found them, the shop I bought them in (for example, that copy of Under Cover is something I saw while browsing VHS in a charity shop, I had no idea it was a Jennifer Jason Leigh film, and to this day I have no idea why I pulled it off the shelf to read the back, but it's an extremely rare item, as far as I can tell, and in more than 15 years as a fan of Leigh's I've never seen another copy aside from this one I bought for 25p). You don't get this with downloads. Even if you do stumble on something rare it just doesn't have that same thrill as unearthing an unexpected gem from among a pile of tapes or discs (like the time I found Deodato's Jungle Holocaust on an uncut DVD in a charity shop), and you don't have the item to show for it either.

Maybe it's sentimental and romantic of me to have this connection to the stuff I've built up over the years, and to want to continue adding to it, but I've been a movie fan since I was ten, can you think of anything - other than people, obviously - it's more appropriate for me to have a sentimental attachment to?

Beyond the sentiment and the sheer coolness / nerdiness (delete as you see fit) of having almost 3000 films on display, I do have other reasons for not having embraced the age of the download. Now, just to be clear, I'm not against online video, any TV I watch outside of series boxsets, I watch through streaming services (I haven't had an aerial hooked up to my TV for almost eight years now), and while I enjoy IPlayer, 4OD and YouTube, none of them is exactly a top quality viewing experience. They're serviceable, but in full screen they can't even match VHS for picture clarity. Now, I do understand that streams and downloads are available in HD (though I've been no more impressed with 'HD' YouTube videos than with the regular ones), but with my connection (and that of many other people who live outside of the UK's major cities) running pretty slow, buffering or downloading one of those videos can take an inordinately long time, far longer, for instance, than the loading process for even the slowest Blu Rays that I own, and the file size if you want to keep things is pretty huge. Apple's FAQ suggests that at SD resolution (basically the same as my DVDs), a 2 hour movie runs to 1.5 gigs. Let's say I wanted to (and was able to... we'll get to that) replicate my film library digitally. To store the 3000 movies I own at DVD quality I would need 4.5Tb of space. That's, remember, only at SD resolution, and without any new films. Filling this drive with my film collection would, conservatively given my connection, take an hour per title, that's 125 DAYS, had I begun the process on January 1st this year, and if I was able to continue it non-stop 24 hours a day, assuming my computer never crashed, never needed updating, never overheated and that I never had a virus problem, I would still not be done until May 4th. If I wanted to upgrade those 3000 films to HD files I'd be looking at 12Tb of storage and, again conservatively, a 3 hour download for each. It's simply not practical.

Quite apart from not being practical, it's also not really feasible. Let's take a look at the UK market leader, Lovefilm. Their Instant service currently offers just under 8000 films, while the DVD selection stands at close to 73,000 though streaming titles do outpace Blu Ray discs, which are now verging on 4000 titles, roughly 2:1. Dig into the selection, and it begins to get a bit more depressing. Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, is well represented in the DVD collection, with 56 titles, but only 9 are available through the streaming service, and of those only two - North by Northwest and Shadow of a Doubt - number among his best. By contrast YouTube has 7 Hitchcock films for free streaming, and their selection is much more interesting, including the underrated Young and Innocent and the classic The Lodger, neither of which Lovefilm has. Try and imagine the chance I'd have of getting digital versions of some of the more specialist films I own, to say nothing of deleted VHS exclusive things like The Godfather: The Epic

For me perhaps the greatest advantage of physical (and especially disc) media is that, presuming you look after it, once you own it, you'll always have it to hand. You'd think this would be true of digital media; after all, you've paid for it, and it's on your hard drive. This isn't the case. You don't own digital media, you license it. This has very real implications, books have previously been remotely deleted from people's Kindle E-Readers, do you really believe that this won't happen with movies? I don't. Imagine you've spent time and money building up a digital library of films, but that one day a film studio goes bankrupt (it's happened before, and will again). Overnight copyrights change hands, invalidating your agreement with the previous copyright holder. Wanting to protect their new investment the new copyright holder requires that those invalid agreements be rescinded by the previous holder and - poof - there goes a chunk of your library, remotely deleted because you don't actually own it. This is something we have been protected from in the past because when studios and copyrights changed hands the previous owners couldn't do anything about what you already owned, short of sending round a man with a hammer to demand your DVDs (this, I should stress for the record, has never happened, at least to me).

There are other disturbing implications to these remote deletion capabilities. Imagine a case like the original UK DVD release of True Lies. The film had to be cut for a 15 certificate, but the first wave of DVD copies were accidentally released with an uncut print on them. I own one of these copies, but had this happened in the age of digital content it would have been incredibly easy for the studio, or the vendor, to remotely delete this uncut version from my hard drive, and per the license agreement they wouldn't even have to tell me they had done so. Censorship becomes easy, for whatever reason. I'm not saying that political censorship would happen, but it is highly possible, and, again, can be done with neither notification or explanation. You know who I want deciding what's in my film collection? Me. No company should get to make those choices for me. I don't want to predict some sort of Big Brother society here, because I don't believe that will happen, but the technological capabilities inherent to and the holes in the license agreements governing digital content are such that they would make it very easy for people to control what we are allowed to see and to 'own' for their own reasons.

Ultimately though, that's the thing I'm least concerned about in this argument, it will happen, but I doubt it will ever be a truly widespread problem. I'm going to be sticking to physical media because I like the near bottomless choice (I still buy VHS when I find something I can't get on other media), because I like the quality (I'm a huge Blu Ray evangelist, but standard DVD can still look excellent, and I've never seen streaming or downloaded video get near it) and because I like the satisfaction of building a collection, and a history along with it. I think - I hope - there are enough people like me out there to keep physical media going for a good while yet.

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