Watching Movies at Home: On the Internet or on shiny discs

Ideally, we should watch movies is in a theater. But this is the real world, and even the most fanatical cinephiles watch a lot of films at home. But the way we watch movies at home has changed considerably in the last few years, going from physical media to Internet streaming. How is that changing the home movie-watching experience?

The current issue of Cineaste contains a Critical Symposium on the Changing World of Home Video. (I’d give you a link to the article, but Cineaste doesn’t publish on the Internet.) The article asks “Is physical media in its death throes?” Editorial Board member Robert Cashill set up five questions to help illuminate the subject, and 13 experts provided their answers.

Since 13 is allegedly an unlucky number, I thought I’d make myself number 14 – and not for the first time. Here are my answers to the questions:

1) An Editorial published on this subject in our Summer 2012 edition…concluded, “We expect that the vastly superior DVD and Blu-ray formats will be around for at least another decade or two.” How correct was that assumption? If physical media are dying, why are companies forging ahead with new discs and a new format (UHD, Ultra High Definition)?
When I first started writing about Blu-ray (and HD-DVD; remember that?), I assumed that high-definition discs would be to DVD what Laserdisc was to VHS: the preferred home medium for cinephiles. I was partly right. Blu-ray became more popular than LDs, but they never reached anything near ubiquity. Now most people stream, but cinephiles also buy discs.

I doubt that DVDs and Blu-rays will disappear entirely any time soon, but they may not be as ubiquitous as they are today. After all, you can still easily buy audio cassette players and floppy disc drives, including ones designed to connect to modern computers.

2) While streaming movie services have grown in popularity over the last decade, and the sales of DVDs and Blu-rays have clearly declined, do you personally see this situation as an either/or choice? How would you describe your own preferences?
You make the choice every time you watch a movie at home, but you can make another choice the next time. I haven’t rented a DVD or Blu-ray in years, even though there’s a rental store less than a mile away. It’s just so much easier to stream. But when I love a film enough to want to own it, I want it in physical form – preferably Blu-ray.

But the option to stream has changed my disc-buying habits. I used to buy relatively new films that I had liked in theaters. Now I pretty much only buy classics.

How would you define the pros and cons of physical media versus streaming? Are there distinctly different viewers for the two formats? How would you define them?
I haven’t done a survey on the matter, but I suspect that most people just stream these days, while cinephiles either stream or use physical media.

Blu-rays have enormous advantages over streaming. Even when both use 1080p resolution, discs look better. Streaming involves more compression, degrading the picture. In fact, the image quality of a stream can drop, often horribly, from minute to minute due to Internet traffic. When I reviewed HDTVs, I refused to test streaming image quality because it was never consistent. Sound also has compression issues when streaming.

You have much more control on a disc than on a stream. If I see something interesting on a DVD or Blu-ray, I can pause, then rewind frame by frame. You can pause with a stream, and even rewrind, but it’s clumsy.

Finally, Blu-rays (and DVDs) offer a great many extras. Unless you’re streaming from FilmStruck, you won’t get commentary tracks and other supplements.

What advantage does streaming offer? Convenience. And the fact that you can’t scratch the disc.

Disney announced that in 2019 it will leave Netflix to start its own streaming service, as Netflix itself concentrates on its own programming. Does fragmentation among the major players create opportunity for more niche-oriented streaming services. If so, how will they distinguish themselves in an increasingly more crowded market for streaming?
At one point, it seemed as if all you needed was Netflix. But one company being the hub of all streaming doesn’t sound like a good idea (unless you own the company). Nor am I comfortable with every studio insisting on a monthly fee. No one wants to pay for seven or eight services they use only occasionally.

There are ways a household can cut costs. You can share your account with grown children who no longer live with you. A more honest solution would be to switch every few months from one service to another.

The PPV companies – iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play Movies, and YouTube – play an important role here, and come the closest to the old-fashioned video rental store. If a film isn’t streaming on any of the sites you subscribe to, it will likely be available on PPV.

Currently, I stream classic films mostly from FilmStruck or Fandor. I watch original content from Netflix, PBS, and occasionally Hulu (I suspend my account when there’s nothing I want to follow). If I want to watch a film that isn’t on any of these services, I go with the PPV option.

Feel free to discuss any issues related to this topic that haven’t been raised here but that are of particular interest to you.
Before the advent of the VCR, if the studio didn’t want you to see a picture, they could take it out of circulation. But once people could easily buy a home copy of a movie, the studios lost that ability. They can’t march into your home, or into a library or rental store, and take away something that they have already sold.

But if home video becomes exclusively streamed, we’ll lose that right. Studios can still take away the movies they don’t want us to watch.

The more copies of a film in existence, and the more spread out those copies are geographically, the less likely that the film will get lost. Thus, buying a DVD or, better yet, a Blu-ray, is an act of film preservation. Your copy just might the one that survives over the next 70 years, and gets into the hands of someone with a player that can convert it to the current format. It won’t be 35mm, but it will be better than nothing.