More and more catalogue releases are coming to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format – but some of them are coming with price tags that give pause for thought.

If you’ve been following the trend for physical media releases over the past few years, then you’ll be very aware that the graph tends to point downwards. Sales of DVDs and Blu-rays have been in decline for some time, and with every movie studio now scrambling to the shores of their own streaming service – or at least some kind of deal with a streamer – it seems that the humble disc is being neglected.

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The exception to this rule is in the world of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. This is, if you’re unfamiliar, the current premiere disc format, so named due to the 4K resolution capacity of its picture, but also boasts HDR (high dynamic range, which arguably makes a bigger difference than higher resolution) and top range sound mixes. 4K discs have become the format of choice for many home collectors, and the number of catalogue titles has been gradually inching back up over the past year or two. Just look at the list of what’s on the way.

I’ve got some skin in this game, having been a 4K player owner for a few years now, and having been witness to the gradual ramping up of catalogue titles. Some aren’t good – Disney’s recent US release of Pirates Of The Caribbean is reportedly in the running for the worst 4K disc to date – but the majority offer a discernible improvement.

Given that 4K discs are attracting film fans who are still willing to invest in physical media, over the last year or two in particular the level to which distributors play to that has increased. For a catalogue title now, it seems that simply issuing the disc isn’t enough. There has to be a Steelbook, or a deluxe collectors edition, or something of that ilk to try and gleam a few extra banknotes off people.

This has, to a degree, always been so. Posh boxsets, special collectors’ editions, limited edition runs of special packaging et al have long been deployed. But in almost all cases, they’ve gone side by side with a regular-priced release to less affluent mortals (me, bluntly) can afford to buy a physical media copy of a film too.

Citizen Kane 4K boxset

Citizen Kane 4K boxset

I can’t help but feel that things have changed a little in the last year or so, though. 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is now very much viewed as the premium end of disc publishing in more than one sense, and with an increasing number of catalogue titles, it’s the expensive release that’s taking precedence. If you wanted to buy films as varied as Total Recall, True Romance, Citizen Kane or The Guest on the format – each from terrific labels, I should note, and each an excellent release – then you were having to pay a premium to do so.

Now I don’t mind paying for things. I certainly have little problem stumping up for a quality physical media release, bulging with hand-crafted extra features. Furthermore, in most of the instances mentioned thus far, a more economical release wasn’t too far behind: look how quickly, for instance, a more affordable 4K release of Mulholland Drive followed the posh version, and even Warner Bros, after initially announcing The Green Mile in a collectors’ variant only has added a listing for a standard release too.

But there’s a swelling of titles still that, long after their initial release, as still not what I’d consider particularly affordable. The Guest is a good example, a film I’m keen to support from a label I’m keen to support. But with the best will in the world, for the £49.99 asking price, I think I’d want Dan Stevens to hand deliver it.

Columbia Classics

Then there’s Sony with its excellent Columbia Classics pair of boxsets, both of which are retailing for £120 or so (and that’s if you can still get hold of them). The first set came out at the end of 2020, and you still can’t buy all the individual films from it: as such, if you want the 4K release of Lawrence Of Arabia, then you might need to contact your bank to arrange a small loan. The six films in each set also assume a sizeable crossover of film fans: does the film lover who aches to see A League Of Their Own in 4K, for instance, really fancy double-billing it with Gandhi?

Volume two of that set sees Stripes next to Taxi Driver, and again, it’s the only way you can buy either film on 4K disc at the moment. It’s not just Columbia: Universal released a collection of Alfred Hitchcock films a year or two back, some of which remain unavailable individually. Later Karate Kid sequels, Star Trek III, Fast & Furious 6, an assortment of Universal Classic Monsters films: they’re all locked into boxsets as things stand.

I do get the argument. Purchasers of premium physical media formats are loyal, they tend to care about their films, and they’ve been proven not to mind spending a little bit more to get a quality release on their shelves. But I also think, in times when physical media is dwindling, a little bit more to attract people to the format wouldn’t hurt. I see the regular collection of multi-buy offers, and they’re very welcome. Likewise, discounting around many titles is pretty commonplace. But why should something like Lawrence Of Arabia be out of reach of someone who’s enjoying the format, and wants to get the best of it? Why is the only way to get a film like that to spend over £100 for the privilege?

A simple plea, then: get the balance right. One of the fairness ways physical media premium releases were handled was with the Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit boxsets where, after a shaky start, with each film it was made clear that an extended, deluxe cut was going to follow. It’s not an exact parallel, and I appreciate studios want to maximise their profits, but can that sort of consumer-friendly thinking be built in? Or at the very least to follow what the Studiocanals and Arrows of this world are doing, and follow up the deluxe release with an affordable one relatively quickly.

Bottom line: don’t take customers for granted, don’t take the piss, and let’s all celebrate owning quality films on disc…

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