Low quality streaming, unavailable films, movie edits by stealth: why physical media matters more than ever in the streaming age.

Back in April, Disney in the UK released the film Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker across DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD. The discs sold well, as you’d expect, but in something of a surprise, just days after they’d gone on sale, the studio announced the film was heading to the Disney+ streaming service early.

Now there’s a whole host of reasons why Disney is sending films to Disney+ earlier than planned, that I looked at in the article Disney+ and its pipeline problem. But this nonetheless felt like the old days of buying a DVD for a film, only for the special edition to be announced straight after. That the original disc release had been diluted somewhat. Certainly my Twitter feed had one or two people understandably grumbling that they’d bought the film, and wouldn’t have snapped it up so quickly if they’d known Disney’s plans.

In this case, though, it’s a studio moving people away from physical media, rather than towards a second purchase.

For Disney is, as I’d be if I’d spent billions on something, all-in on Disney+. As a consequence, there’s a decreasing focus on physical media from the studio (don’t look for individual 4K physical releases of most of the Star Wars and Pixar catalogue in the UK, for instance). I also think Disney+ is an excellent service.

Countering that, once we went into lockdown, it became known that Disney, along with Netflix, Amazon Prime and the BBC iPlayer service, was lowering the bitrate of its streams. The quality was being taken down, to accommodate the surge in web traffic caused by most of us being at home.

In these lockdown times, sales of physical disc players have been on the increase, as people find they don’t want films and TV shows hogging their devices and internet lines. Whether that’s sustainable remains to be seen.

But also there remains something really rather special and reliable about the age-old physical release. That, assuming you store your discs properly and keep them in decent nick, you’re never going to have a problem of buffering, waiting for an internet line, of edits being made to newer releases, and of someone in an office thousands of miles away reducing the quality of your film’s picture quality at the touch of a button.

In the last month alone, there have been stories of an edited version of Back To The Future Part II playing on Netflix (that Netflix changed after admitting the wrong version had been uploaded to its service), and of Daryl Hannah being digitally altered in Splash to avoid offending families. It strikes me that these are the alterations we know about, and have only come to light because they’ve been clumsily done, and are in well known films. Who can truly say they have confidence that no other films – that perhaps aren’t as high profile – aren’t being quietly edited?

Furthermore, I’ve become slightly perturbed at the picture quality of some of the films on Netflix in particular. Loading up City Slickers the other week, I was staggered to find it was presented in 4:3, edited for television ratio (the curse of pan and scan). It feels like the worst possible version of the film is the one that most people have access to…

The print of RoboCop it had sourced when it was on the UK service was all over the shop as well. The director’s cut had been uploaded in the UK, and when it cut to the new footage, the quality fell through the floor. Contrast that with the recent Arrow Blu-ray release, and the difference feels pretty seismic.

This, then, is a clutch of problems, that goes to the variance in quality we’re getting from our streaming services. I say that as someone who’s generally very impressed with them, and certainly I am a partaker of the convenience that they offer. I’m glad that streaming and on demand services exists.

What I’m not glad about is the amount they’ve eroded – along with piracy, if we’re being blunt – the market for physical media. And, in turn, the standards that physical media sets. Physical media has had its problems over the years, but there feels at least a base level to a disc release now.

Still, it’s little secret that the combined sales of DVDs, Blu-rays and 4K discs have been in decline for years. Physical sales peaked in the mid-2000s, and have been on a downward curve ever since. As a consequence, studios have been less inclined to invest in their discs, and the standard studio release is a barren affair. But even so, you have a reasonable expectation of a cut of a film that won’t change, that’s properly presented in the correct aspect ratio, and that’ll play every time you want it to play (standards were such that I remember when Warner Bros delayed the release of John Carpenter’s The Ward on disc for instance by many months, because it discovered – after manufacturing the disc – it was incorrectly framed).

You generally get something radical called a ‘refund’ if that’s not the case.

Furthermore, whilst we’re now seeing streaming services slowly embracing extra features – it’s notably that Disney saved its extensive making of Frozen 2 for a Disney+ series – the fuel for this was always physical media (we’ve got laserdiscs to thank, going back in film history). Sadly, extras became for a while collateral in the studios’ land grab of digital sales (remember the releases where the extra features weren’t all on the discs, but were the likes of iTunes exclusives instead?)

What's good on Netflix

The one final thing that physical media guarantees: availability.

That the film that you bought and want to watch will always be available to you to do so. I remember being a little bemused at the excitement when Back To The Future was first added to Netflix, leading to no shortage of articles being written about three films being added to one service. But also, I’d wager, those articles were primarily read and written by people who had at least one copy of the trilogy already on their shelf. I’m not being piddly about that, I just think it’s lopsided: I wish the excitement was for a physical, permanent release of a film, rather than a streaming service addition that admittedly means I don’t have to get off my backside and fetch the disc.

Yet ultimately, the reason I feel physical media is very much worth fighting for, above all else, is its permanence. Earlier this week, I penned a piece looking at the lack of True Lies and The Abyss on the majority of streaming services, and indeed on Blu-ray and 4K. There’s still a gigantic number of films that simply aren’t available on demand at all, and the main streamers – the Netflixes, the Amazons et al – oftentimes need to take films off their service to bring in fresh additions as well. The choice, whilst often overwhelming, is actually surprisingly small.

Meanwhile, that True Lies DVD – and this is a huge mainstream film, remember – remains on my shelf whenever I want it. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. The same goes for the thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – of catalogue titles that aren’t even on the radar of streaming services. They may not exist online, but they exist physically, somewhere.

It’s worth adding too that even if you get a film on demand – who remembers the Flixster debacle? – there’s small print that means it can be taken away. Nobody, to date, has tried to remove my Blu-ray of Geostorm from my home, however.

Physical film media is – in my view – incredibly important, and it’s just the kind of thing that’s missed as soon as it’s gone. Appreciating there’s still a list of terms and conditions at the start of each disc or video, it is for all intents and purposes yours. Insulated from corporate meddling, and leaving you safe in the knowledge that as long as you have a player and a telly, you don’t even need your internet switched on to watch the disc in question.

One further thing: a huge salute to the third party companies who are doing what the studios aren’t: picking up the rights to titles and delivering genuine, quality, extras-packed special editions. Oftentimes it’s a labour of love, for titles that’ll do well to sell a thousand copies.

But that work will still exist decades down the line. And I think that really matters.

Certain images: BigStock

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