Film, News & Commentary

DVDs’ only worth now is as cultural artefact

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I still own the first DVD I ever bought. The year was 1999 and VHS tapes were still dominating sales. In my local shopping strip was a sacred site that is becoming rare these days: a video rental store. To nerds like me this was hallowed grounds, it was the art gallery of the suburbs, and it was there that I shelled out thirty hard-earned dollars for a special edition copy of The Matrix.

Whether there was ever a conventional ‘non-special’ version of The Matrix released I’ll never know, and to me it didn’t matter. I was riding the wave of a new medium, and had in my hands one of the hottest movies of the year. The Matrix became the first DVD to sell three million copies in the United States, and I imagine it was similarly popular in Australia. At the time I didn’t even have a DVD player, but that was just a minor inconvenience. For the shiny DVD disc the future seemed rosy.

How quickly times change.

Ten years later, around five years ago, we reached the point where DVDs were outstaying their welcome. Blu-Rays were entering the market, and high definition was the priority. Today DVDs are worthless. They’re at the end of their lifespan, and even their successors the ‘superior’ Blu-Ray is starting to show signs of buckling under the pressure. We’re now at the point where everything we could want to watch can be streamed. The future is intangible.

Retailers have long since felt the trend. JBHi-Fi, an empire built on the mighty shoulders of home entertainment, is now diversifying by selling white-goods. Online streaming and the recent debut of Netflix has sealed the fate of the disc — while it won’t stop piracy for new content, the vast back catalogue it provides will almost certainly dent what little market remains for retail, and be all that the dwindling number of rental stores can stand.

I’m not sure exactly how many DVDs I have, but I can safely guess more than 500. There’s comedy movies, action movies, unwise purchases and some still in their original packaging. Some titles, like Mel Brooks and Monty Python movies, are timeless classics I’ve never grown tired of. Others, like South Park and Family Guy, are cringe-worthy purchases that reflect an earlier stage in my maturity. But even those that I love now sit in storage, unwatched. Who can be bothered to pull the disc out of a case When you can just stream?

I’m not remotely sorry to see them go. The more time has passed the fewer titles I have bought. A large DVD collection, once proudly displayed in the living room like a library of the modern age, is now something rarely seen. Like music CDs, DVDs were fragile, prone to break or damage, and hardly robust enough to stand up to the punishment of everyday life  — it was even worse when there were children in the picture.

If anything, those boxes of DVDs to me are now just full of regretted purchases. The amount of money that I’ve spent on movies that I’ve watched at the best a handful of times, at the worst never watched at all…

Unfortunately, for myself and those in a similar situations who spent lavishly on their DVD collections, we’ve run out of time. Second-hand shops and money lenders don’t want to see them. If they take a cursory look at them you’re lucky if you make a dollar a disc. The one quote I did get offered me 25c per movie, but even then they only wanted to ‘pick out the good ones’. My best advice? Get rid of your Blu-Ray collection while you still can, and resist the urge to buy new titles, no matter how ‘special’ the edition.

They sit untouched at garage sales and remain un-bid in online auctions where the postage costs more than the disc sale itself. They occupy boxes in a spare room or a garage, taking up valuable room that we can’t afford. They sit unwatched, moved from house to house, less valuable than drink coasters but together representing a serious investment of cash over the years.

The other day I spotted a box of VHS tapes sitting unwanted in amongst the hard rubbish. A few of the titles I remember watching as a child, and part of me, the nostalgic part, wondered if the VHS ever had a chance of coming back — is there anyone else out there wanting to hear the clunk and whir of the VHS player again?

Who knows, but maybe far in the future, the DVD will have a chance for a second life, once people become nostalgic for the retro tech of the ‘early millennium’. If early iPods and Zunes suddenly become really valuable on eBay, I’ll know that the time is right. At that point I’ll probably still have 500 DVDs, all ready to sell.

6 responses to “DVDs’ only worth now is as cultural artefact

  1. Until Netflix can increase their library at least tenfold my DVD/Bluray collection will continue to provide regular viewing. I like the crispness of HD discs that Neteflix (and others) cannot compete with. And I still have a quality VHS player and 50 or so VHS tapes that provide nostalgic viewing. I have the original widescreen Star Wars trilogy before George Lucas started remaking it. And yes I do pull it out once a year and enjoy the sound of the clunk and whir of the VHS player.

  2. Given Australian ISP data limits (particular unmetered deals notwithstanding), the very limited range of movies available, and the low likelihood that streaming services will have exactly what I feel like watching available at all times, at least in the foreseeable future, and the regular drop outs of said streaming services despite being on a fibre connection, I might also keep my extensive DVD collection for some time.

  3. I agree as I am with Presto and they have a miserable collection often with poor prints and muffled sound tracks, without any vintage or foreign language classics. I have 950 prerecorded DVDs and Blu rays in my own collection, including many hard to get cult and classic films as well as 236 DVD discs that I have recorded from television for my own private use, as I can just pull one out and watch when I choose. Until Netflix and Presto as well as the others improve their acts I will continue to watch and expand my own collection.

  4. I think the jury is out on moving to a completely virtual approach to access to movies (and other entertainment). There are a few issues to work there way through the system.

    Costs – where is the break even in paying for access and downloads versus having the disc at what are now quite low prices. Given recent developments in metadata collection a sensible person has to assume that the current easy access to free downloads of everything is going to at least decline – if not largely disappear.

    Internet access – this is not just about whether there is sufficient speed to stream a HD movie without problems, but about how reliable the internet will be in the future. In a developed country like this it is easy to think it is and will be very reliable. If you travel and work in developing countries you know that both reliability and access (given various types of censorship regimes) can be iffy – and a pack of DVDs is your friend. And then there is the future of malware on the internet.

    Stability of the connected world – the political and economic stability that allows such things as cloud based and streamed internet services may not be a long term given. There is a risk involved in wholesale commitment to an online all-the-time world.

    So keeping ones stock of DVDs and Blurays just seems like a bit of prudent risk management – given they are already payed for and cost nothing to keep. Personal data storage is good – although hard disk reliability is also limited. So burning a disc of things like personal photos is worthwhile insurance rather than relying solely on some cloud based company who then controls access.

  5. One of the problems for older viewers (and there are a lot of us) is the issue of subtitles for the hard of hearing. At the moment the only answers seem to be DVDs or Bit Torrents which of course we cant use!

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