In defence of: Physical Media

As online streaming services increasingly become a fact of everyday life, I’m often asked why I continue to purchase blu-rays and DVDs of both new and old films. I frequently face accusations of being a dinosaur, a Luddite refusing to accept the winds of change. I’m told that online streams or rentals are cheaper, easier, more convenient, less cumbersome, more mobile, more exciting, more dynamic, more vogue… If I may, I’d like to take a moment to refute a few of these claims, and explain I believe that physical media is, for the time being, the best way to enjoy films and television at home. Of course, I’ll be assuming that none of you are thieves hell-bent on the destruction of the film industry as we know it, and will therefore only be focusing on legal means of enjoying cinema.


1. Ownership

My first and most personal point is that I remain a strong believer in ownership. I enjoy knowing that once I’ve bought something, it remains physically in my possession. This doesn’t just mean that I love opening and closing a little box whenever I stick something on, but it means I don’t have to worry about my favourite films or TV shows suddenly disappearing from the library. How often have you been browsing Netflix, only to discover that the film you were looking for has vanished? No matter which subscription service you’re on, be it Now TV, Amazon Prime, or Sky Movies, you’re always subject to the whim of their licensing agreements. Once you’ve bought yourself a blu-ray player and some discs, they will be there forever, until human civilisation has long passed and we are ruled by fascistic ape-like overlords.

2. More control

A lot of the time, the film you’re after simply won’t be available anywhere; this is especially a problem when looking for foreign or independent cinema. Even if you want to maximise your chances of finding a film and you sign up for everything, that’s an awful lot of subscriptions to invest in and keep up with. Furthermore, what gets added to the online libraries and what gets excluded often seems random; recently I made an effort to re-watch all four series of Blackadder on Netflix, only realising half-way through that the final two series weren’t available. I’m sure there’s a perfectly complicated reason for this, but investing in a good physical library of DVDs prevents this sort of disappointment, and gives you more control over what you can and can’t watch at any time.

3. Picture Quality

I’m going to get a bit weird and nerdy here, so you might want to skip this bit if you don’t really care how good the picture on your TV is. But I like my films to look good. A poor projection in the cinema can really ruin the experience for me, and watching at home is no different. Before buying a film on blu-ray, I do a lot of research on the quality of the transfer and how it compares to previous releases. I like to know where a film is sourced and how accurately the colour timing, grain, and aspect ratio have been recreated. With a blu-ray or DVD release, I can find out this information before buying and I’ll know exactly what I’m getting. On the internet, it’s really a matter of luck which version of the film you get – it’s often an ancient standard definition scan. And if your internet is a bit dodgy that’ll ruin the picture too, helpfully bringing me to my next point…

You’ll need one of these.

4. You don’t need a good internet connection, all the time

This isn’t true in all cases, but the majority of online television services require a decent internet connection to stream or download anything, particularly in high definition. With the spread of super-fast broadband, this may seem like less of a problem, but for anyone who can’t afford the best ISP or lives outside of the M25, you can expect your films to keep pausing, cutting out, and dropping in picture quality. And if I can’t watch the TV when my internet is down, what the hell else am I supposed to do?

5. Special features et al.

In a good home-video release, the actual film is only half the product. Deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and audio commentaries can give an amazing insight into a side of film making that we rarely get to see. Some films may even have alternate cuts or a variety of sound options (that was an exciting sentence). Of course not every film or TV show gets this kind of deluxe treatment, neither do they all warrant such an investment, but to have a peak behind the scenes of classic popular culture is invaluable for both film fans and historians like myself, and something you’ll only really get on a quality hard-copy.

6. But at what cost?

If you’re looking at face value, a brand new blu-ray is going to set you back about £15, even more for a box set, at the time of writing. I’ll admit, this is a lot of money. But if you’re willing to wait a little bit, or shop around for deals, you’ll rarely have to pay full price for a new film. For those purchasing classic films, or anything more than a couple of years old, things become quite affordable. Both Amazon and HMV do excellent multi-buy deals on blu-rays and DVDs, giving you the option to shop both online and on the high street. Of course, the total cost of assembling a vast library of blu-rays at home will probably work out more expensive than a Netflix subscription, but for such a superior level of choice and control over your own catalogue, I’d say it was worth the difference.

Those are my top six reasons for sticking to discs in the age of streaming. I’m not a stubborn man, and I realise that physical media has a horrendous environmental cost; I genuinely long for the day when the film industry doesn’t have to waste vast swathes of energy and plastic so that I can watch films in the best way possible. But for now at least, there simply isn’t an alternative which has convinced me to make the switch. Shiny discs and shopping trips to HMV may seem like anachronisms in a world where everything exists on a screen in front of you, but for video-philes and anyone with a penchant for bonus documentaries and the last two series of Blackadder, they’re a necessity.

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