Tom Jolliffe on the final nails in the coffin for physical media…

2020 begins. The cinematic landscape sees a theatrical distribution model supported by Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Meanwhile, streaming services are on the rise with Disney+ on the way and a host of other streamers vying to switch to original content to rock with Netflix and Amazon. Then there are the physical media. DVDs and Blu-rays have been taking a beating for a number of years with the rise of broadband broadband and beefy streamers with masses of content. We’ve long since lost Blockbuster Video and the like, while only an increase in collectible content and curated select labels like Arrow and Criterion, keeps a market of avid collectors interested in physical media. Moreover, street retailers are already on a hiding for nothing. Amazon et al have made the convenience of home shopping and one-day delivery much more appealing than physically going to a store to buy your entertainment items (at a premium to boot).

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In 2020 I personally had two DVD releases for films in the UK in Return of the Tooth Fairy and Witches of Amityville. It was an exciting time for a screenwriter who used to dream in video stores that his name was on one of those VHS covers. Swap VHS for DVD and I had it done. Then something else happened in 2020… teah, you know… this pandemic that is still ravaging the whole world. With lockdowns across the world, the high street has been given a new kick. Retail stores were beaten in a way not unlike Vinnie Jones hitting Frank Harper’s skull with a car door in lock, reserve and two smoking barrels. The problem is they were closed, we couldn’t get out, and so Amazon delivered our goods and made huge profits. Streaming services have been tested by people working from home in their underwear, dithering on Netflix and. Al. If movie-watching audiences were already well on their way to being dominated by online streaming, being stuck at home only compounded the problem and hastened the process. Cinemas are at least showing nascent signs of recovery (again, slightly led by Disney/Marvel).

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There is, however, a big problem for physical media. Although supermarkets remained open and kept a place openly available to buy DVDs, this was only briefly reflected in sales. People who weren’t quite ready to make that streaming move (or were actually suffering from the surge in users slowing down everyone’s service) were doing lockdown hijackings to grab the movie from Bruce Willis of the Week (maybe…maybe not Bruce). Since then, there has been something of a reality check, certainly in the UK. As a fan of physical media (not to obsessive levels), my options available offline are in the second-hand market, supermarkets, and ever-shrinking specialists like HMV that cling to staying open. Even HMV played with oblivion for a number of years, saved a few years ago, but still running out of customers (at least every time I go). Like all high street shops, profits (or more accurately, losses) are extremely skewed by the pandemic era. Judging how much customer demand has dropped for a store is difficult. What’s clearer are the stores/sectors that have boomed in the pandemic era and will likely continue to sustain a surge in consumers – takeout for example, playing in the convenience of home .

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I can almost see the effects, certainly in the UK, of my own film career (as it is). While DVD releases for horror movies used to be a given, they now seem deemed unnecessary. Pissing in the wind. I haven’t had a UK DVD release since 2020, despite having 3-4 movies released in the UK on streaming last year. Streaming and physical releases aren’t always linked, and that may well change, but having also heard through the grapevine, many distributors are slowly starting to return to DVD releases. Some cancel it completely. This is especially true in the UK, and what’s more, the films that are still coming to DVD do so with adjusted expectations. The number of copies moved to represent a success 5 years ago is quite different from a more paltry number today. In some ways, a DVD is like a thumbnail. It’s a visual cue that someone might see on a shelf, but (if you’re lucky) just consider watching through a streamer. The US market still has a wider reach for physical media, and while that format is also becoming a dying format, I still release DVD movies there with regularity. Likewise in Europe, especially Germany (where physique still seems to have a decent pull), releases are regular. Increasingly, it’s about streaming. One of my movies Jack and Jill hit 3 million views via a niche YouTube channel that got the first exclusive (it has since hit the usual suspect streamers and DVDs in the US). Judging the success of this is difficult, although I’d bet a UK DVD release would struggle to reach four-figure purchases.

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So the numbers are going down. The releases themselves focus more on movies with named talent. Even many Bruce Willis features bypass the DVD releases, it seems (in the UK certainly. Beware, printers would struggle to keep pace with Brucey. Supermarkets could be the last bastion for purchases of DVDs in stores, but many in the UK are reducing their storage space, and some are even cutting DVDs altogether in the coming months.If Walmart were to do the same in the US, you’d have a huge physical market annihilated. It is unfortunately not unlikely. It may seem unimaginable to many of a certain age, that there could come a time when we will have almost no more DVDs available (outside of garage sales, charity and thrift stores)., the existence of these old beauties is relegated to attics, a dusty bucket in a thrift shop or garage sales.

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Is there hope? The hope lies in the collector. The hobbyist. It’s based on limited editions of classic cult movies targeting people willing to pay double the price of a regular DVD/Blu-ray for something a little sexier. It could be from Arrow, Criterion, 88 Films, BFI Films, Eureka, Curzon, etc. The only difference from now, however, in five years they will only be available online, sold to a select clientele and will inevitably become expensive sales. through eBay, etc. We might also still see, for a few more years anyway, a dwindling selection of physical press releases for headlines. In the meantime, I’ll keep adding weird movies to my selection, including one of mine that will end up on a high street shelf (and I have a few on the way that will have more than enough attraction to get a physical release for the next few years at least). It’s kind of sad to see the slow death of a format, at least as a mainstream shelf filler, but that’s life, I guess.

What are your thoughts on potentially dying physical media? Have you noticed a decrease in store presence? Let us know your thoughts on our social media @flickeringmyth…

Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2021/2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/