The dominant currency of the early 2000s entertainment industry might as well have been DVDs. More accessible, higher quality, and more conveniently sized than the VHS tapes that preceded them, the advent of DVDs brought the magic of cinema to anyone with a DVD player, television, and composite cable, or even just a laptop with a DVD player. drive, home – who in the late 2000s were mostly working and upper class Sri Lankans.
With growing popularity and minimal consequences for piracy, most major cities have become crowded with small DVD stores, tucked into a nondescript space the size of a single room every few streets. Floor-to-ceiling shelves held new and old releases stacked on top of each other, placed inside a paper-printed DVD cover and slipped into a polythene sleeve instead of a proper case. Most stores sold a combination of English, Hindi and Tamil movies, often with questionable subtitles that were badly formatted or just a bit too fast or too slow to sync up with the audio.
Fewer and fewer of these stores remain. The few that do – Saxon, on Galle Road, and Video International, which has branches on both Galle Road and Thimbirigasyaya, for example – survive on a dwindling base of loyal customers. With each passing month, even that is proving insufficient to keep these stores open for much longer.
“After the Easter attacks [in April 2019]business went down,” said Lahiru*, an employee of Saxon Roar Media. “Then we had the lockdowns, and that’s when Netflix and [other streaming services] began to gain popularity.
Saxon opened in 2005 and has been a relatively popular store due to its central location and wide variety of movie theater options. After closings, however, they’re lucky if they get even a handful of customers a day. “Few people buy DVDs anymore,” Lahiru said. “Even I watch movies on the internet now, because it’s so easy to just watch them on my phone.”
Sanath*, who worked for more than a decade at Video International’s Galle Road branch, said Roar The decline in media sales is the result of a combination of COVID-induced lockdowns and the country’s deteriorating economic situation. “Business is bad,” he said, “mainly because people are spending less money.”
Yet, he continued, this is not necessarily a new trend. Sales of DVDs and Blu-rays have been declining for years before COVID, but the growing availability of relatively high-quality online streaming services in Sri Lanka – both legal and paid sites like Netflix, and illegal and free sites for streaming and downloads – has made local DVD activity highly unpredictable. “We used to be able to predict our sales, predict how many customers we might have on a certain day or a certain week,” Sanath said. “Now we can’t even do that.”
Ihsan Raji loves movies. A movie buff, the Blu-ray collection in his home theater is a bit like a full-fledged private DVD store, albeit much cleaner, better organized and exceptionally well-maintained. Although Raji also occasionally uses streaming services, he thinks local stores selling Blu-ray discs and the newer, higher-quality Ultra HD Blu-rays – also known as 4K Blu-rays – could survive in a niche market of collectors like him.
“I’m looking for quality – sound quality, picture quality. There’s a significant difference on disc versus streaming,” he said Roar Media. “And again, you have no problem with the internet connection.”
Sri Lanka is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for internet quality, a fact that may come into play when assessing the possible fate of local DVD stores. “If data charges go down, the DVD market will disappear,” Sanath said. “But,” he continues, “they may still stick around, because LaserDiscs and records and such are coming back. So those might become like collectibles. So it might become kind of a niche market.
Raji agrees. “In Sri Lanka, I think DVD stores are in decline because most people don’t care about streaming quality, they just want to watch a movie,” he said. “But the real enthusiasts still prefer to watch on Blu-ray or 4K, that’s why they haven’t stopped producing them yet.”
Yet streaming services continue to advance both in the variety of content available and in its quality. While Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and a handful of regional and local sites – iflix and SRIFlix, for example – are currently the only mainstream paid streaming services available in Sri Lanka, more will most likely soon follow. Once that happens, the nostalgic familiarity of a neighborhood DVD store – alluring as that is – will be hard to choose over the convenience of a full library of high-quality movies and TV shows. at your fingertips.
“Even the few customers who come to us tell us that it’s much easier to watch movies and TV shows online rather than buying them on DVD,” Lahiru said. “So I think this store is either going to close or be turned into something else, something that people will buy.”
*Names have been changed on request