Remembering the time when tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers contained yesterday’s films.
Things that seemed radically modern at the time can appear the most dated. DVDs being given away free with newspapers in the recent past seemed, at least to some of us, like a wonderful thing unimaginable just a few years previously. Now, for various reasons, you could never see these promotions happening. Ever again.
From approximately 2002 to 2012 the main Fleet Street newspapers would regularly give away films on DVD (along with music CDs). There were hundreds of the things! Giving away a movie with a paper before DVDs never happened because their predecessors, VHS tapes, were both too bulky to transport and store, and too expensive per unit to do so. All a DVD was, was a disk and a slim cardboard case. While they were slipped inside your paper if you had it delivered to your house, when you bought your paper from the shop you’d normally take it to the counter and be handed your DVD (if you wanted it; some didn’t). Whatever; the product was easy to distribute.
And all the main players in the national Press partook. The Mail, the Express, The Sun, The Mirror, The Times, the Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer and others all gave away tons of DVDs. Most were dispatched with the newspaper; sometimes you had to clip coupons to send off for them.
What kind of films were there? Everything (but generally with no extra features). The Sun, the Mail and the News of the World all had fulsome Carry On collections; both the Telegraph and The Times offered a raft of black and white Hitchcock classics; the Mail had ‘Classic War Movies’. It was amusing to see The Sun have a horror film series which included The Evil Dead, a one-time video nasty that the paper had riled against a couple of decades before (Hellraiser and Halloween were in the same ‘Horror Classics’ series). It was also interesting to note that many films had scenes of nudity and/or strong language that the papers wouldn’t dream of having in their pages – there was something curious about that dichotomy.
Some of the films given away were bona fide classics, some were bloody awful – often in the same series. I have a whole load of them, and some I love and treasure, including a Daily/Sunday Telegraph double slipcase of Sixties kitchen sink classics A Taste Of Honey and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning; The Sunday Times’ Withnail And I; The Guardian’s The Wicker Man; The Observer’s Abigail’s Party; I’ve even got what is according to IMDb users the best film ever, The Shawshank Redemption, courtesy of The Sunday Times (it isn’t really the best film ever); the Mail had a splendid collection of ‘Classic British Films’ that included The Man In The White Suit, The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport To Pimlico; they also had a ‘Hollywood Icons’ series with the likes of The Elephant Man. You might have disagreed with a newspaper’s editorial stance on, say, the Iraq War but you still bought their paper for their free DVD!
It wasn’t just movies, it was TV. The Sun, for instance, gave away a load of Doctor Who DVDs, both original series and revival. One wonders what readers made of the William Hartnell episode Day Of Armageddon, part two of 1965’s ramshackle adventure The Daleks’ Masterplan. Other random examples: the Mail had Hi-de-Hi!, the News of the World Little Britain, and the Mirror Dad’s Army.
I have little idea what these giveaways did to circulations or how much profit they produced after the rights and production of the discs were factored in, although I imagine it was healthy until near the end when they disappeared (and this is an interesting Independent article on the subject from 2013). Apparently, in 2005, 130 million DVDs were given away free by British newspapers.
I’d love to meet someone who religiously collected these discs. They would have a solid library of movies, varied and unique, for not that much dosh. A scouring of charity shops can still reap rich rewards. In our hyper-woke era where movies on streaming services are increasingly edited for ‘problematic’ content, there’s something to be said for owning hard copies of many old films.
As quickly as the newspaper DVD craze arrived, it disappeared. It’s not a huge surprise why. The last decade has seen newspaper circulations continue to plummet, along with the number of physical DVDs purchased. It’s an incorrect, middle-class millennial thing to say “nobody buys newspapers any more”, but more and more people do get their news online and stream or download their movies. Digital destroys tactility. As newspapers had their budgets cut they could no longer risk taking on these promotions, but there was no point in doing so anyway: consumers, who were in smaller numbers, could get their flicks from their laptop, desktop or smart TV.
Like much we’ve lost, it’s a shame. Or does it only seem a shame because it is now part of the past? Isn’t it that we only mourn things when they are no more? Newspaper DVDs have almost become a new sort of collectable. For me, it’s somehow a special thrill to track down on eBay a movie that, yes, you could, if you wanted to, buy in its plastic box from when it had its official release, but is preferable (and often cheaper) in its given-away-in-newspapers/more-flimsy-format. The covers have their own version of the film’s imagery – admittedly it may not be a million miles away from ‘official’ imagery, but there are small differences, and such differences matter to collectors. They are easier to store than regular DVDs, and sometimes the print on the free discs was actually superior. In a strange sort of way, I think the film somehow becomes more alluring because they were chosen for a promotion – although maybe that is just me. Anyway, these discs will become more, not less, collectable – trust me.
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Many a cardboard DVD packet lies around our house – often emblazoned with the corporate branding of newspapers that were supposed to be banned in the household.
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