Supermarket Swept: The Demise Of The Impulse-Buy DVD

Does the decline of physical media sold in supermarkets also signal the end of the British ‘geezer’ movie?

The news that British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is to stop selling DVDs and CDs has been met with some wailing and ‘I told you so’ing about the death of physical media, something that has been talked about for a long time but now, suddenly, feels all the more imminent. But is it?

“Our customers increasingly go online for entertainment, so earlier this year we took the decision to gradually phase out the sale of DVDs and CDs so that we can dedicate extra space to food and popular products like clothing and homewares,” said a Sainsbury’s spokesperson, and fair enough – why would any shop continue to sell products that just weren’t selling? Curiously, the chain will continue to sell vinyl in its bigger stores, which – vinyl revival or not – seems a much more niche, expensive and less impulsive purchase – but then, perhaps vinyl now has a certain cool cache that shiny discs don’t. Unmentioned in the reports is what’ll happen to Blu-ray – but I rather suspect that the more expensive format was never a great supermarket seller and so will be joining its digital rivals in the obsolete bin.

Blu-ray has, truth be told, never quite made it past the niche stage – for certain labels, issuing what we might call ‘specialist’ films – arthouse, classic, genre and vintage titles – it is increasingly the only option for people who not only care very much about things like 4K restorations – something that I suspect is lost on your average punter – but also want fully-loaded edition packed with supplementary content. For the labels that specialise in such works – Arrow, Indicator, Severin, Second Sight and others – the market is probably fairly buoyant – I imagine they know just how many copies of anything they would expect to sell, budget accordingly and can probably carry on fairly indefinitely as long as there are people who want physical product in the best possible editions. Blu-ray has never become ‘cheap’ in the way that DVD did – you don’t find three or four public domain movie BD collections on sale in Poundland in the way you did with DVD. So in that sense, Blu-ray’s future feels oddly secure – like vinyl, it probably doesn’t sell that many copies in comparison to other formats, but there is a big enough market to sustain it for some time.

DVD, on the other hand, is – like the CD – caught in the middle. The Blu-ray purists consider DVD ‘unwatchable’ (of course, the biggest threat to the traditional BD is the rise of 4K – already, some people are including regular BDs in the ‘unwatchable’ category) while the average punter is content with streaming services – if the era of MP3 downloads taught us anything, it’s that most people are more concerned with convenience than quality. It might also be worth considering that the DVD era was something of an anomaly – a time when people were increasingly made to buy films rather than rent them. Most people who are not enthusiasts don’t actually want libraries of movies, and most just want to watch the latest releases. They have no interest in classic titles or obscure movies, and so for them, Netflix and Amazon Prime are more than enough. They have no concerns about the fact that titles disappear from streaming services with depressing regularity because they are not interested in those films to begin with. As long as the film that played cinemas a few months ago is there, they’re happy.

For the collector, it makes little difference if the supermarkets no longer stock discs. It’s not as though you could buy a Blu-ray of Shogun’s Joys of Torture in Sainsbury’s anyway. for the fans of blockbusters, it doesn’t matter either – those films will appear on assorted streaming services or, if you actually want a physical copy, are easily available. The labels issuing those films will not be affected by this. But there is another sort of film that is definitely going to suffer if DVDs leave the supermarket shelves.

For several years, the mainstay of the British film industry has been the low-budget ‘geezer’ movie and its related offshoots. The red-headed stepchild of British film, these movies are as far removed from the respectable BFI and Film Four-funded movies that we are supposed to appreciate as you could get. Shot quickly and cheaply, they sell on the basis of a snappy title, cover art that is generic enough to not seem threatening and a few name stars – Danny Dyer, Ian Ogilvy and assorted blokes who are not exactly household names but who are recognisable stars to fans of this sort of thing. These are movies that have, famously, sold mostly in the supermarkets, often thrown in the shopping basket alongside the groceries. For the people behind these films, like legendary producer Jonathan Sothcott of Shogun Films, losing this market is a definite concern.

“It is very disappointing, particularly as my last film Nemesis performed strongly in Sainsbury’s”, he tells me. “The market has been declining for at least the last decade but I have really noticed it in the last two years. However, there are other factors – many of the mid-range indie distributors like Revolver, Anchor Bay and Metronome who really promoted their home entertainment releases heavily have fallen away, leaving either the studios – who are not interested in this product – tiny Indies with limited/no marketing budgets or Signature who seem to have the sector sown up. If distributors won’t promote the films with ad campaigns on TV, posters etc, the market is entirely reliant on casual purchase and social media. The collapse of the physical market isn’t the end of the British geezer movie, but the market is 5-10% of what it was a decade ago.”

The casual purchase was where the supermarkets became essential for these small maverick producers. As Sothcott says: “I think commercial indie films with recognisable casts worked so well in grocers because they are easy purchases at the right price – under a tenner and if it has faces on the cover you recognise, you know it’ll be a proper film. HMV is more of a specialist retailer – it has always been the aficionado store with vinyl, blu ray etc. My ‘geezer movies’ do very little business there as they are all mainstream and rarely get blu ray releases. If someone could get their DVDs stacked in Lidl or Aldi (especially my kind of films) I think they’d be laughing.”

Now, it’s possible – likely, even – that many people reading this will be scoffing and not giving a damn about the possible demise of films like The Rise and Fall of a White Collar Hooligan, We Still Kill The Old Way or assorted stories about Essex Boys. But that’s pretty short-sighted. Do we really want a British film industry like the one we had in the 1980s and 1990s, where there was nothing but agit-prop socialist dramas, costume dramas about the idle rich and turgid domestic comedies, all made by the same handful of approved filmmakers? A healthy film industry needs a variety of titles, and these ‘geezer’ movies clearly served an audience. We would not have a healthier film industry if everything had to get past the gatekeepers of the broadcasters and funding bodies.

For Sothcott and others, the decline of physical media for a certain audience and supplier means having to try to reinvent what they do. “I made the decision about 18 months ago to stop making films for the UK market alone and focus on more international genre fare, specifically action as that is what buyers are looking for” he says, but of course the global market is both more crowded and more fickle. The ‘geezer’ movie was a cheap and cheerful product that was oddly specific in its appeal, and an industry was built on making what could almost be described as throwaway movies – discs picked up on a whim during the weekly shop, enjoyed over a weekend and then forgotten about. That’s not a bad thing – not every movie has to be ‘important’, and as we know only too well, yesterday’s trash is today’s collectable classic. Who are we to say that the Sothcott films – and those of his rivals – won’t be rediscovered and appreciated by future generations? If generic 1980s horror can be now hailed as classic cinema, it doesn’t seem at all unlikely.

For filmmakers like Sothcott though, the present is uncertain. For him, the future seems to be less physical and more in throwing his lot in with cause of his woes. “One thing I have noticed really works now is Sky – both Sky Store and Sky Movies. I guess they are the new casual purchase option, especially during lockdown.” Whether VOD, with the sheer quantity of product available, will ever quite match the success of the supermarket sales is anyone’s guess – but there is probably no other choice right now.

VOD has its place, and perhaps for this kind of film it will ultimately be the natural home. Should physical media finally wither and die entirely though, we would lose more than we gain. That shiny disc on your shelf? You own that film – in that version – for as long as it survives and there is equipment to play it on. VOD is subject to licenses, whims, changing tastes, government censorship and collapsing businesses, and it seems foolhardy to allow it to become our only option.

DAVID FLINT

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3 comments

  1. Not every vintage movie deserves a 4K or even 2K restoration, and many are available on DVD in excellent condition, although I prefer NTSC imports to avoid ‘PAL speed-up’ (Fabulous Films seems to encode its DVDs at the correct speed, so thumbs-up to them).

    I’ve enjoyed a number of Jonathan’s ‘geezer movies’, and they’ve hit the spot like a late-night burger. Great character actors, plenty of action, cheesy dialogue — exactly what it says on the box. I really hope he’s able to keep producing physical copies of his films, since I don’t stream and have no intention of starting.

  2. The British film establishment never will see the value of a genre movie bought on impulse from a supermarket, it goes against all their deeply engrained beliefs. Which is what makes these films’ existence entirely necessary. They will never have their own category at the BAFTAs. Independent, sure. Low budget, no problem. But socially conscious self importance only please, not some grubby exercise in entertainment for its own sake.
    However, I’m torn on this one. The explosion in the sheer quantity of films seeing daylight now compared with two decades ago makes me crave a bit of a purge on the grounds of quality. But movies with threadbare ideas/appeal come just as much from big budget producers as cheap chancers.
    Are people abandoning supermarket DVDs because of Netflix or because they’ve seen the same rehashed/amateurish horror or geezer movie too many times?

    1. I think the point is that ALL DVDs and Blus are selling less in supermarkets now because there are other options to just watch something on a whim – that includes both blockbusters and Geezer movies.
      I agree there has been overkill – how many Essex Boys movies do we need? But I’d rather have endless generic crime films than return to the 1980s when British cinema was just a handful of films approved by chin-strokers – movies ABOUT the great unwashed rather than FOR them – and restricted to a handful of directors who would get financing for anything they wanted to make from assorted funding bodies.

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