Let’s not write off old-school physical media just yet.
Today, I received a press release – I won’t bother saying for what – that stated that the DVD was dead, with “no more support at retail for the format or end-user demand”. That is, of course, the widely perceived wisdom about the once-dominant format, now caught in a crush between Blu-ray on the one side and streaming/downloads on the other. But is it true?
I checked the figures and yes, they are sobering. In 2018, DVD sales were at just 10% of the US home entertainment market with combined sales of $2.2 billion, a sizeable drop from the format’s peak of 64% and $16.3 billion. This has been a slow decline since 2008, one put down to various factors – not least of which was a global recession that probably made DVDs feel like a bit of an unnecessary luxury for many people and we can assume that the numbers dropped further during the pandemic when shops were closed and casual purchases were impossible.
People have put this decline down to various factors outside the recession. Some will claim that the rise of Blu-ray has made the DVD redundant. “No one still buys DVD” is a cry I hear regularly from the cult movie scene – and if we are talking about specialist labels like Arrow, Criterion, Blue Underground and the like, then that’s probably true. But outside the audience that constantly wants the best version available – and immediately declares the previous best versions ‘unwatchable’ when a new format comes along – things are very different. We should note that sales of Blu-ray during 2018 were $1.8 billion, less than DVD by some distance (especially as Blu-rays are generally more expensive than DVDs and so we can’t even assume like-for-like in terms of numbers of discs sold). For some reason, Blu-ray enthusiasts get really angry when you point this out but it’s unfortunately true – and what’s more, the Blu-ray market at its peak (2013) was only worth $2.37 billion – barely more than the format that we are now told is dead.
The sad truth is that Blu-ray has always been a niche format – despite what collectors might tell them, most people simply don’t see a big enough difference in picture quality to see the need to upgrade to a more expensive format. Similarly, most people probably don’t want to own that many films – so of course the advent of streaming services was going to bite into the sales of physical media. Given that you are reading The Reprobate, I probably don’t need to tell you the downside of not owning your content – the fact that it can vanish or be edited at the whim of the distributor perhaps being the biggest. The fact that it might never make it to streaming services because it is too old and too offensive is perhaps less of an issue with the move of niche labels into streaming – but of course, once those labels’ licences for these films expire, so the film is lost.
The big question is: will DVD and Blu-ray (and UHD, which is even more niche) take up a similar position to vinyl and CD, two formats equally written off over the years but both still surviving (and, in the case of vinyl, thriving as a collector’s format)? If a couple of billion proves to be the bottom line for the sale of these formats (and again: I don’t have post-pandemic figures to hand), then that’s not a figure to be sniffed at – there still seems a financial motive for most distributors to carry on releasing films on the formats, even if the variety of films might vary according to which format and the number of labels issuing discs might diminish. If we have learned anything from those other physical media formats once declared dead, it is that there will always be a core audience that wants to own their content and there will be money to be made from supplying them.
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