Editorial: When DVD Goes On The Rocks?

Posted on June 15, 2012 by Ben

by Keri O’Shea

At the time of writing, one of the things which really distinguishes horror fans from everyone else, regardless of how they look, where they are and what else they do, is the fact that they’re collectors. Often, they’re serious collectors. Come to our houses, and you’ll likely see shelves weighed down with stacks and stacks of movies. Fellow fans will be impressed; non-fans will look at you ever after as if you’re insane, but the fact is that having these personal movie libraries matters a hell of a lot to many of us.

The format of these collections has, of course, changed through the years. Some people are still full-on aficionados of VHS, and reserve pride-of-place for the rarest and best which they can get their hands on. There’s a rare pleasure to be had from VHS, to be sure. Nostalgia for the days when many of us discovered the joys of film for the first time not only makes it easier to forget that there were a lot of problems with this format, but in fact, there are folk out there for whom the frustrations of banding, fogging, and dodgy tracking are now fondly regarded to the point where there’s a film festival here in the UK which will be showing some of its horror films on video cassettes. The US has some similar events going on this year too. Say ‘video nasty’ to anyone visiting this site and they’ll be able to talk to you about the phenomenon. Fact is, however ‘obsolete’ a medium becomes, there are people who will always love it regardless. Having these things, these artefacts – finding them, buying them, swapping them – is all part of the fun. Not everyone has enough literal and metaphorical space in their lives for all the different formats, though…

When DVD was born in 1995, some committed collectors put their cassettes safely aside, but many abandoned their VHS libraries as enthusiastically as they’d built them up, and over the next few years moved over to the new format. But, whether people ditched video or not, DVD certainly meant interesting things for cult film. The word ‘revolutionary’ gets overused, but this new format really was something; for starters, it was a triumph of collaboration, a compromise between interested companies which headed off another format war similar to the Betamax vs. VHS débâcle of the 1970s and 1980s. And, for those of us with, shall we say, more ‘niche tastes’, DVD offered a new wave of optimism: suddenly, it looked like we could expect unprecedented quality, and the accessibility of films which we thought were lost, or at least, which we thought would only ever be available to us on cassette.

The new scope for smaller labels and specialisms meant that new generations of fandom could emerge, and we suddenly stood a chance at seeing films which had hitherto been known to us only by reputation, or via tantalising stills in horror tomes. Companies like Mondo Macabro, for example, could let us glimpse into filmmaking scenes in parts of the world where we had no idea they existed; Tartan Films really swung into action on the DVD front, giving many of us our first experience of what they termed ‘Asia Extreme’ cinema, and I believe you could make an argument that their efforts to bring the films of the Far East to such wide audiences in the West actually helped to change the face of horror in our times. Whether you were enthusiastic or more dubious about the new-fangled DVD technology, you have to admit, it opened up a brave new world of cult cinema.

Nothing stands still, though. Sad evidence of this is that the aforementioned Tartan Films closed their doors back in 2008. No sooner had DVD established itself as the medium of choice, than a new format was around the corner – which turned out to be Blu-ray, after a format war did take place this time. To date, the uptake of Blu-ray hasn’t been as sharp as DVD, but it’s certainly a medium which is growing in popularity (just look at some of the recent glowing reviews here at Brutal as Hell) and, whilst DVDs are still being made, the market is being pulled in several different directions these days, with Blu-ray surely one of the factors behind it. Whilst I haven’t made the leap to the new format, many of you have, and have become as passionate about building your Blu-ray collections as you formerly were your DVD collections. However, many of you whom I have spoken to have begun to jettison your DVDs now, just as you did your videos before that. As there still exists something of a divide between what gets a DVD, and what gets a Blu-ray release, it may be that some of the DVDs you have now passed on will never get a release to the newer, currently more exclusive format. In scaling down horror collections by opting only for Blu-ray releases, it’s possible that a lot of movies which benefited by the initial enthusiasm which saw a lot of obscurities get a DVD release will just… disappear again.

Of course, the sheer scale of competition in DVD-land is unprecedented. It’s never been harder for genre films which couldn’t hope to get a Blu-ray release to find their audience, and for a variety of reasons, great films seem to miss out on a release whilst derivative fare makes it out there, again and again. This is frustrating, but it’s only part of our changing picture…because these days, we have the possibility of streaming and downloading too…

The growth of broadband, the rise and rise of consoles which can handle multi-tasking between games and movies and the increase in means for accessing films via the internet – illegally or otherwise – is surely another kick in the guts for the ever-depreciating DVD market (and isn’t necessarily good news for Blu-ray, come to that). Speaking of downloading, I’m always surprised at the prevalence of illegal downloading amongst people who consider themselves film fans, or the outrage that anyone would seek to limit this type of theft by legal means. Of course filmmakers deserve protection. Information sharing is one thing, but illegally downloading movies means that the author of that particular film is circumvented, any financial returns for them all but wiped out. Will it ‘raise their profile’? Possibly, but it won’t generate enough capital to allow them to make another film and might make it next to impossible that they even get to add their release to the already-swarming market – and the market matters. You need cash to make movies. If you’re not able to make movies, then what use is a profile, anyway? From my point of view, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a hard-up director or writer tweet that their movie – the movie they re-mortgaged their house and lost their wife over – has hit the torrent sites before its release.

This bullshit hurts fans and filmmakers alike, and inevitably exerts an extra pressure on the already-stretched movie scene we purport to love. Sure, legit streaming options such as Netflix – which at present accounts for 20%-30% of US internet traffic at peak times – at least give something back to filmmakers, but you’d better believe they can be punitive, and we can expect a lot of upheaval in this corner of the market over the next few years. Already things are shifting again. Netflix will flounder, then something else more profitable will take its place, and so on. And, if we’re seeing the Wars of the Roses over there, what do you think it might mean for horror and genre fans? The best case scenario is that a committed group of fans within these upcoming companies enshrine a dynamic group of new and classic horror/genre films within their books and preserve this mentality. Or, they might not. It might be the last thing on their minds. And if they don’t – if market pressures steer them towards more big-budget fare – you will need your own collections, else you will get very little say in what you see.

Of course streaming movies has its place, but what I would say to those of you out there is this: take your time. To me, the flux we’re seeing currently means it’s even more important that we keep a hold of our own libraries, both for expediency as well as out of a love for it; there’s always been something of the risk that guys in suits who have nothing in common with us get to choose what we see, but the increased downward pressure of our current situation could mean that a lot of the rarities disappear again. Keep them on your shelves, folks, and keep adding to your collections, because if movies ever start to move over to streaming releases only, we’ll have nothing to collect, and nothing to show for our passion. Make the most of the options we have, because we are living – as the saying goes – in ‘interesting times’.