The notion of having a vast film collection – that classic marker of the cinephile – is slowly becoming extinct. It’s a necessary reminder of how fleeting the idea of value can be: that bulky stack of plastic cases, which took years and dollars to assemble, is fast becoming irrelevant with the technological changes around the corner. At the click of a button or tab, those life-changing movies can be summoned to the screen on-demand, while those once-beloved slipcases sit dusty and unwanted. It happened with the demise of CDs and the rise of digital music libraries, and now cinema is in the digital revolution’s tradition-upending sights…
This change has been slowly emerging over the last few years, but a recent study by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was shared by news sites yesterday, has provided some solid, telling data. It says that electronic home video – i.e. downloading and streaming – will overtake physical box office sales by 2016. Eventually, with the report estimating 2017, these on-demand methods will take up the largest share of all film revenue, eclipsing even theatrical box office totals.
Tales from the video store, in 'Clerks' (1994).
Once upon a time, our primary source of film was whatever was playing on new release. Now, the options for entertainment are numerous, and particularly with the rise of quality long-form TV, staying at home and kicking back with a box-set binge can be more preferable than the traditional cinematic experience. As seen here, these trends are now being reflected in the numbers, and the whole film industry seems to be restructuring itself to take advantage of these new methods of consumption.
The companies and stakeholders in this change are betting that all the cash you may have been spending on Blu-rays and DVDs…will thankfully just be funneled into more Netflix subscriptions. But the problem is that the TV on-demand system can’t currently cater to the more dedicated film fan. The emergence of DVD was a game-changer because it democratised our access to film – suddenly, almost everything was available, in sharp editions free of VHS-tape grain and rewinding. Now, the carefully curated, commercially oriented designs of Netflix threaten to send us back to a time when we were dictated what we could watch.
With the omnipresence of social media in our lives, shaping our persona, and communicating an attractive image of ourselves is more important than ever. We're increasingly defined, to onlookers, by what we share on Facebook and Twitter, what interests we might place on a dating site profile, or how we market ourselves in a work-professional sense. We wear our tastes like badges on a blazer. Traditionally, the lovingly looked-after, bountiful stack of films or records in our living spaces fulfilled this role – a real precursor to these online trends. Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ is a great example of the envy and value-judgments this awareness could take: I’m thinking of the passage where the main character Rob is snooping on a dinner host’s CD racks out of sight, acting all sniffy about the Pink Floyd and U2 records, and feeling smug about his own taste. Come on, we’ve surely all been there?
"It's the best collection I've ever seen," says John Cusack in a scene from the film 'High Fidelity'.
So my question is what this means when our DVD-stack pyramids are obliterated for the celestial jukebox in the cloud, the virtual shelves-upon-shelves of Spotify or Netflix? When you take away these hulking symbols of our taste, what are we? Will we parade what we like through ‘I’ve just watched this’ social media updates, or is the notion of communicating through your media-loves as dead as a dusty Betamax?
Follow David on Twitter: @david_katz