Once in a while, a movie comes along that is too entertainingly weird to let pass without comment. When that happens, The Huffington Post‘s Mike Ryan and I jump on GChat and then post the needlessly detailed, necessarily joke-filled results for your amusement. In this case, though, we’re not discussing a movie, but rather a brewing situation in the world of movies: the battle between physical media — of both the analog and digital varieties — and streaming. With over a thousand of titles vanishing from Netflix in a single day, are we too reliant on clouds and various other weather-on-the-Internet services for our viewing needs? And with streaming on the rise, why is it getting so freaking hard to watch a movie on DVD and Blu-ray?
Here’s our conversation. We welcome your feedback on these issues below.
Matt Singer: Mike, through a haze of mucus and antihistamine you tweeted something that caught my eye yesterday. You want to explain what happened? You were having some issues trying to watch a movie.
Mike Ryan: So, yes, I’ve been sick — a lot of sneezing — and have been home in bed for the last couple of days. All I wanted to do was watch a movie. Of course, it took over 30 minutes of software updates to my PlayStation 3 to get to that point. And, yes, I may have mentioned that I missed the simplicity of just popping in a VHS tape. (For lame comedic effect, I substituted Betamax for VHS in my tweet.) And keep in mind, I had just updated my software two weeks ago! I feel like I watch less and less Blu-rays because I have to go through this nonsense so often.
Singer: I hear you. At a time when Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and a million other sites are taking over, it is weird that is getting more and more difficult to watch things on physical media, not easier.
Ryan: Well, funny you say that. After the software ended, I had given up and just watched “House of Cards” on Netflix instead.
Singer: I have a PS3, and I’ve dealt with the exact same problems.
Ryan: It’s the only Blu-ray player I’ve ever owned. Is this not as much of a problem on other systems?
Singer: I don’t own any other Blu-ray players either. But I have to imagine nothing on earth has as many software updates as the PlayStation 3. There are NORAD weapons systems that are less frequently updated than the PS3 operating system. Plus, there are delays beyond the PS3-related ones. Once you finally put the Blu-ray in, it just loads. And loads. And loads. (And loads.) And loads. Then when it finally loads, there’s 20 minutes of unskippable trailers.
Ryan: I mean, to be fair, this isn’t a disc vs. tape debate. We didn’t go through this with DVD. At least on old DVD players.
Singer: True. This is an Internet connected versus not connected issue. Although if you get Netflix rental DVDs, which I still do, the unskippable trailers are an increasingly frustrating presence. And these are DVDs, not Blu-rays.
Ryan: I mean, I appreciate that we get updated software, but, my God, I feel like I go through it every time I want to watch anything.
Singer: Yup. And it’s worth noting the updates don’t just affect Blu-rays — they impact your ability to watch Netflix or Hulu or Amazon too.
Ryan: I have been watching an inordinate amount of “Friends” reruns as of late. As in, I’d rather just watch old syndicated episodes of “Friends” than deal with the rigamarole of turning on my Blu-ray player.
Singer: So while streaming is making its money on its instantaneousness, physical media is going in the opposite direction. Instead of giving you as quick a viewing experience as possible, they’re stretching things out even longer! You waited three days for the disc to arrive; now wait three minutes for some random loading screen followed by 9 trailers you can’t fast-forward. Mike, I’m not a smart man. But even I know these are bad ideas.
Ryan: You are at least moderately intelligent.
Singer: I am at best moderately intelligent.
Ryan: I don’t know. I’m the one watching “Friends.” Right now, I might add.
Singer: Ooh, which one? Is it the one where Ross says something adorably geeky?
Ryan: “The One With the Dozen Lasagnas.” It’s on TBS right now. I’d rather watch this than deal with my Blu-ray player. Honestly. I wrote a piece for Wired a couple of years ago about Blu-rays. Basically every expert I spoke with mentioned that they are just a stopgap.
Singer: Along the way to what? Total streaming?
Ryan: Most of them were touting UltraViolet as the future. I honestly think the studios are making discs more and more annoying just to get rid of them all together.
Singer: Interesting. We might call that plan “Operation: Qwikster.” But discs have been a huge source of revenue for studios. What are they going to do once they’re dead?
Ryan: They’ll just sell the UltraViolet download. Discs are cheap, sure. Files are even cheaper. And no shipping costs.
Singer: All good points. Here’s my concern. Are we then at the mercy of these companies? If I have a DVD of “Anchorman,” I have it forever. As long as I don’t, y’know, sit on the disc, it will presumably play for years or decades. If I buy access to a file of “Anchorman” on a cloud, what guarantee do I have that the company will keep offering that service? What if they go out of business? Or they decide it’s not profitable enough and decide to lay off the streaming employees?
Ryan: Right. But, that doesn’t stop us from buying music on iTunes. They could presumably pull the same trick.
Singer: True. But iTunes involves files you download. Cloud access makes me really nervous. As we’re discussing this, we’re hours away from this huge purge of titles from Netflix. They still stream thousands of movies, but all at once you’re losing access to tons of stuff over a rights deal. If I have an “Anchorman” DVD, I never have to worry about that.
Ryan: UltraViolet, or competitors like that, are different though. There, you’ve paid for that particular movie. Netflix, you’re paying for a service that provides movies. But with no guarantee any particular movie will be available. I feel that’s a big difference.
Ryan: Most of the studios are backing this.
Singer: But a lot of studios backed HD-DVD. And Betamax!
Ryan: Right, but Betamax and HD-DVD didn’t stop working.
Singer: They stopped being supported.
Ryan: But you’re worried that your UltraViolet movie might disappear.
Singer: Yes. I’m also worried the movie “Ultraviolet” with Milla Jovovich might disappear. But this is a different, less rational fear. Mike, when I was really little, my parents joined one of the very first private gyms in my area in New Jersey. And one day the owners of the gym just skipped town. People showed up to work out and the jokers had locked the doors and vanished with everyone’s membership dollars. And my parents were just out on their asses. I don’t want to be that guy, but for movies.
Ryan: Now, if I remember, something like this did happen. It was in direct competition with DVD at first, and it was supported by Circuit City. DIVX.
Ryan: It was more of a subscription service, and when Circuit City scrapped it, all of the people who bought a player were screwed. Now, let’s talk about your favorite subject, Betamax.
Singer: Did you like how I brought that up? Night schools don’t give associates degrees in segue studies to just anybody Mike.
Ryan: Boy, that was not a fun childhood growing up with Betamax. I remember my parents bringing home our first player. I was soooo excited. The first two movies we rented were “Christine” and the Rick Springfield vehicle, “Hard to Hold.”
Singer: That was Problem With Betamax #1 right there; “Access to Rick Springfield vehicles.” I never actually had Betamax. I don’t know if I even knew anyone who had it. It didn’t look any different than VHS, did it?
Ryan: No. I’ve seen it reported that Beta was better. I have no idea if that’s true.
Singer: I’ve heard that too. And that Beta lost the war because porn backed VHS.
Ryan: Stores at the time would have two copies of everything. One big VHS box and a small Beta box. Slowly, the small boxes started to disappear.
Singer: Except for the one for the Rick Springfield vehicle, “Hard to Hold.” That endured.
Ryan: I remember, sadly, calling around to video stores asking, “Do you rent Beta?” My mom recorded all of the newscasts from the Challenger explosion. “Someday we’ll want to remember this.” Two points: First: no, I would never want to watch that again. Second: I can’t anyway because she recorded it in Beta. But it’s not really a fair comparison to HD-DVD. Beta was a real thing for a few years.
Singer: I wonder; will we see a resurgence of VHS or Beta the way we have of vinyl?
Ryan: I feel I’ve heard about this.
Singer: You do see a little of it. Some folks, like Mondo, have sold VHS limited editions of titles that have kitchy ’80s connections. But that is like a niche on a niche on a niche.
Singer: Whereas vinyl in music is probably only a single niche. Plus, movie characters are constantly talking up vinyl to prove how sensitive and wise they are.
Ryan: Vinyl, though, is fun to display. I feel that’s part of the appeal. Not sure the same can be said about VHS. Do you, currently, own a VHS tape?
Singer: I do.
Ryan: How many? And of what?
Singer: I still have a bunch in my entertainment center. Most of the ones I kept are bootlegs (like “Harold & Maude”‘s Bud Cort in the forgotten “Son of Hitler”) or others I held onto for sentimental reasons or because they were the letterboxed version (like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which qualifies as both). What I don’t have, at present, is a working VCR. My last one broke a few years ago. Which sort of makes them a wee bit unuseful.
Ryan: I own the original “Star Wars” trilogy on VHS. Letterbox, before any upgrades. But, yes, I don’t own a VCR. To tell the truth, I couldn’t wait to unload my VHS tapes. I was the first person I knew who owned a DVD player. Bought one for $699.99 in December of 1997. I never owned a laserdisc player. My big thing was, “Something better will come along. Flipping these big discs is stupid.”
Singer: Yeah laserdiscs are fascinatingly unwieldy. I never owned any laserdiscs either, but I watched some at the library in college.
Ryan: Laserdiscs, I feel, should be like vinyl.
Singer: That’s interesting. They’re basically vinyl-sized and have big beautiful packaging. You’re right; they could work the same way. And they have to be flipped like vinyl, although in movies that’s a lot bigger deal than in music.
Ryan: And were targeted at movie lovers who wouldn’t put up with pan and scan. Put it this way: I never owned a laserdisc player. But I could see myself collecting laserdiscs before I collected VHS tapes.
Singer: It could happen. The Criterion Collection put out some amazing laserdiscs back in the day, for movies they’d never get the rights to again, like “Citizen Kane,” “Goldfinger,” and “Ghostbusters.” And they had extras that were sometimes never reprinted anywhere else. Maybe we should look into investing in these, Mike. Maybe I should delete this whole part of the transcript.
Ryan: I know. We should buy them all up, THEN write about how cool it is to collect them.
Singer: Yes, this might have been a miscalcuation. Guys, laserdics are totally uncool. AT THE MOMENT.
Ryan: A MONTH FROM NOW THEY WILL BE TOTALLY COOL, BUT NOT NOW! (I feel we are not the first humans to think of this.)
Singer: No, almost certainly not.
Ryan: And the best thing about laserdisc: no software downloads.