On March 10, 1933 something remarkable happened – the film The Crooked Circle was broadcast, in its entirety, on television. While only around six Los Angeles households could pick up the transmission, this bold experiment was a watershed moment. Never before had anyone been able to watch a whole feature film at home. In 1956, The Wizard of Oz became the first truly major film to become a fixture on TV screens in the United States, and many others would follow. But as more and more households in the developed world acquired TV sets and broadcasts of films became the norm, film fans were still constricted by scheduling and could not own film recordings.
That finally changed in the mid-1970s with the next major development in the history of home film viewing: the launch of the analogue videocassette formats Betamax (in 1975) and VHS (in 1976). VHS eventually won the famous videocassette format war, and became the basis for countless rental stores and personal film collections around the world: “home video” as we know it became a reality. It took until the late 1990s for the Digital Versatile Disc or DVD to begin to supplant VHS as the dominant format. The advantages of the digital discs, which had beaten off competition from the analogue LaserDisc format, make it practical for TV series to be released on home video for the first time. DVD is of course very much still with us 20 years later, being the dominant physical format outside Japan.
Right now is a very interesting and important time in the history of home video. The Blu Ray disc is the current physical format and as of June, will have been commercially available for ten years. However, Sony's format has never achieved the market penetration of DVD and is increasingly seen as a niche technology for hardcore film fans. There are a number of reasons for this: the high initial cost of Blu Ray discs and players and the declining interest in owning a film collection are significant, but the inexorable rise of video-on-demand (VOD) and streaming services is by far the most important factor. Today, these services are the main or even only way that millions of people consume film at home. However, there are at least five good reasons why Blu Ray is not dead, and indeed why it may just be coming into its own.
One: You Actually Own a Blu Ray
Technically, this is more a shortcoming of streaming services than it is an advantage of Blu Ray per se. When you buy a disc, you know that you can watch it at any time you choose. This is rarely true on VOD and streaming services, which are affected by esoteric, behind-the-scenes licensing deals. Your favourite film be available on Netflix in the US, but not in the UK; or, it might be available for only a specific period of time before they disappear. Worse still, the library of films available on these services (which is of course only a tiny fraction of existing films) is divided across a multitude of competing platforms. If you can't afford to subscribe to them all, you're going to miss out. While Blu Ray discs can be subject to regional restrictions – like DVDs before them – region-free players are easily available and region-free discs are increasingly common.
Two: Blu Ray Discs Are Collectible
Part of the joy of every physical format is the ability to collect and display a library of films. While the standard Blu Ray keep case lacks the visual pull of a LaserDisc sleeve or vinyl LP, more and more distributors are produce new discs in attractive and collectible packaging. The most obvious example is steelbook releases, which have long existed for DVDs and are now a big part of Blu Ray collecting. Large and small distributors alike have produced excellent steelbook releases of 1970s samurai films to the latest blockbusters. For those with deeper pockets, even more elaborate releases are available – for a recent example, see Arrow Video's very impressive three-disc release of Bride of Re-Animator.
Three: Blu Ray Encourages Film Restoration
The emergence of Blu Ray and its high-definition video and sound has produced a major new stimulus for the re-release and restoration of older films. Every previous physical format has been a pale substitute for catching a film in the cinema, but Blu Ray enables us to see films as they should be seen. Again, Arrow Video have produced some of the best releases of recent years. Their version of the magnificent 1967 spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse looks and sounds stunning and they have worked with directors such as Michael Mann on new transfers of their films. More recent films have also benefited enormously from the format's technical advantages – the original DVD releases of The Matrix were long used as a source of reference audio, but the Blu Ray release is even more acclaimed for its brilliant visuals and sound. Another impact of the latest generation of film releases on Blu Ray is a wave of new special features, produced by both major and independent distributors.
Four: Blu Ray Has Untapped Technical Potential
Blu Ray is, without a doubt, the ultimate format for cinema outside of actual theatrical projection. The high-definition video and audio on the best releases is unparalleled, and can only improve as studios continually improve their methods and produce new releases. Indeed, the format is still growing in capacity with the advent of 3D discs a few years ago and the first 4K Ultra HD discs in March this year. While some argue that 4K is a redundant step too far, there is definitely a lot more than can be done to take advantage of Blu Ray's interactive special features capability. Certain releases have already included picture-in-picture video commentaries and other advanced features; unfortunately, these are likely only to be implemented by the big Hollywood studios due to their complexity.
Five: Blu Ray is More Affordable Than Ever
Upon their original release in 2006, Blu Ray discs and players were prohibitively expensive for many people. This is commonly the case with new technologies, but with Blu Ray the costs fell particularly slowly and this damaged the uptake of the format. Today, however, Blu Ray is a much more financially viable prospect. Search carefully and brand-new discs can sometimes be picked up for as little as £3, and there are some superb value box sets available. MGM, for example, have produced a set of Sergio Leone's western masterpieces A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) which can be found for around £9 and which includes the very latest remaster of the latter film. Additionally, because Blu Ray is now a mature format, a sizeable second-hand market has developed which is another source of affordable discs. Finally, there is the option of renting: Amazon still maintain their LoveFilm service, which makes available virtually every Blu Ray released in the UK at a very reasonable monthly rate.
Yes, streaming may be the future and Blu Ray may be a comparatively small niche. But for the reasons above, it's a niche I'm sure to be a part of a long while yet – and I won't be alone.
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
[All Letterboxd Reviews]