Written for Jasmine Trice’s Film and Society: Exhibition and Moviegoing course (FTV 219), this paper examines the effects of technological changes, specifically in the realm of home video, on audience access to cinematographic works. In particular, I analyze the tangibility of physical media and the notion of ownership that it provides, in contrast to the intangibility of streaming media.
In September 2015, Drew McWeeny wrote an article about the 1990 Bill Murray film Quick Change. Unable to find his DVD copy, McWeeny describes the film as “largely unavailable” and not “especially easy to find at the moment.” He describes its elusiveness thusly:
But there’s no Blu-ray. It’s not on Netflix. It’s available on VUDU, which is where I’ll end up buying it if I have to. The idea that this is now just a digital file, something that you can’t [own] in the physical sense, makes me so nervous. It really does. Films can just go away now. If you don’t have it archived physically in various places, it’s not really in circulation. If [it] can just drop off of Netflix, out of retail outlets completely, then did “Quick Change” really happen?1
McWeeny’s worry illustrates a burgeoning anxiety about access to movies felt by viewers accustomed to what Daniel Herbert calls “the ‘tangible phase’ of consumer video,” which was exemplified by the the rental and purchase of physical copies of movies, primarily on VHS and DVD, and the presence of the video store as the central location of those movies’ circulation.2 Quick Change’s perceived unavailability, for McWeeny, encompasses format changes (DVD being superseded by Blu-ray and streaming video), the challenge of navigating multiple streaming services, the disappearance of dependable video stores, and the intangibility of digital movie viewing.
These issues, real and perceived, represent significant implications of the rise of the “intangible” phase of consumer video in which streaming is prominent. In order to attempt to make sense of what a streaming-dominated era of movie access means, it is beneficial to examine the significance of the “tangible phase” itself, in particular how tangibility reshaped notions of accessibility of moving-image content and how viewers related to that content.
As Herbert notes, the intangibility of digital video viewing in the present day is not a new phenomenon. Before consumer video — that is, until around the late 1970s — the primary way to see a film was at a public screening or through a television broadcast, “fleeting but memorable experiences.” (An exception to this was the distribution of small-gauge — 16mm or 8mm, for example — copies of films for home use, but this was far more limited than home video would become, and will not be discussed here.3) “From the late 1970s until the early 2000s, movies were videos,” Herbert writes, and during this time “movies were accessed largely as material objects…”4 Tangible home home video bridged the gap between the 20th- and 21st-century intangible viewing modes, its evolution redefining access at each step of the way.
The revolutionary effect of home video was first exemplified by its introduction as a disruptive technology. When Betamax, Sony’s consumer videocassette technology, was first sold, it was advertised as a means by which viewers could record television programs, thus taking control over what they could watch and when they could watch it out of the hands of network programmers.5 “What power!” advertised Sony in 1975.6 While power over content and scheduling previously lay with the exhibitors of television, video technology enabled viewers to construct their own content curation. As videotape grew into a movie distribution format as well, viewers’ power to curate content on their own expanded into the realm of film, thus challenging the absolute authority of repertory programmers over film curation. George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog, Marketing at Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, remembers going out of his way during childhood in order to see rare screenings or television broadcasts of particular films that, at the time, the average viewer could not watch in any other capacity outside of that particular exhibition. He cites that experience as a motivation for his work to make Warner’s deep-catalog titles available on home video through the Warner Archive Collection (WAC).7
In offering movies as a tangible consumer product, early video distributors pushed viewers’ consumption of movies into the realm of retail.8 Although viewers had already been able to watch movies in their home via television (albeit with commercial interruptions) for some time already, now they could own copies of movies to watch whenever they pleased. While movie studios at first sold movies on video at steep prices not conducive to a “sell-through” market, the “doctrine of first sale,” meaning that someone who purchases a product containing a copyrighted work (e.g., a movie) is able to resell or lend out the product without fear of copyright infringement, allowed video stores to rent out the videotapes that they purchased. This made the rental model of video stores prevalent for a time.9 The application of first-sale doctrine to physical video rental is important to remember, since it provides a significant distinction between physical rental and streaming, which follows a different legal paradigm, one closer to that of television broadcast licensing.10
The proliferation of movies on home video offered an unprecedented array of titles for viewers to choose from, spanning classics and new releases. By the mid-1980s, the average video store carried over 2,000 titles. When the Blockbuster chain rose to prominence with its “superstore” model, most of its individual stores carried about 10,000 titles each.11 For comparison, the U.S. Netflix library currently has just over 7,000 titles available for streaming.12
The advent of DVD as a primary mode of video distribution affected video viewership and consumption in multiple ways. First, its cheapness to manufacture allowed studios to sell DVDs to consumers at more affordable prices than they had with VHS, and as a result, the video sell-through market outpaced the video rental market by 2001.13 Second, DVD offered a higher pictorial resolution than VHS did. During the VHS era, many of the movies available in the format were cropped so that the picture would fit the shape of television sets. The increased resolution of DVD allowed viewers to be more demanding about quality and source fidelity, leading to the prominence of widescreen transfers of movies that had been shown theatrically in widescreen aspect ratios. Consumer demand for quality and correct aspect ratios necessitated studios to make new, high-quality scans of their movies for DVD releases. Since these scans cost more than the “pan-and-scan” VHS transfers, studios did not find it cost-effective to scan or re-scan as many titles in higher quality as they had scanned during the age of VHS. Numerous titles that had been available on VHS did not reappear in higher-quality formats as high-definition video appeared and VHS’s presence decreased.14 The decrease of the rental market and the end of widespread VHS distribution converged, rendering relatively inaccessible those titles that had not made the digital jump.
At the time of Greenberg’s writing, in 2008, streaming of movies had emerged, but physical media, namely DVDs, were still prevalent. By 2014, when Herbert’s book was published, streaming had become prominent. The rise of the “intangible phase” of consumer video has, as mentioned above, raised questions regarding numerous issues of audience access to content in the presence of new interfaces. These issues will be discussed below.
During the heyday of the video rental business, the video store was a primary space in which viewers sought out content. Viewers had the ability to physically browse titles on the shelves and to receive guidance and recommendations from store clerks. The opportunities for doing so now are more scarce as retail has increasingly moved to the more impersonal realm of the Internet, where movies are often intangible. When searching for titles to stream, and even when shopping for DVDs on a Web site such as Amazon, recommendations are now made by computer algorithms. At present, says Feltenstein, movies on physical media are still accessible to consumers, but “what we’ve lost is the ability to go to a store and shop for them…the ability to browse and discover is just not effective online.”15
Digital streaming brings the viewing of movies back into intangibility and, to a certain extent, ephemerality. McWeeny articulates the anxiety that accompanies this shift: viewers who understand watching movies as necessitating interaction with a physical copy have the notions of power they developed during the tangible period challenged by streaming. If a movie does not exist in the form of a physical object, McWeeny says, then it is essentially not circulating. (It is worth noting that at this time, Quick Change is available to rent or purchase via high-definition streaming on Amazon.) When the physical element is removed from movie retail, the idea that a viewer can “own a movie” becomes much less secure. It is possible, though, to purchase a digital download of a movie from an entity like Amazon or iTunes, whereupon the digital copy of that movie exists on the purchaser’s hard drive.
Another issue affecting viewers’ access to streaming video is the number of platforms offering different material. Navigating multiple services like Netflix and Hulu, with smaller companies like Fandor also offering their own sets of content, somewhat resembles an intangible variation of the “format wars” of physical media — the rivalry between VHS and Betamax, the advents of Laserdisc and DVD, the high-definition competition between Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Streaming content providers competing for subscriptions also brings to mind the multiple offerings of cable television providers. Although there are differences between cable networks and streaming services, chief among them for access concerns being that streaming providers’ content is less bound by schedule constraints than television’s, there is an important connection between streamed programming and television programming, and that is the way content is licensed. While studios license their content for distribution on DVD and Blu-ray through their home video departments, they license their content to streaming services according to the paradigm of licensing for television. Thus, while WAC, part of Warner’s home video department, can release a title on DVD or Blu-ray and make the discs available for sale for as long as it wants, it can stream certain titles for only a limited amount of time, since Warner uses its standard of licensing content to television for allowing its content to stream.16
In that example lies another insecurity of accessing movies through streaming: that access is often temporary. If a person owns a copy of a movie or has access to a video store that owns a copy, then that person’s access to that movie is, in theory if not practice, permanent. However, studios’ licenses with streaming services end, and content ceases to be available from those services on a regular basis, as the monthly appearance of articles listing the titles about to leave Netflix demonstrates. Cloud storage is also ephemeral. Titles purchased and stored in a user’s cloud account, rather than downloaded, are liable to disappear if the provider of the cloud service stops hosting those titles or shuts down its business. In effect, this is not different from the case of the video store, whose physical presence during its period of operation gives the illusion of permanence. A video store, operating based on the doctrine of first sale, can hypothetically offer a movie for rental forever, but in fact its ability to provide the movie is limited to the lifetime of the copy and the lifetime of the store. The closure of a video store can effectively end access to an out-of-print title for the customers of that store.
The discrepancy between what has been released on physical media and what is available to stream carries implications for consumer access. Lauren Carroll Harris notes that the diminishing presence of video rental, coupled with increasing dependence on streaming, leads to “what we might call an access gap: a lack of availability on convenient viewing outlets.” If a movie is not available to stream, a viewer who wants to watch that movie but does not have access to a video store or library carrying it is left with only the option of purchasing that movie from an entity like Amazon, or even directly from the title’s distributor, which is the case concerning the film Harris uses as her example, Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide. Harris describes this situation as “anachronistic” and “a ridiculously twentieth-century state of affairs,” indicating frustration toward a cultural and technological transition in which the intangible video market has failed to catch up to where the tangible video market once was.17
The access gap that Harris articulates has two implications. One is economic: purchasing the title may involve a financial investment that the viewer does not wish to make. The rental market provided, as the streaming market similarly provides, viewer access to a large number of titles at a relatively cost-effective price. Having to purchase more titles in order to see them, however, comes at a greater financial cost, and that predicament is one consequence of the post-rental access gap. The other implication of the access gap is cultural and historical. Harris notes:
[Netflix’s] present geographically based digital rights system means High Tide is not available to Australian Netflix viewers. This forms part of a bigger problem: we’re in a situation whereby Netflix is now critical in enabling or preventing films from slipping in and out of distribution – and, thus, the canon and the national conversation.18
Although Harris is writing specifically about movie history and the movie industry in Australia, her point about access limitations affecting the canon in the digital age is relevant in the United States as well, and it is not unique to the digital age, although it is particularly noticeable amid the current changes. “With every new shift in media technology…huge numbers of films are lost,” writes Anthony Kaufman. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “What becomes canonized is what’s available, which has always been the case.”19 Since the shift in video distribution from tangible to digital has lead to an access gap affecting availability, the nature of how the canon will be affected is in question. The uncertainty of licensing content to streaming providers and the shape that rights arrangements will take is a large factor in determining what will be available in a digital future, although, to augment Harris’s assessment, the rights holders of content have just as important a role in shaping digital access as companies like Netflix do.
In the context of the precedent that Kaufman discusses of films falling out of accessibility with each change in primary consumption technology, it is important to consider the sorts of titles unique to the tangible phase that are at risk of disappearing in the age of digital distribution. Most at risk are titles that were released on formats like VHS and not subsequently re-scanned for DVD or Blu-ray. Because of the increased consumer demand for high picture and sound quality in the post-VHS era and the high cost of making new scans and digital restorations, those titles are among the least likely to be revived of the material that could be found in video stores. (Amazon, interestingly, offers VHS-quality presentations of some of these titles, such as Henri Helman’s Where Is Parsifal? and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Success Is the Best Revenge, on its Instant streaming service.) VHS-only titles were pushed toward obscurity within the major video store chains as DVD became the dominant format.20 Specialty video stores like Kim’s in New York City, Vidiots in Santa Monica, CA, and Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, continued to carry VHS copies of obscure titles like like Abel Gance’s Napoléon, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, all three of which are still among Vidiots’ collection and none of which has yet seen a U.S. DVD release. Many of these titles are, for practical purposes, inaccessible for viewers without access to VHS players.
Video stores, I should acknowledge, were not perfect facilitators of access to obscure titles. The comprehensiveness of the rental market was limited to the breadth of any particular video store’s selection. My first experience of this limitation came in my preteen years, when none of my local video stores carried the 1945 film Dead of Night, and I had to resort to what was for me a new practice: blind-buying it on VHS from Amazon. Even titles that had been released on video could be hard to find in the heyday of the video store. And the whole of movies released in tangible video formats does not come close to covering the full scope of cinematic history. Critic Dave Kehr states, “I never understood how this myth that ‘everything is available on DVD’ got started.”21 Nor is everything available on VHS, Laserdisc, or any other video format. There is still an enormous number of films that have never seen any video release.
It is extremely difficult to gauge how much of even American cinema is available on video. Kehr, in 2009, cited the statistic that fewer than 4 percent of films listed in the Turner Classic Movies database, based on the American Film Institute catalogue, were currently available on home video.22 Feltenstein criticizes the TCM database as unreliable for such a statistic, since it includes non-extant films and continues to list numerous films as unavailable even after they were released by companies such as WAC. In the case of the Warner Brothers library, at the time WAC was founded, 4,100 feature films were available on VHS and 1,700 were available on DVD. Feltenstein estimates the current number of features available from Warner on DVD at 2,500, some of which had not had any previous home video release.23
WAC is worthy of note as a company that releases deep-catalogue titles on manufactured-on-demand DVD and as pressed Blu-ray discs as well as operating a streaming service for its titles. Currently, the physical media releases are more profitable for WAC than its streaming enterprise, but the latter is still in its early stages, only offering a few hundred titles. Feltenstein anticipates that WAC’s streaming service will become more profitable as it grows.24
The example of WAC demonstrates that, at least for the near future, physical media is still relevant even as streaming nears ubiquity. Until content licensing practices for streaming providers become standardized and those providers can significantly expand their libraries to bridge the access gap, physical media should survive, if WAC’s experience is any indication. DVDs and Blu-ray discs are capable of carrying bonus material, including audio commentaries and alternate cuts of films, that streaming does not yet seem equipped to provide. The future of these supplements is uncertain in a potential future without physical media.
Since physical media is still necessary to maintain access to as wide an array of titles on video as possible, the video stores that remain, in addition to libraries with film holdings, are essential for the time being as repositories of physical media that cannot be accessed digitally. Libraries and archives are significantly qualified under Section 108 of U.S. copyright law as being legally permitted to make copies of their holdings without infringing copyright. Although the specific applications of the law to moving-image materials are still murky and subject to debate, libraries and archives are still in a unique position to preserve and maintain access to otherwise unavailable content.
While WAC represents one approach to making the deep catalogue available to viewers, others are being tried. The Internet Archive hosts a large number of public-domain movies online. In 2015, Paramount launched a YouTube channel, The Paramount Vault, that has so far made over 100 movies available to watch for free. While some of these titles were already available on DVD or Blu-ray, others were previously unavailable. If Paramount’s endeavor is successful, perhaps other studios could follow suit and make their deep-catalogue titles easily available in a similar manner.
The intangibility of streaming content is already being tested in the form of software that can record and download that content. This software allows users to assert control over the content that they stream, just as videocassettes disrupted the time constraints and ephemerality of television programming. Although stream-recording software can be easily abused and violates the Netflix and Hulu terms of service,25 its presence allows for the potential to reshape the way streaming content works in the future, similar to the way that recording television to videocassette, which sparked a lawsuit of its own, helped launch the notion of movies on video, which redefined the movie industry.
One digital successor thus far to video stores that specialized in obscure or niche material is online file-sharing of bootlegged copies of movies and television programs. The communities sharing these files, whether through one-click file-hosting services or BitTorrent networks, have made numerous titles available that are nearly impossible to find otherwise. While it should be noted that trafficking in bootlegs of titles still under copyright is illegal, it cannot be denied that file-sharing has become a significant means of facilitating access to rare material, and it can have significant effects on the digital distribution landscape. For example, some companies have begun to officially distribute their films by selling them as BitTorrent downloads. In addition, the popularity of bootlegged titles can show the studio that owns those titles that there is consumer demand for them. Some of the earliest WAC releases were titles — largely from television, thus ephemeral and likely to be seen as rare — that Warner knew were being heavily trafficked in the form of bootlegs. Acknowledging the demand for them, WAC issued them in high-quality DVD releases colloquially known within the company as “bootleggers’ greatest hits.” These officially released DVDs were successful with customers, who saw that WAC understood what material they wanted.26
In December 2015, Le Video, a San Francisco, CA, video store, announced that it would soon close. Three organizations partnered to preserve the store’s collection: Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theater chain; Annapurna Pictures, a production company; and another San Francisco video store, Lost Weekend Video. There is a poetic sort of resolution to three organizations, representing three different elements of the movie industry, coming together to save video. Megan Ellison, Annapurna’s founder, and Tim League, Drafthouse’s founder, both came of age in the video store era. Adding to the poetic resolution is that videos from both Le Video and Lost Weekend will be available for consumer access in the lobby of Drafthouse’s new theater in San Francisco. That physical media, video store holdings, will be available in the lobby of a cinema, the primary type of place for movie viewing before home video, seems to complete a circle. Citing his childhood experience as a video store customer as a primary influence on his career path, League said, “I am confident that a new iteration of the video store experience can exist and thrive even today.”27 Although it is unclear whether League’s vision of this new iteration will stand the test of time, the effort in which he has taken part signifies the effect of the video store on the movie industry, as prominent industry actors attempt to plot a new future for media at risk in a changing environment. The San Francisco endeavor is one of many possible paradigms for maintaining accessibility to movies facing the access gap. As video moves farther away from its tangible phase, it remains to be seen how best to ensure that marginalized titles do not disappear.
1. Drew McWeeny, “Why Is One of Bill Murray’s Best Movies Still Largely Unavailable?” HitFix, Sep. 21, 2015. Online at http://www.hitfix.com/motion-captured/why-is-one-of-bill-murrays-best-movies-still-largely-unavailable.
2. Daniel Herbert, Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014: 2.
3. Herbert, Videoland, 21.
4. Herbert, Videoland, 2.
5. Joshua M. Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008: 2.
6. Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster, 149.
7. George Feltenstein, interview by author. Los Angeles, Dec. 7, 2015.
8. Herbert, Videoland, 24.
9. Herbert, Videoland, 21.
11. Herbert, Videoland, 34.
12. “Complete Alphabetical List.” Netflixable, Dec. 9, 2015. Online at http://usa.netflixable.com/2015/12/complete-alphabetical-list-wed-dec-9.html.
13. Herbert, Videoland, 40-41.
14. Anthony Kaufman, “The Vanishing.” Moving Image Source, February 26, 2009. Online at http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/the-vanishing-20090226.
17. Lauren Carroll Harris, “More Than Just Tomorrow’s TV: Does VOD Support Australian Film?” Metro 186 (Summer 2015): 126.
18. Harris, “More Than Just Tomorrow’s TV,” 126.
19. Kaufman, “The Vanishing.”
20. Herbert, Videoland, 42.
21. Kaufman, “The Vanishing.”
25. Marshall Honorof, “Legal? PlayLater Lets You Record All of Netflix for $20.” Tom’s Guide, Apr. 20, 2015. Online at http://www.tomsguide.com/us/legal-playlater-record-netflix,news-20797.html.
27. Laura Wenus, “SF Mission’s Alamo Drafthouse to Save Le Video’s Archive.” MissionLocal, Dec. 9, 2015. Online at http://missionlocal.org/2015/12/sf-missions-alamo-drafthouse-to-save-le-videos-archive/.