Digital vs Physical

I am proud to say that I’m a rare type of movie buff: I prefer to have a physical collection of motion pictures on disc, rather than a few hard-drives with digital copies of movies. In this day and age, physical media is slowly dying, with some reports even claiming that DVD and Blu-ray are already dead. It’s a disheartening state of affairs in my view, but all of the executives in Hollywood are smiling. If you’re moving towards digital media, you’re playing right into their hands.

You see, with people having copies of motion pictures in their homes on disc, they have the freedom to watch said copy any time that they please, as many times as they please. They do not have to pay for each viewing since they have purchased the disc outright. Back before the age of home media, film studios made a killing from cinema releases, and they could re-release their movies as many times as they wanted, because interested people could only watch said motion picture if they paid for a cinema trip yet again. Why do you think Gone with the Wind is the most attended movie of all time? Over the decades, its fans lapped up every re-release that came along.

The reason why Hollywood is pushing for digital delivery and digital copies is very simple: they have the control. Although some Blu-rays have BD-Live capability and the internet can be accessed while browsing the disc, the studio does not have the power to remotely “lock” the disc or demand you pay for it again in order to continue using it. You own the disc, and you own the content. If studios tried locking discs, people could just disconnect their internet and happily continue watching their discs without the player trying to call home. Hell, some people do not have internet-capable Blu-ray players, leaving a whopping margin of people who simply cannot be touched.

Digital copies, on the other hand, are all about internet access. You download iTunes digital copies that are registered to your online account, and your devices that play your iTunes digital copies are often connected to the internet. If the studios want, they can lock all iTunes digital copies and force you to pay to keep watching them for another few years. They can keep doing this, over and over again, forcing you to keep paying more money in order to keep enjoying the movies you want to enjoy. It’s only speculation at this point, but they can if they want to.

Already forcing us towards this Big Brother-type state of affairs is the ungodly invention of UltraViolet via the website Flixster. If you want to know what the future of digital copies holds, look no further than UltraViolet. In order to watch your UltraViolet digital copies, you always need to be connected to the internet, and you are perpetually streaming them. Want to watch an UltraViolet movie on your iPhone on the train? Sure, but that’s going to devour your entire internet downloads for the month in a matter of minutes. Want to watch a movie on your laptop on the go? Sorry, you need an internet connection. Gee, what are you doing to do when your internet has conked out at home and you just want to watch a movie?

Read between the lines. This is not going to end well.

Admittedly, UltraViolet is still a very tough sell in this day and age, which is why Warner Bros (who kick-started it) are doing their best to ensnare everyone by offering free movies and rewards. That’s just to lube up the hole before they really butt-fuck you, though. All it takes is for all the major distributors to get together and discuss a permanent move towards digital distribution. Think about it from their perspective:

1) Digital distribution costs next to nothing. Physical media still costs a fair amount to manufacture and distribute.

2) There doesn’t need to be a middle man. They don’t need to share profits with retailers. They can host their own freaking website delivery service. They can downsize their company and get rid of a number of employees while they’re at it, too, saving more money for the bottom line.

3) They can charge you for every single viewing. Want to watch a movie? That’ll be $1.99 for a viewing. Oh, want to watch it again immediately afterwards? That’s another $1.99. It’s a digital on-demand cinema that never closes, never sells out, and never sticks to a schedule. And it’s controlled by the studios.

Mark my words: that’s what Hollywood wants, and they are actively working towards it.

Now think about the Netflix part of this equation. People rent movies on Netflix, showing that there is a market for digital renting.

What’s stopping the studios from right now transitioning towards an entire digital-based distribution system? Well, people who still enjoy physical media, that’s what. And there is the caveat that pirating still exists, but who’s to say that a bill won’t be introduced in a couple of years – endorsed and brutally pushed by all the major film studios – that’s similar to the notorious SOPA bill? All torrent sites can be taken offline without a trial, and they’ll be taken down faster than they can be put up. Eventually, those paying to host the sites will not find their work worthwhile anymore.

The argument can be made that if it can be done, why hasn’t it been done yet? One could contend that studios can decide overnight to stop distributing DVD and Blu-ray, and go digital, and it’s “proof” that no such sinister digital delivery plans exist because of the still-existent physical media market. Well, the thing is this: they need to ease into the digital media aspect to prevent consumers from going crazy (plus it could push consumers towards piracy right now). They still do DVD/Blu-ray combo packs to ease the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, just as they package iTunes and UltraViolet digital copies with Blu-ray discs to ease the transition to digital. The studios still spend a fair amount of money producing extras for discs, but such extras can be available online. Want to explore the extras for a movie? That’ll be $5.99 for 6 hours of access!

Besides, physical media still sells enough to keep it afloat right now. The studios make a steady profit from them. But the market is not exactly in tip-top shape, as people are embracing digital these days. Studios just need to continue pushing digital distribution and watch the popularity rise, as physical media declines. The next part of the devious plan is to eliminate piracy. Once that’s gone, consumers have no choice but to do what the studios want them to do, and go entirely digital.

Of course, some people may like this idea. After all, there are some who live off Netflix rentals for their motion picture consumption. But here’s the issue: 90% of my movie viewing is passive. I actively watch movies only a handful of times per week, but on a typical day I’ll passively watch up to four or five movies, just to have them as background noise while I surf the internet, indulge in social networking, or write. Hell, I have a movie on the TV as I write this. Some movies I passively watch on a frequent basis – up to forty times each. Why pay a couple dollars for every viewing when I can pay $15 to own it on disc outright and watch it as many times as I want?

You’re probably thinking that all of this is ridiculous, and I’m being paranoid. Sure, I guess that’s why the X-Box One tried to make the push towards being entirely digital. If the PS4 and every other new console also did it, gamers would be putty in the hands of the game companies, who could then ease into charging them for every game session. Because why not? They’re in charge. It’s just that the timing isn’t right for the leap right now, because consumers are still wise. When the leap does happen, it will all be downhill from there. God help us.

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