Let’s start with a statistic.
In 2013, Hotel Transylvania shifted 1,029,614 copies on Blu-ray disc in the US alone. A hefty number, yet the animated hit – which has thus far spawned one sequel, with another on the way – was only the 23rd best-selling Blu-ray release of the year in America that year, just trailing titles such as Turbo, Rise Of The Guardians, Django Unchained and Life Of Pi.
2013 was arguably the peak year for Blu-ray sales, with 23 individual titles selling a million copies or more in the US. The best-selling of all, Despicable Me 2, shifted 4.6m copies alone, and many more overseas. On the DVD format, meanwhile, 45 different films sold a million units in America in 2013, including another 2.7m copies of Hotel Transylvania.
In recent years, however, there’s been a stark decline in the number of physical DVDs and Blu-rays being sold, and being made available. Go back a decade, and studios were basking in the digital format boom, releasing in some cases multiple special editions of the same film in order to ever-more-impressed Excel spreadsheets. Now, we’re in an era where the disc release feels like an afterthought in some cases. Where the extra features are sometimes saved for an iTunes exclusive, as per the demands of Apple’s marketing dollars, and where getting extra features on a disc appears to be a growing exception, rather than the rule.
Whereas five years ago even, a release of a middling profile film would get some care and attention, now the likes of a director’s commentary, decent behind the scenes footage and a few extra nuggets on top of that is more of a luxury (a huge credit, then, for the excellent UK release a A United Kingdom this week).
Sure, a lot of the big titles get lavished with such attention. Star Wars, Marvel, Game Of Thrones: you’re rarely left feeling you haven’t got value for money there. Conversely, look at the trick Paramount pulled with its recent Star Trek movie releases, where you had to buy a digital download to get the more interesting extra features. The days when the disc was seen as the premium, collectable version of a film are under threat.
On top of that, the number of catalogue titles has been in sharp decline for years, and only premium and curated titles tend to be treated to extra features of any real note. The UK generally gets eight to ten DVD releases a week now, the majority of which get nowhere near the shelves of your local Asda. The days of studios burrowing through their back catalogues and finding interesting, niche titles, releasing several discs a week, are over. Thank goodness, at least, for services such as Warner On Demand in the US, whereby smaller releases at least have a chance of living on a disc.
The extra features issue, incidentally, is worse if you’re not a Blu-ray person. Oftentimes now, and this is something that happens a lot on big releases, the DVD is released as next to extras-free, even if the Blu-ray is jammed with extras. Granted, there’s a physical disc capacity issue here, but then countering that, go back half a decade again, and hours of supplements used to comfortably fit on a DVD. I’d wager they still could, should studios be inclined to squeeze them on there.
But then the financial incentive to do so has dwindled.
It’s to the point now where Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, a film starring Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone and Bill Murray, not only bypassed cinemas in the UK, but it’s never even had a physical format release over here either. Instead, 20th Century Fox quietly dropped the film onto Netflix, where it’s rested ever since. A shame: whatever you think of the film, a commentary track from Cameron Crowe explaining his thoughts on the movie and its reception would have surely been worth a few quid. Yet Fox – who has better access to sales figures than I do – didn’t think it was worth the investment. From a purely business point of view, it may well be right, too. I’d hardly call this progress, though.
Furthermore, in the UK, the consolidation of the disc market has seen some changes you may not be aware of behind the scenes. Paramount, a year or two back, shut down its UK disc operation, and now puts its releases through Universal instead (going back to the old CIC Video days to a degree). Last year, meanwhile, Entertainment One opted to release its films on home formats through 20th Century Fox. Consolidation behind the scenes is happening.
Those still standing are fighting harder. Universal in particular has been aggressive about getting its standees away from just supermarkets, where the bulk of physical discs have been sold in bricks and mortar stores (and you don’t need me to tell you about the limited number of releases that most supermarkets stock). It’s why you see Universal releases next to the tills at Primark as well as on the shelves at HMV: the firm saw the high street reckoning coming.
What’s more, out of the fires of dwindling interest amongst studios for jam-packed disc releases though have come boutique labels, who pick up older films, and genuinely go to town on a release. Criterion has been doing this since the laserdisc days, of course, but it’d be fair to call a lot of its excellent catalogue quite high-brow. What I love is labels like Shout Factory in the States, or Arrow in the UK, who are pouring real love and work into releases that really need fans to fight for them.
This isn’t snobbishness about digital downloads, either. There’s a convenience to ‘renting’ a film via an on-demand service, and having so much choice a couple of button presses away is difficult to resist. But there’s something a bit more special, a bit more reassuring, about owning something physical. Note how Wuaki, one of the better sellers of digital downloads, had to clarify the following statement too in its terms and conditions: “If you buy a movie, you may watch it as many times as you like for a guaranteed period of at least 3 years”.
The clarification did assure purchasers that if they buy a film, they can keep watching it forever after all, but it’s the kind of question that never even raises its head when you’ve got a load of discs on a shelf.
It’d be remiss not to mention Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray too, a format launched to not much noise last year, that in theory is the premium, highest quality physical disc format for home collectors. The reason it’s in theory? Because studios simply aren’t supporting it. A handful of releases a month, and charging £30 or upwards for a 4K presentation of a catalogue film such as Salt or I Am Legend, is not winning people over. Furthermore, Disney – holding the keys to virtually all Star Wars films, as well as the Marvel cinematic universe and no shortage of much-loved animated films – has yet to announce a release for the format. How are film lovers supposed to get behind it, if the studios are hedging their bets so much?
Times have clearly changed, although the bottom has hardly fallen out of the market.
Last year, the top-selling DVD in the US was Zootopia (Zootropolis to us over here), selling 2.25m copies. The top-selling Blu-ray, with just over 5m copies shifted, was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Those numbers – for the biggest releases – compare well with 2013. But the 100th best-selling DVD of 2016 in the States was The Perfect Guy, selling around half as many copies as 2013’s 100th best-selling equivalent, Monsters, Inc. Likewise, on Blu-ray, 2016’s 100th best-selling release was Downton Abbey season 6 in the US. 2013’s number 100, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, shifted over 50% more copies. And had a criminal lack of Dame Maggie Smith in it.
The sales numbers are still decent, clearly. But they’re not the cash cow they once were. And the trend is not an upwards one.
Perhaps most worryingly, as the Aloha example showcases though, the decisions that studios have to face when releasing a film on home formats have changed. Once upon a time, it was about whether to pack a disc with extra features, or put out a plainer release. Now? It’s no guarantee that a small- to mid-range film will get a release at all. It took months after its digital release, for instance, for the UK indie movie, the superb Adult Life Skills, to get a disc release. Even then, what chance did it have of getting to the shelves of your local supermarket?
I fear that if we fast forward five or ten years, the physical disc release will become a niche rather than the norm, certainly if current trends continue. I for one think that’s a backward step, but right now, the ecosystem is working against DVD, Blu-ray and Ultra HD 4K. You can buy as many copies of Minions on disc from as many places as you like, but the specialist stores such as Fopp and HMV are in dwindling supply, and the only ones who’ll stock and curate a broader range of releases.
Is all this progress, or an irreversible change? Time will tell. Always does. But very slowly, it feels that the physical disc era is gradually passing. I for one hope it never goes away. I suspect it won’t, but I do fear the day when it’s the exception, rather than the norm…