This Is Why We Need to Return to Physical Media

The importance of physical media
Nathan Lane in the Criterion Collection's closet Credit: The Criterion Collection
It is time to break up with your streaming service and return to your first lovephysical media. 

Over the past decade, streaming services have run supreme, training consumers to think they can watch what they want, when they want. Even if a film or show you want to watch isn't available on one streaming service, it is likely available on another or available to purchase a digital copy. 

Unfortunately, streaming services have been showing their teeth for a while, and I'm starting to worry. 

After HBO Max yanked 68 more titles from its streaming service, removing some of the movies made for the streaming service completely from the public’s access, the return to physical media seems more important than ever. 

You Don’t Own Digital Media… Even if You Buy it

You technically don’t own anything if it is on a streaming service like Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes… even if you purchase it. 

I learned this the hard way when I sat down to watch Amélie on Apple TV, which had been purchased for $14.99, and the movie was gone. When I looked for the film on other streaming services, the movie was gone. It was almost like it never existed. 

The truth is that I didn’t own the film. I owned the rights to forever stream the film as long as the streaming service had the rights. 

When you purchase a film on a streaming service, you are purchasing the rights to watch that video as long as that license is good. What that means is that if Disney, for example, decides it doesn’t want Amazon to sell its movies anymore, the company can have Amazon turn off Disney movies. Theoretically, the service could block access to movies you’ve already purchased. 

Streaming services don’t buy the rights to own something. Programmers sign contracts with streaming services that allow them to show The Lord of the Rings or every single episode of The Office for a set amount of time that is unknown to viewers. When that time expires, the contract might be renewed or it might not be. The viewer has no power in what stays and what goes, ultimately giving streamers more and more power over what content is and isn’t accessible.

I find that to be concerning since films and TV shows can just be taken away from the culture. 

This has been an ongoing issue for years. Digital movies that are purchased often disappear from libraries because of licensing fees or even because of changes in location, since films licensed to a platform change depending on the country. 

So why spend money on something you don’t actually own, especially when the quality is vastly different? 

Physical Media Preserves the Work of the Filmmaker

In 2016, the A/V enthusiasts at WhatHiFi.com compared 4K streaming to 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray. They found that the 4K streaming experience was more in line with watching a traditional 1080p Blu-ray, which means that Blu-rays had a clear advantage in contrast and color. Ultra HD discs looked far better than either. 

What happens is that the viewer must pay to get 4K content on your streaming service of choice, and you also need internet that can handle it. Netflix and Disney+ both say that at least 25 megabits per second are needed to stream UHD content, and Amazon needs at least 15 Mbps. Backseat Directors discovered that the two cheapest high-speed internet service providers for the most bandwidth in the U.S. are Verizon and Comcast, coming at $40 and $35/month, respectively. 

Even if your streaming devices are up to speed and your internet is the best possible, there is still information being lost along the way because compression is inevitable. There will always be issues when it comes to the quality of the content when it is on a streaming platform. 

The importance of physical media
Netflix streaming quality is inferior to Blu-rayCredit: Getty Images

Streaming services also cannot handle the latest and greatest in sound technology. Unfortunately, there is no industry standard on how to measure audio for streaming. Netflix has its own audio standard that is vastly different from Hulu’s, which requires the sound mix to be based on the overall volume of the film. 

Blu-rays do have Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio standards that have been around for years. Blu-rays require sound to be produced for a seven-speaker sound that is rich and highly detailed while streaming services only offer a five-speaker sound at lower fidelity that isn’t enhanced by your modern surround sound. 

The problem with streaming boils down to compression. The picture and sound information have to be processed in a way that allows the information to be sent efficiently over the internet. Although compression has improved greatly over the years, information still gets lost along the way.

Darker scenes tend to fare the worst, and sunsets that are supposed to gently fade into an ombré of color turn into blocky digital stripes. Candle- or fire-lit rooms look chunky and pixelated, taking away the impressive work of a cinematographer. 

Physical media, on the other hand, do not struggle with compression issues and preserve the work of the filmmaker far better than digital media. You are getting better sound and visuals, plus you don’t have to worry about it disappearing on you because you own it. 

Physical Media Supports the Filmmakers

During an interview with the YouTube series Hot Ones, Matt Damon explains that physical media was a huge part of the revenue stream in Hollywood, but technology has made that “obsolete.” 

“The movies that we used to make, you could afford to not make all of your money when it played in the theater because you knew you had the DVD coming behind the release… it would be like reopening the movie almost,” Damon said. “And when that went away, that changed the type of movies that we could make.”

Mid-size movies are struggling to make any profit because of that massive loss of physical media revenue. There are still a lot of interesting films being made, but they are often seen as box-office failures because they did not make any profit. Some of the films that come to mind are The Northman, Licorice Pizza, and The Last Duel

While these are good films, the filmmakers did not make much of a profit off of the films because streaming residuals are still relatively new.

The Other Great Perks of Physical Media

I have also run into a strange issue where movies that I have watched time and time again have been edited by streaming services to fix the context of current times. While I understand why this happens, it is still a form of censorship that takes away from what the filmmaker intended. It's the job of the viewer to understand the problematic moments in films, so they can understand the context of film history from that time. 

This is the major issue I have with HBO Max removing so many films and shows and with Disney editing scenes from films to make their content less problematic. Whether or not this was good or harmful, it is still art that is being taken away from the culture. 

Physical media also offers commentary and behind-the-scenes footage that is great for filmmakers and film enthusiasts to watch and learn the process behind the films we appreciate. Learning the context and history of the making of a film can give you more appreciation for the cast and crew and what the intentions of the director, editor, cinematographer, or other crew members were behind a specific choice.

These little details or unheard conversations that are only on physical media tracks add another voice to the conversation about what makes a specific film important to film history and your own personal taste. Seeing people make a movie gives you a connection to that film and its filmmakers that is unlike anything else. 

In all honesty, I’m already paying $14.99 to “purchase” a film on iTunes that isn’t available to stream for free. Spending an extra $5 isn’t going to completely break the bank for me, and I get to keep the film forever while supporting the filmmakers who made the film. 

Although streaming can be cheaper and more convenient, physical media is a more premium experience. The unreliability of connections, the picture and sound hiccups, and the lingering uncertainty of whether or not a film is available are no longer concerns when you have the physical media in your hands. 

We shouldn’t disregard physical media as a whole in favor of streaming. I’m not saying go out and cancel all of your streaming services and only buy DVDs and Blu-rays, but I am saying that you should buy a physical copy of any film you like. Support filmmakers by supporting physical media. 

Do you have any more reasons why we should support physical media more? Let us know in the comments below!      

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2 Comments

Purchasing unnecessary physical items made of plastic and destined for landfills, hard pass. Streaming services fixing their bull$#!t, all for it.

September 24, 2022 at 10:58AM

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John Haas
Cinematographer
709

Streaming services need to fix this shit asap! I prefer to have movies in 4k in the cloud and only a few masterpieces in hardcopy.

September 26, 2022 at 1:00AM

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Javier Diez
Filmmaker
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