Thursday, September 15, 2011

Death Knell: The End of the DVD Store

The end is nigh. The days of the DVD store are numbered and there is little any of us can do about it. The announcement this spring that the collapse of Blockbuster US was going to force the actually profitable Blockbuster Canada into bankruptcy with it signalled the end of an era. (Blockbuster Canada was a separate company, but associated enough that the debt holders in the US could force the Canadian version to sell off its wares and close.) Rogers is still up and running, but rumours are rampant that they want to get out of the DVD rental business.

Don't get me wrong, I know there is a somewhat healthy independent industry still thriving, but when you live in a middlebrow city like Markham (just north of Toronto), your options are pretty limited. In fact, Markham's last independent shop, the terrific DVD Mansion, moved to Woodbridge (20 kilometres to the west of Markham) 18 months ago. That leaves, for the entire city of Markham, one little, bitty Rogers store (and nobody knows how much longer that will stay open). Regardless of what you thought of Blockbuster, the stores were big and they had a lot of films. Okay, 90% of them were of the Hollywood big budget variety from the last 4 to 5 years, but there was still that 10%. My local Blockbuster had a pretty healthy foreign language film collection, and it wasn't afraid to bring in a copy of micro-budgeted films like the terrific The Eclipse (which I rented at Blockbuster and wrote about here). They also had a section dedicated to promoting Canadian films, a few dozen pictures from Hollywood's golden era, plus you could get the occasional Criterion edition of classic films. Rogers? Not so much. If you want to see Hollywood pictures (or the occasional B flick) or some TV series from last three to five years, then you were in luck. Anything else, forget it. 

Sure, there were some advantages to my local Blockbuster experimenting with more obscure fare: their 'previously viewed' section often featured some interesting titles. I acquired Criterion editions of the 1940s and 1960s version of The Killing, plus Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). In fact, the vast majority of my 500+ film DVD collection was acquired this way; I rarely bought anything new because if I was just a little patient I didn't have to (and if I wasn't patient, I could rent it). Sure, I also managed to load up pretty well with the closing of two nearby Blockbuster locations, including the first two seasons of Deadwood for $17 total; a two-disc version of Taxi Driver (which included some wonderful "making of" docs on disc two -- more on support material in a moment), plus a couple of long-shot purchases of films like The Wave which I'd heard a some good things about. So for less than $5 it was worth a try. But it was still disturbing to see this era end. What caused this? 

Economics and bad business models, mostly. The DVD shops did not move with the times. People's attitude became one of the following: Why rent when you can go to one of those bootleg shops in some of the suburban malls and pick up 5 recent Hollywood films for $20? Why rent when you can illegally rip a copy of a new movie from the internet for free? Why go to a store when you can download a film legally right to your computer from companies like Netflix? There was another reason, I think, and that was the launch of Blu-ray a few years ago. Many years ago, those of us who had already built up substantial video collections were stuck with those tapes (unless you acted quickly and sold a lot of them to used shops before the market disappeared) once DVD emerged. But you had at least 15 years between the advent of video tapes and the emergence of DVD. But between DVD and Blu-ray was only five years. I, for one, didn't want to now have to start over with Blu-Ray. DVDs will still work on Blu-ray machines, but Hollywood's greed came into play and helped to kill the golden goose.

In 2003, I could happily pick up DVDs of the great Lord of the Rings trilogy in extended cuts with hours of wonderful support material and playful “easter eggs.” But then when the studios wanted to get everybody to buy Blu-ray, the support material mostly vanished from DVD. If you wanted the goodies, kiddies, you had to shell out not only for the high-cost (way over priced) Blu-ray discs, but you also have to buy a new TV and disc player. People got fed up and started to say, 'screw it, I can get this for free.' Hollywood's trying to crack down on these people, but just like with the withering music industry, it will never work. When you betray the consumer on more than one occasion, you are going to lose that customer. They'll look elsewhere for their pictures.

But that leaves people like me with an issue. I hate watching movies on a computer (I do it reluctantly) or smaller devices (which are beyond my conception – why would anybody watch a movie on the equivalent of a Dick Tracy watch?). This is what you have to do with Netflix titles if you don't have a 'game player' machine that allows you to watch it on your TV. And quite frankly, Netflix Canada is shite. Try doing the following searches: Spartacus, A Clockwork Orange, Humphrey Bogart. In the first two, nothing came up, they don't offer them; in the third case I got The African Queen and The Caine Mutiny. No Maltese Falcon, no Big Sleep no Casablanca no Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on and on. At least my suburban Blockbuster had all those titles. My Rogers cable On Demand service is spotty. I've had to call them on more than one occasion to reinstall the system, otherwise I can't do anything. And On Demand is only good for the very recent and a very small number of older works. Gone soon will be the pleasure of prowling through the shelves and sampling a title because the cover or plot summary appealed to you (that's how I found The Eclipse and other films like The Oxford Murders – unsuccessful, but not without some interest). I'm no technophobe and I'm reasonably competent working the Internet and sourcing material and things I need, but movies and older TV shows are something I've grown to enjoy having around me in a physical form. Say, I want to pull down Band of Brothers with its tin box and support material, it's right there for me to throw into my DVD player, or watch Invasion or Boomtown again. None of these titles are available in the legal online places in Canada, let alone being able to watch their support material that the physical products have. Even if you find the film, that is all you can get access to. Forget seeing any behind-the-scenes documentaries (as with Taxi Driver, mentioned above). Also, if you have films saved to your computer, what happens when you computer ups and dies which, if it does, will leave you without data ... or films?

Here's the sad reality. Within the next 2-3 years, DVD stores will be gone, except for the die-hard independents. If I want to 'rent' a movie I will have to go to the library or, far worse, go to an HMV (for now) or Walmart which still sells DVDs, and pay full price, or wait two to three years for them to go down to a reasonable level. This means I will have to wait 2-3 years to see new releases that are in the theatres now; that is, the ones I decided to 'wait' to see on DVD because I didn't think they were worth 'big screen treatment,' or because of their cost; or simply that I couldn't find the time to go. And eventually, say in five years, DVDs of new titles will vanish altogether forcing everybody to go Blu-ray or go home. I'm not arguing with the qualities of Blu-ray. The image is incredibly crisp and bright, but is it just me or do the images also look cold, like a Stepford Wife there to please but offering nothing except a bright, shiny surface? If I've got a perfectly fine TV and a DVD player that works (for now) why should I have to shell out an outrageous amount of money because Hollywood wants to foist their latest shiny toy on me? What's to stop them from, a few weeks after I finally relent, get a new TV and Blu-ray player, from coming out something shinier and newer like ... ? Oh wait, it's already here, 3-D TV and a new player to play the discs just hit the market. Feeling a little antiquated yet?

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. On the evening of Tuesday, October 18, 2011, David will be holding an event for his novel, The Empire of Death, at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto). For information and tickets (cost $35, which includes a copy of the book, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres), call the store at 416-222-7658. Seating is limited to 25, so please register early.

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