It would seem that Film Twitter found out today that the digital films we buy from Amazon are not really purchased. Apparently, someone actually read terms and conditions in all its wonderfully small print and found out that what they thought they were buying was actually acquiring an indefinite licence for private use.
This naturally translates to Amazon effectively lending you films without a time limit while reserving the right to withdraw the licence at their discretion. In effect, the digital library you have been building with your hard-earned bucks is never truly yours. Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away.
But this isn’t exactly news and I don’t quite understand why so many people seem so surprised by this. In fact, everywhere you turn such practices are afoot. Apple has been doing it for years and I am sure Google and every other purveyor of digitally distributed films have been engaged in this process as well. Reactionary as The Internet is, for a split second a movement to save physical media formed out of the roiling sea of bullet-sized opinion, a knee-jerk reaction to a realization that we can’t really hold zeros and ones. But we can hold, touch, smell or lick a Blu-Ray or – if you really have to – a DVD.
This is a potential opportunity to reiterate that just as physical media needs saving, the abundance of cloud-based streamable entertainment ought to be paid attention to and industry giants like Amazon, Netflix and Disney (which recently announced they would can their physical UHD releases completely) should be enticed to invest in physical releases. In fact, in some countries (like UK), the declining sales of physical media brought about by the emergence of streaming as the next evolution of home viewing have led to some films not being released on Blu-Ray at all. For instance, it is impossible to acquire Dark Waters, Booksmart, Wild Rose, or Waves physically on anything other than DVD. High definition quality is thus only available on streaming services. Many major releases incidentally redirected to Netflix and Amazon in lieu of a theatrical run due to the COVID pandemic also will not be likely to receive physical releases because they would no longer be exclusively available on their respective online platforms. So it is reasonable to conclude that physical releases are not just dying, but they are being murdered.
This is a truly dangerous predicament. Not only does it effectively force the viewership to tether themselves to multiple streaming platform to be able to watch their favourite films, but it leaves no safeguards in case something unforeseen happens. We tend to overlook the fact that the relatively peaceful times we live in are underpinned by a bunch of handshake deals made at the top level by elected officials of dubious credibility. And it doesn’t really take much – merely an express desire of a rogue state or a bunch of people with too much time on their hands – to successfully bring down whole online operations with a few strings of malicious code. It’s not entirely unlikely that one day we might wake up to a world where Amazon, Apple or Netflix libraries have been completely wiped out.
This brings me to address a facet of this problem that seems to have evaded outright discussion: the subject of old movies and classics. While a handful of boutique distributors, like Criterion, Arrow, pH Indicator and others, have been persistently and painstakingly restoring, preserving and releasing important films, cult classics and forgotten cinematic gems, a lot of licences to such films are held by industry giants, who hoard them on their respective online platforms. They rarely restore or remaster them and hence treat them not as important elements of culture in need of preservation, but rather as commercial assets. B-movies from the past, cult classics of the VHS era and even some widely acclaimed classics are destined to rot in the dark recesses of streaming libraries where they are scarcely discovered and almost never treated with respect they deserve.
Thus, we might be invariably sleepwalking into a repetition of what amounted to a great purge of the silent era. However, this time it is not the immensely flammable celluloid film stock which sent so many archives up in flames that will usher this era. Our own desire to prioritize convenience will do the trick this time. Therefore, we cannot sit idly by and let physical media perish because if we allow the entire output of cinema to move permanently online, we might one day lose it all forever.
Meanwhile, I am still waiting for James Cameron to pull his finger out and sign off on the allegedly completed remasters of True Lies and The Abyss, which don’t even have a decent DVD release to speak of.