What's set to follow Blu-ray?

Feature Brendon Connelly 8 Jul 2014 - 06:13

Will there be another physical disc format to follow Blu-ray? Or are we in the last days of physically owning films?

If we were all to go for a picnic on the moon and let NASA pack our hampers for us, I’m sure they’d give us something fairly nutritious, shelf-stable and easy to digest, but I don’t know how appealing it would be to look at. As Nigella might say (appropriately enough) you eat first with your eyes. There’s something a lot less appetising about a little scoop of goop in a foil pouch than a warm plate piled high with golden potato, glowing carrots and rugged, braised quorn.*

NASA food gets the job done like a pipe up the nose gets the job done, but it’s certainly lacking the romance, and arguably the respect. So it is, perhaps, with digital downloads of motion pictures.

Would I just be falling foul of cheap sentimentality to paint a digital-only future as a grave new world? Is Blu-ray really going to be the last hurrah for the library-building, package-loving movie buff? And are there any actual, real benefits to getting your movies as a solid object rather than a notional cloud of data?

Apart from the lucky few who could rack up their own reels of pricey, volatile celluloid, the video cassette was our first chance to build a home collection of movies, a random-access array of the films we’d want to keep on hand. Videos were boxy beasts, though, right down to their ‘squarescreen’ pan and scan pictures. They were not, by any reasonable measure, the best means of presentation for the images and sounds they struggled to contain, but they did train us to expect that we might gather our own film libraries, to have and to hold from that day forward.

Laserdisc only managed a core following of the clued-in and cashed-up in parallel to VHS’ mainstream domination, but the format was scribbling an early paradigm for the DVD generation into the margins. And so it was with the advent of that five-inch ‘digital versatile disc’ that the next quantum leap in movie collecting arrived.

Picture quality was increased dramatically, the uptick in audio capability was a true sonic boom and, finally, original cinematic aspect ratios were becoming sacrosanct. The arrival of DVD was the moment when 'home entertainment' sprouted legs and pushed itself onto the land.

Perhaps the leap from the SD DVD to the HD Blu-ray wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I’d hate to understate it. Even DVDs look better now, in an approximate, makeshift fashion, due to the upscaling tech of Blu-ray players and HD TV sets, but there’s nothing like a perfectly-mastered Blu-ray on a decent home cinema set-up. Aside from the sheer scale of their screens, most multiplexes don’t really compete with the presentation that Blu-ray can create in your own living room.

But somewhere along the line, things started to go wrong for physical media full stop. It would be easy to blame Sean Parker. He’s certainly part of the story.

Parker was the creator of Napster, and thanks to his cunning, legally indifferent peer-to-peer software, the world’s network of computers became way stations in a global interchange of stolen music.

At this point in history, more music was ending up on hard drives through CD rips than iTunes-style digital storefronts and so, if you suddenly thought of the perfect floor filler to convince your office mates of your retro-coolnes, the quickest way to get the track playing would be to send Napster’s light fingers into somebody else’s collection. As Casual Fridays evolved into 80s discos, and Sunday afternoons became about stocking up your new MP3 player with a few 'loans' from the ether, generations became accustomed to media on tap. And it only took increased bandwidth for the same virtual vice to start to tighten around the movie industry.

Amazon and its ilk also took a baseball bat to our collecting habits. Bricks and mortar businesses couldn’t slice their margins with the same razor-sharp ruthlessness as e-tailers, and so, for savvy smartphone shoppers at least, the high street stores mutated into something closer to showrooms; it was now possible to browse the shelves until inspiration would strike, then tap and swipe a far cheaper copy of the very same thing into a jiffy bag and onto the courier’s truck. This arguably played an important part in normalising the relationship between moving a cursor around a screen and summoning up a motion picture.

Manufacturing, packaging and shipping a Blu-ray disc is obviously a more expensive process than parking some data in a digital farm someplace and telling all of the e-tailers where to send the money. While global box office continues to spurt upwards with some regularity, income from home entertainment has been dropping pretty much constantly and distributors will undoubtedly be looking to maximise profit on every front.

I’d expect that Blu-ray is the last, mass-market physical format for the purchase and consumption of movies. There are already souped-up variants of the same basic disc architecture that can hold many times the data, and could ably contain a 4K, or UltraHD, version of a feature film. But by the time there’s any sort of user base for such super-resolution TV sets - and it could be a very long time, at least in consumer electronics terms - it seems like the audience will have accepted, reluctantly or not, that movies have no corporeal form, that they just hang out in notional space, and kick off when we call to them.

These decades of evolving physical formats have allowed distributors to sell us the same movies over and over again, with a significant and obvious shift in quality acting as sufficient incitement to toss out that copy of The Army Of Darkness you didn’t think you could ever do without and replace it with another one you’ll also lie to yourself about.

But this suddenly seems less reasonable when it’s not a physical item the distributor wants to render obsolete, but a download. Abandoning the manufacture of clunky, visibly dated VHS decks seems to be a different thing entirely to turning off a Digital Rights Management server and rendering entire generations of downloaded movies suddenly unplayable.

A Blu-ray collector knows that, if very well cared-for, their discs can last for decades, and all they’ll need is some old deck to get playback. The same also applies to DVD, Laserdisc and VHS, but it doesn’t seem to be part of the design for the future.

It’s possible this will ultimately be a good thing. With pressure - and market pressure, the vote-with-your-wallet approach, would seem to be a good place to start - consumers might teach distributors to strip digital rights management (DRM) from their releases.

Then all we’d need to safeguard or movie collections are... well, as indestructible as Cameron Diaz might think it is, I wouldn’t trust the cloud to keep anything for me, really, and hard drives crash with a disturbingly well-accepted regularity. Perhaps there’s no simple archive solution. Maybe we’d be best off burning our downloads to discs (while discs are still being manufactured). Sigh.

Sadly, my feeling is that we’re moving away from ownership entirely, and that legal streaming will be the final frontier, the way that all movies are provided for evermore. Netflix and Amazon Prime subscribers will already know about some of the inherent frustrations with this model.

Consider, for example, your planned Rocky movie marathon. You started it on Monday with the Oscar-winning first instalment, followed up on Tuesday with the undervalued second-slice, and.... logged in to Netflix on Wednesday to see that the whole Rocky series had vanished entirely. Adrian!

Different subscription services offer different catalogues at different times, in different territories, and with different picture and sound quality. None of the HD titles on Netflix, as good looking and spiffy sounding as they might be, have quite the bit-rate and therefore high-quality presentation of a Blu-ray. Netflix does, however, have House Of Cards in 4K, albeit compressed 4K. In a sense, this just suggests how tightly-squeezed and data-starved our UltraHD future might be. If 4K is only ever a stream, we’ll have to get used to seeing it in compromised form, where 1080p could be delivered in a relatively baggy, unpacked and data-rich format on disc.

Ultimately, the middle man might become irrelevant and you won’t go to Netflix for a quick bit of Buzz Lightyear on Sunday afternoon, you’ll go straight to Disney. Warner Bros. has already launched Warner Archive Instant, at least in the US, and I don’t think it will be long until all of the studios and distributors set similar strategies in motion. Slowly, rights will lapse at the big subscription services and the movies will go home to roost.

To hazard a guess, I’d say we’re about ten to 15 years away from all on-demand, broadcast-free TV sets that run at up to 120 progressive frames of 4K images, each offering  pay-on-demand or subscription access to movies sorted by rights owners. Maybe there will be someway to put down a lifetime payment on a particular movie, but even then it won’t be a human lifetime, of course, just the (arbitrarily truncated) lifetime of whatever software solution is running.

And that generation of Judy and Elroy Jetsons probably won’t even care that audio commentaries and meaningful supplementary documentaries fell off the schedule years before because what you don’t know about can’t appeal to you and what your parents wax lyrical about can’t help but turn you off.

I do look forward to having a well-preserved, fairly well-delivered version of almost any movie I can think of just a wave of my hand away. At the same time, I don’t at all like the prospect being a permanent renter and never being able to bring that film into my home where I know it will be mine until I break it. We’ll never again indulge in the romance of alphabetising our collections, or get to indulge in a little bit of pacing back and forth, physically browsing (there’s appeal there and it’s a good part of what’s keeping HMV alive right now), nor will we ever get to lend a copy to a friend with that excitable plea that they don’t even look at the box before putting it in the player and “just you trust me on this one.”

Or maybe I’m being overly optimistic here. I mean, honestly, I’m not even sure we’re going to have electric lights in ten years time. Perhaps what follows Blu-ray is something more like Fahrenheit 451 or Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a time when we’ll all gather down at the poisoned brook to see people acting out the best bits of The Transporter 2, “live sweding” Statham for a post electric future. Every cloud...

*Other murder-free, protein-plentiful meal constituents are available.

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