2009 saw me enter the hi-def world. I finally replaced my old tube TV with an LCD; a Blu-Ray player followed soon after. A couple of weeks ago I got a second, bigger TV for the living room. With the big TV and the Blu-Ray all set up, I did what any red blooded American nerd would do: I went shopping.
I entered the local Best Buy filled with high hopes. I would buy a Blu-Ray or two here, order others through Amazon (I tend to use Best Buy and the like as the browsing section and do the actual orders on my phone through the way, way cheaper Amazon). I’d grow my library, which is pretty miniscule. But when I started looking at discs I realized something:
I didn’t want to replace my DVDs.
It’s not that I am especially attached to the DVDs. There’s no emotional bond between me and these thousands of dusty plastic cases. It’s just that I can’t find a good reason to replace a perfectly decent copy of a movie. Walking through the aisles I saw plenty of movies that I would have been happy to go home and watch, upconverted via my Blu player, but none that I felt I needed to re-own in hi definition.
It wasn’t like this with DVD. Upgrading from VHS to DVD was a no-brainer. First of all, most of the movies I owned were taped off TV or pirated from video store copies. These, after all, were the days when VHS was priced to rent; buying a copy of Brewster’s Millions could set you back 120 bucks. But even the legit VHS tapes I owned needed to be upgraded; setting aside the picture quality (and the difference was glaring between VHS and DVD), the addition of letterboxing to movies that I thought I would only ever see panned and scanned was astonishing. Some of the young ‘uns in the audience may not remember this, but ten years ago people were buying the worst fucking movies simply because they were letterboxed.
But the crowning achievement of DVD was the introduction of special features. All of a sudden there was all this value added content on DVDs, and for a while it looked like we were in an arms race to see who could put out the most ass-kicking special editions of their movies. You’d buy a terrible film on DVD simply because it had a commentary. These were the tulip mania days, and I bet many of you reading have weird selections clogging up your DVD library dating to this time (assuming you haven’t traded the turds in).
The leap from DVD to Blu-Ray is simply not big enough. Yeah, the picture looks great, especially on the new, bigger TV, but that’s simply not enough. But my DVDs look pretty good too; yeah, they’re not as good, and I can tell the difference, but I grew up watching pan and scan VHS. I can handle upconverted DVD quality.
Blu-Ray’s big problem isn’t old guys like me who grew up watching movies in bad formats – it’s kids today growing up watching movies on their phones. When you’re happy watching something on a three inch screen, hi def just isn’t that big a deal. These kids might grow up to want their movies on big, crisp screens, but I bet that what they’re really going to want when they grow up is ease of access – they’re going to want what they want when they want it. It won’t be about how great the picture is for them, it’ll be about how convenient it is for them to access the content anywhere and anytime.
What’s really struck me about Blu-Ray is how bad it is for serious movie fans. The DVD revolution left a ton of titles out in the cold; hundreds, if not thousands of films that made it to VHS never made it to DVD. Hundreds of titles that made it to DVD will never, ever get the kind of remastering Blu-Ray demands. More and more films – marginal films, weird films, unique films – are being left on the sidelines as we chase the hi-def dragon. The irony is that even as we attain ‘archival’ quality for certain films others get completely lost in the shuffle.
Walking through the aisles of Best Buy and even browsing the used Blus at Amoeba in Hollywood, I felt like I’d seen this all somewhere before, and it hit me: laser disc. Blu-Ray is the new laser disc, a must have for a certain segment of the population, but easily ignored by the rest. It’s a niche format that will be meaningful for the hardcore collectors and the A/V geeks, but will be passed over by the masses who are content with their DVDs until the coming On Demand revolution changes the way they consume cinema forever.