Saturday, January 04, 2014

A wee rant re: the state of home video, torrents, and such

Granted: torrenting technology is problematic. It's having dire effects across the entertainment landscape, that range well beyond the near-total collapse of the video store industry that I so loved and occasionally worked in. I assume that the number and nature of movies being produced now has a great deal to do with the transformations wrought by free downloading and the concomitant collapse of chain stores. Studios and producers are no longer so keen to take chances on mid-sized film productions, knowing that they will not recoup costs by selling to video chains. It makes good business sense for the industry to put all their money into gigantic spectacles that need to be seen on the big screen, with as many bells and whistles attached (3D! Ultra AVX! Smell-o-Vision!) to ensure people come out to see the film. Much as I sometimes do enjoy these films - I quite loved The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - I do not like these changes, do not like the world that is emerging as a result of the so-called "free culture movement," and I sorely miss the world of video entertainment of, say, ten years ago, before the video store die-off began. I want to be able to go to a decent local rental store (none exist in Maple Ridge) and walk their wall and be surprised by independent, cult, horror, foreign, Canadian and even the odd commercial film that I haven't heard of or haven't caught up with. I want box art and blurbs and the engagement with physical reality that comes from bending down to pick some oddball item off the shelf and peruse the back of it, in the company of my peers. I want to bullshit with the clerks or customers about certain films, even if there's little hope out here in the 'burbs that any of them will know much about the movies in question. I want to rifle through the previously viewed bin to see what gems I can find for $3.99. And I want to own physical media, when it comes to films I care about - like the quality of the image, the tangibility, the extras, and the culture around it, as opposed to a bunch of questionable-quality stolen files stored on a hard drive or burned on a DVDr and forgotten in a stack. Never mind any moral or legal arguments: using torrenting technology is moving us away from the sort of world that I want to live in towards a world that, I suspect, will be quite impoverished, when it comes to cinema - a world of fewer and worse movies, and increasingly diminished discourse around them. (And God knows what the overall economic impact of torrenting is; surely at least some part of the current shitty job climate has something to do with the fact that two huge retail chains, Rogers and Blockbuster, dropped off the face of the earth a couple of years ago). 

So I'm aware that torrents are a problem. For a few years there, I stopped using them - stopped downloading anything, be it music or movies, and tried to only buy legitimate copies of things. I even rented a few DVDs in 2012 and 2013 - a practice that I'm sure is archaic to many these days. I don't much like it, but I think I'm going to return to the world of downloading content from the internet for free. I have a few favourite rationalizations that help me with this morally questionable choice:

1. The system of distribution of new DVDs is now hopelessly broken, and there's no going back. Case in point: I want to see Blackfish, the recent hit documentary about killer whales. It had a sold-out run at the Vancity Theatre, where my girl and I were turned away because there was no room left in the theatre; it likely did just as well at the VIFF and the Rio. For about three weeks after it came out on DVD, I stopped, whenever it was convenient for me to do so, at any and all stores that still stock videos, hoping to find it on their shelves. I checked at Future Shop - which barely stocks DVDs these days, having a few hundred titles at best, and all very mainstream; Best Buy (only marginally better, but still limited); two different London Drugs (which is doing far better but has a very limited selection, with only the odd pleasant surprise); the HMV in Metrotown (which is somehow carrying on as if it was still 2005, without apparently having changed their business model in the slightest to acknowledge the state of the industry); Great Canadian Superstore (where all of the interesting films are in the cheapie bin!); Little Shop of Movies (the sole rental store in walking distance of my apartment); and the newly opened Target in Maple Ridge. I also checked the Maple Ridge library. Not one of them had it; finally someone at one of these stores looked it up and told me - a claim I have not checked, but believe - that it has not been distributed on DVD in Canada. I did find a rental copy at They Live video - but given the nature of the business, they had ordered only one copy, and it was rented out the night I was there; needless to say, it wouldn't be appearing in any PV bins at that store. Renting it - I'm sure Limelight and Black Dog have it too - is a challenging proposition anyhow, given that neither shop is anywhere near where I live, or even any place I go with regularity. Getting a copy of Blackfish on DVD has now become a hunt for a specialty item, something I cannot acquire by simply stopping into a shop on my route. Of course, I could still get it easily enough by buying it online - but I'm presently not shopping online, since I don't want to use my credit card. I could get it at Videomatica, the one store in the Lower Mainland where I'm sure it's available - but I haven't had the time to make it to their store lately, which is about two hours from me by the most direct commute, and not on any convenient route between places I travel (though I tried to make a trip there just before Christmas, one day after work; buses were running late and they closed before I got there). I don't use Netflix or such, am not interested in paying money to stream it. So what am I supposed to do? I want to see the film. Despite being desperately broke at the moment, I would be happy to pay $17.99 for it (and not much more - that's about the upper end of my budget for a movie these days). Having invested what must be a few hours of my life in attempting to see the film, I actually feel a bit of resentment at the time I've wasted, which is only underscored by the fact that at any point I could likely have torrented it and watched it for free. So why don't I?  It's not like its distrbutors are trying very hard to guarantee I have easy access to it...

2. The format-shift between DVD and Blu-Ray leaves many people in limbo. Let's take another movie that I want to see: The Incredible Melting Man. There is an archive version from MGM or Warners or such that is ridiculously overpriced - something like $35. Given that this is a burn-on-demand, DVDr title, that's almost an insult: I could torrent it and burn it to my own disc for pennies, so why the hell would I pay $35 for it? If you're going to ask $35, at least give customers a real DVD, packed with extras and cool art, not an indifferently-churned-out DVDr in a package that's half-generic - especially if it's for a movie that isn't very good in the first place, which, I assure you, is the case with The Incredible Melting Man. But nevermind that overpriced archive DVD: Shout! Factory put out a very nice Blu-Ray of the film, very reasonably priced, which is far more appealing. The catch? I don't have a Blu-Ray player. I'm still using a perfectly good LG DVD player that I cracked to be region free, and a ginormous 1990's TV that is both PAL and NTSC compatible. Even if I weren't broke, I'm reluctant to part with either, since region-free PAL/ NTSC compatibility is a nice setup for me, and not necessarily an easy or cheap thing to duplicate; the industry insists on producing regionally coded equipment and TVs that only  handle NTSC or PAL but not both. Of course, eventually one unit or the other is going to die, but given my income, I can't afford to replace either until it is absolutely necessary. And here's the fun detail: if the DVD player goes first, I won't be able to upgrade to Blu-Ray even then, since almost all models made now, and certainly all cheaper ones, are no longer compatible with RCA cables: you NEED to have a flat-panel TV to connect to your Blu-Ray player, period.

So what are my choices, exactly, in re: The Incredible Melting  Man? Spend $35 on a format that is on the way out, for a shitty generic disc, or spend $16.99 or such on a reasonably priced Blu-Ray, which I can't actually watch until I completely reconfigure my home viewing system? Neither option appeals, but here's a third: I could torrent it for free, and buy it on Blu-Ray when and if I have the technology to watch it that way. Hmm...

3. A very large number of older DVDs have been allowed to go out of print. Consider the case with Hammer horror. Classic as it may be, as with many Hammer titles, The Devil Rides Out is currently unavailable on DVD in North America. It can be found as a collectible title on the used market, ranging in price between $50 and $100, but of course, if I bought it thus, none of that money would be going to Hammer anyhow. It can be gotten new as a Region 2 PAL DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack, but given that I may not always have a region free player, and may want to play the film on the players of friends who don't have one, I am unwilling to buy it in that format. Will it ever come out again on DVD in North America? I'm guessing not. It MAY see a Blu-Ray release - I have some faith in the film's ability to survive - but until that time, it's out there as a torrent, waiting to be delivered free into your home. I can't buy it now ANYHOW - there is no way to purchase it new in North America, only collectors copies and imports in a different region code - so why the hell not?

...And bear in mind that there are still thousands of films that have never been distributed on DVD or Blu-Ray in North America, ever. I torrented a VHS rip of Paul Schrader's Light of Day yesterday - his film with Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett as brother/ sister rock'n'rollers - because it has never been released digitally, ANYWHERE - except for that dubbed German DVD of it, which, needless to say, will not suit my purposes. (And not only is it dubbed in German - it's pan and scan!). Those ambivalent about torrenting technology could confine their activities to films that are either OOP or have never been IN print digitally, and still have a selection of hundreds, maybe thousands, of titles to choose from; as long as they resolve to buy legitimate copies when the films eventually come out, it's hard to argue against such a practice...

4. A paradigm shift is afoot in the way media is consumed, and torrenting is likely going to be the last man standing. This extends beyond the issue of Blu-Ray vs. DVD, though there are surely more people than just myself who don't know what format to buy media in. Should we even buy DVDs? Does it make any economic sense? They have next to no resale value - try getting more than $2 for a used DVD at Videomatica - and are eventually going to go extinct; many boutique releases are happening on Blu-Ray only, these days. So should you then buy Blu-Ray? No doubt, they are superior technology, but they require a whole new batch of equipment to be played; and, of course, the possibility of some even higher-definition format in a few years time, be it 3-D or what have you. There's a good reason why the model of pay-TV, represented by Netflix, has made a resurgence: people are uncertain that they even want to own physical media at all, see it as a bad investment, because, just like they had to ditch all their VHS tapes and Laserdiscs for DVDs (and in some cases start replacing their DVDs with HD-DVDs, before Blu-Ray came out), they now realize that whatever format they invest in has a limited shelf-life and is subject to being obsolete in a few years. Serious cinephiles won't ever be happy with the pay-TV option - everyone I know who uses Netflix complains about the limited selection and not being able to find the films they want to see. Given all the above - unless you're so wealthy you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into the Blu-Ray revolution without worry that you might have to upgrade in a decade - what emerges as the logically superior means of accessing film at present?

The answer is: torrenting technology. It's incredibly efficient, easy to use, and even though its a semi-underground, illegitmate thing, is still by far the easiest, cheapest way to access home video content. It DOES create a problem as to how people who produce content are going to be recouped, but it's up to the industry to find a way to solve that problem; they will doubtlessly eventually do so, have already attempted to find various solutions (implementing levies on blank media, for instance). The rise of 3-D and Ultra-AVX, the closure of video stores, and the reduced distribution of home video all show the industry, from a point of view of maximal self-interest, adjusting to the present reality. From the point of view of the maximal self-interest of the consumer, however - it makes sense to take advantage of the best deal out there at the time. Businesspeople think like this - how can I get the most money out of the consumer? What's the best deal for me? There's no reason for consumers not to think like this, and at present, you can't beat free.

It doesn't really fit in as a rationalization for the use of torrents, but there's one other observation that needs to be made. Prices on home media need to come down; DVD and Blu-Ray retailers and distributors need to catch up with the current state of affairs and start pricing their product more affordably, if they want to be able to compete with torrents. By clinging to a model that peaked maybe ten years ago - where you could still charge $25 for a CD or DVD and hope to sell it - retailers and distributors are actually contributing to the problem, driving people to look for cheaper options.

The last new DVD I bought was Joe - a cult classic starring Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon. I paid $2.99 for it at the Great Canadian Superstore in Metrotown about a week ago, and was very happy to find it. I would, truth be known, have paid more for it, but not a lot more; given the nature of the industry - knowing that I could a) torrent it for free; b) likely find it online, new or used, for only a fraction more than that; c) hold out til the date that I can acquire it in Blu-Ray; d) eventually stumble across it in a thrift shop or pawnshop or liquidator or such for about that price; or e) possibly, with a bit of work, find it at a library - $2.99 is pretty much the right price for that film, cheap enough that I don't have to worry about the format's obsolescence, or that I'm somehow being a fool throwing away serious money on something of no inherent value, easily replicated, produced for pennies.  

What I wonder is, why aren't ALL old movies being put out at that sort of price? There are thousands upon thousands of films that I would still be happy to buy for $2.99 - a price that fits my reduced-income budget, and that makes good economic sense given the format shift and the many, many options out there for consuming media. Given the rate at which the $3-5 DVDs have been flying off the shelves at Liquidation World, now that their Canada-wide closeout sale has started, I'm not the only one who feels that way. What smart consumer is going to pay $22.95 to buy Joe new on DVD on Amazon - especially when there are copies out there for a tenth of the price? It's not like it's a particularly current or hot property. There's a failure on the part of the producers of media to catch up, to acknowledge that times have changed, to adjust their business practices to the present reality. Go into most retail home video shops that still exist - HMV at Metrotown is my current favourite example, as I say - and it seems like they're trying to sell encyclopedias door to door, in the age of Wikipedia; it's no longer a viable way of doing business, and it's no wonder that so many such retailers have shut down for good, given their refusal to adjust to changing times. If retailers of home video are going to survive, they need to acknowledge that CHEAP IS KING, especially where the competition is FREE. Even Videomatica, who are pretty savvy (sometimes sharky) in their sales practices, routinely have buy-one-get-one-free sales, and have an abundance of movies priced at $4.95...

I'm no great fan of torrenting technology, but in an increasingly Darwinian landscape, it's out-competing the alternatives, so much so that it no longer makes sense to refuse it. Where the options are paying inflated prices for technology that is likely to be obsolete in a few years, or not being able to find the films I want to see, torrents simply make sense. I wish they didn't, but....


Unknown said...

I'm using the DownloadHelper add-on from Firefox and downloading pretty much anything from either Viooz, YouTube or Crackle and converting to simple MP4 to watch on my iTunes via Apple TV.

Lots of old films on Viooz. Check out the YEARS search option.


Allan MacInnis said...

A few notes:

1. William Friedkin's Sorcerer is coming out in Blu-Ray in April. No DVD release is forthcoming, so this may be a game-changer for me: I will now HAVE to get a Blu-Ray player and flatscreen TV in order to watch William Friedkin's Sorcerer on it (unless it plays theatrically and I can watch it five nights in a row or something, which will tide me over for awhile). That probably means also getting a job, besides the odd bookstore and freelance writing gig. Someone hire me, so I can buy a flatscreen TV and Blu-Ray!

2. David M. has tapped into my vein of sentimentality over on Facebook, where I linked the above, and very nearly convinced me that I need to go back to supporting video stores and resist the temptation of torrenting. Because I want to live in a world with video stores in it, I do, I do. Torrenting is not universalizable in a Kantian sense. It creates a world that I do not want. Arrrgh. (Maybe I'll just torrent the impossible-to-get stuff? I do NOT feel guilty about having torrented Light of Day or The Devil Rides Out and promise I will buy any Region 1 release when they come out. If I have a job, anyhow).

3. On the other hand, Robin Bougie of Videomatica has informed me on that same thread that THEY didn't get in Blackfish, either! (Prohibitively expensive). WTF? What's a movie-lover to do?

Unknown said...

Most DVD's are competitively priced on or Ebay. DOWNLOADING is STEALING. There can be no ambiguity or justification about it. It's also what separates us from the Chinese.

Allan MacInnis said...

Congratulations on reducing a complex situation (and complex piece of writing) to a simple formula! Downloading is stealing. And abortion is murder, meat is murder, and ignorance is strength, too.

Now I see clearly. Thank you.