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Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Releasing a Soundtrack Album

This is a small frustration, and quite possibly it’s specific to me, but why are record labels so tardy in releasing soundtrack albums.

Everyone knows that for most films, the opening weekend is key. The largest number of people tend to see a film on its opening weekend, and in many instances, the film gets its widest distribution that weekend too. If you’re lucky the film grows, and perhaps opens on more screens subsequently, but you at least plan for the opening and take it from there.

So you’ve been to see a film, and you want to buy some merchandise. How are companies set up? Well if the film you saw was a Marvel film, a James Bond film or a Disney film, then you can bet your bottom dollar that product is sitting on the shelves already. You couldn’t move without seeing Minions this summer.

But what about if you’ve seen an indie film and liked the soundtrack. Well you know from the start that this might be trickier. Are they actually releasing a soundtrack album at all? There are costs, and they include licencing music for “sync” in the first place. There’s extra to place it on the soundtrack.

In a vinyl/CD world, this sort of made sense. You had to speculate to accumulate. You put the album out there and hoped it would sell. That’s why it’s only much later that many films got their soundtrack album. There was a measurable demand and now was the time to meet it.

But we live in a world of instant gratification.

I remember years ago having come out of a cinema and headed straight for the late-opening record shop nearby to pick up a copy of the film’s soundtrack on CD. I got the shop’s only copy. As I reached the counter to pay, the man ahead was in conversation with an assistant. She was busily tapping away on the keyboard: “Well it definitely says we have one copy in stock. Perhaps it’s not been shelved in the right place.” She headed off with him to look. I guiltily bought said single copy from another assistant and left the shop.

Today, I can whip out my phone as I leave the cinema, check online music stores, buy the album (or listen as part of a subscription if you must), and have it playing in my headphones as I head home.

Except, it doesn’t always work like that.

Case in point: the Mistress America soundtrack.

I loved the film, and wanted to hear more. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips composed the music, and they have a fanbase. On top of that, the film also features a few licenced songs, notably Souvenir by OMD.

Here’s what I did about getting the soundtrack.

  • First of all establish whether there is a soundtrack album in existence? There is.It’s out, and available at least on US download sites.
  • OK – try Google Play. It’s the easiest option on an Android phone. No dice. OK, I’m not necessarily surprised because Google Play does seem to be a bit slow with some major albums.
  • Let’s try Amazon. They had one copy on an import CD priced at £15.17. But it wasn’t an AutoRip CD. So even if I paid that money, I wouldn’t get the instant gratification. That single copy sold pretty quickly incidentally. At time of writing they’re out of stock.
  • Go home and try iTunes. At the end of the day, if you’re releasing your album digitally, you have to have it on iTunes. It’s not easily searchable on an Android phone, so I used a PC at home with iTunes. No luck. The album’s not there.
  • I wonder if I can buy the album from Amazon.com where it’s $9.49? While my account works, it doesn’t let me buy a download with a UK credit card.
  • Clutching at straws now. I wonder if I can buy myself an Amazon.com gift card for $9.50? I can. And now can I use that voucher to download the album? I cannot. I now have $9.50 on my US account. How useful.

And that’s your lot. It’s a North America only release, seemingly, despite the film being released simultaneously in the US and UK. I can’t think of another outlet that will sell me a download version without having either regional difficulties or a worse selection of music than the big players. I could visit an actual record shop, but they are few and far between, and the range isn’t what it once was. Will they carry an import only CD? So it’s probably an import CD from Amazon when they have stock, or maybe the label might want to release the soundtrack in the UK. The digital-only cost is surely negligible?

And if you make it really hard, there are always the not-so-legal routes to get an album.

[Update] I note that the album is on Spotify. But… I can only stream three tracks from it – notably previously released tracks that are on other albums including the aforementioned Souvenir. My quest continues.

Note: All prices and availabilities (or lack there of) based on the time of writing, which is right after the film’s opening weekend.