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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.

Girls on Trains

That sounds a bit creepy.

I’m actually talking about the phenomenon that is Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train.

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It has been the book that everyone has been reading for the past year or so. Indeed, it if it weren’t for the fact that everyone watches iPlayer and reads Kindles, you’d have seen the book everywhere on public transport for the last year. I enjoyed it a great deal.

And earlier this year, it became a successful film.

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I’ve yet to see it, and although some were disappointed that the location was moved from the UK to the US, there were good reviews of Emily Blunt in the starring role.

But if you go looking for the book, you might just end with something else, particularly on sites like Amazon.

For example there’s Girl on a Train by A J Waines.

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Now to be clear, this was published before Hawkins’ book. But the fact that Amazon labels it a Bestseller, and that it is claimed that over 250,000 Kindle downloads have been sold, might suggest that the author is benefitting from a similar title. More than one reviewer also notes that it was purchased in error. Of course many may have read it and may not realise that they’ve read an entirely different book. Both are thrillers after all, and Paula Hawkins probably still isn’t a household name. The covers are different, and as Waines came first, the title can hardly be construed as cashing in. Just a happy coincidence.

What if you fancied catching the film? I was in a supermarket earlier this week and what did I see but this:

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This is actually a 2013 thriller starring Henry Ian Cusack. It’s an indie film that played a few festivals and got a very limited US release in 2014. Yet last month, it suddenly gets a UK DVD release, seeing it get shelf-space in supermarkets! The new cover art has been cynically designed to mirror that of the book.

Even though Amazon has very clearly labelled the film “The Girl on the Train (Not the Emily Blunt Movie)” and has a note to customers that says, “Please note that this is not the 2016 movie based on the novel by Paula Hawkins and starring Emily Blunt,” it’s clear from the one star reviews that many customers have mistakenly picked up this title by mistake.

(There’s also a similarly named 2009 French film starring Catherine Deneuvre, which is based on a horrifc true story.)

Generally speaking you can’t copyright film titles, although the major studios tend to stay clear of one another. There are plenty of books with the same titles – particularly when you get to one word thrillers. And of course, a simple phrase like “The Girl on the Train” might easily pitch up repeatedly. Indeed both the film and the book that I’ve noted here came before Hawkins’ bestseller. And when a book is a massive seller, you can expect others to try to replicate their success. So look out for lots of books with the word “Girl” in the title.

It’s just curious that this particular film and book have such notable similar titles, even if one is prospering more cynically than the other.