One of the most interesting aspects of having served as the editor of The Digital Bits website for over twenty years now, is that I’ve had a front row seat to some pretty dramatic changes in the home video industry.
At 53, I’m old enough to remember watching movies on black-and-white televisions—square analog displays that required the viewer to adjust a pair of “rabbit ear” antenna to get a decent picture. Like some of you, I saw the advent of cable television and the arrival of VHS and Betamax videotape—a technology the film industry fought tooth-and-nail to kill until its profit potential finally became obvious.
And of course, as a longtime film enthusiast, I’m someone who strongly embraced the Laserdisc format back when it was the only option for watching movies in their original widescreen aspect ratios at home.
I founded The Digital Bits in late 1997 (it actually began as an industry newsletter shared by email in late ’96) in part because I knew that DVD would be a hit. Having worked at a record store a decade earlier, when Compact Discs took the music world by storm, it was obvious to me that consumers would embrace the idea of movies on a disc that was—to them—essentially identical to the CDs they already loved. [Read on here...]
Of course, DVD did turn out to be transformational. High definition movie discs soon followed, after a brief format war, resulting in the adoption of Blu-ray Disc. And now the most discerning home theater enthusiasts have embraced an even higher quality movie experience on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
But there remains a problem with this picture, one that film enthusiasts cannot afford to ignore: While DVD quickly became the most successful home entertainment format of all time, each successive movie disc format has captured a smaller share of the market. Only about 40% of DVD fans eventually embraced Blu-ray. And less than 10% of Blu-ray fans have likewise upgraded to 4K Ultra HD.
There are lots of reasons for this—cost, budgets strained by multiple recessions, less inclination by younger consumers towards ownership, the advent of Digital streaming, and sheer market saturation. (How many times is a person willing to rebuy the same films in new formats?) But whatever the reason, the result is clear: Movie discs are on the decline.
There’s now just one major replicator of physical media in all of North America (down from six at the height of DVD). The enthusiast favorite player manufacturer—Oppo Digital—has abandoned the market. So too has Samsung, once a major player in the space. The indie movie distributor Twilight Time is no more… and they certainly won’t be the last such company to fold in the years ahead. And prior to the recent pandemic (which caused a brief spike in all home entertainment spending, but is now depressing disc spending due to a lack of new titles in stores), physical movie disc sales had dropped by double-digit percentages three years in a row (18% in 2019, 14.6% in 2018, and 14.1% in 2017 per the Digital Entertainment Group)—a precipitous decline.
This is a problem for fans of movies on physical 4K Ultra HD in particular. It means that there are many films enthusiasts would love to buy that will never be available on 4K disc. Don’t believe me? Multiple services now have 4K Digital versions of Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Live Free or Die Hard, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Silence of the Lambs, Rocky, The Princess Bride, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, District 9, Elysium, Spaceballs, Red Heat, Easy Rider, Pretty in Pink, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tropic Thunder, Airplane, Flashdance, Deep Impact, Nashville, Escape from L.A., Vanilla Sky, The Firm, The War of the Worlds (1953), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Hurt Locker, The Running Man, every classic James Bond film, The Limey, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Beverly Hills Cop III, Dirty Dancing, The Cotton Club: Encore, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Guns of Navarone—none of these are (as yet) available on disc in the US. That’s just a quick survey; more such titles are added every day. And based upon the trends I’ve just described, there’s no reason to believe the situation is going to improve going forward.
Houston, We Have a Problem
One of the best aspects about the evolution of movies on disc is that it’s resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of the home entertainment experience as compared to theaters. You don’t have to sit through TV commercials rebranded to seem like “infotainment.” No longer must you endure a lengthy barrage of trailers for other movies that make you forget which one you’re there to see. The cost of popcorn, soda, and other snacks for your family needs no longer to reach $50 an outing. And you never have to deal with that guy who’s always explaining the plot of the movie out loud to his neighbor, or that other guy who’s surfing his brightly-lit smartphone right next to you.
With a modest investment in hardware (displays, sound system, etc.) you can also now enjoy, in the comfort of your own home, picture and sound that equals—even rivals—that of many actual movie theaters. This is especially true if you’ve upgraded to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Theaters equipped with digital projectors exhibit movies in DCP (Digital Cinema Package) format, which can deliver a 4K resolution image (but is often only 2K). And theatrical audio is typically 24-bit and uncompressed in PCM, DTS:X, or Dolby Atmos format; essentially the same mixes are included on 4K discs, simply optimized for home theater speaker configurations.
The “Golden Age of Discs,” as many enthusiasts call it, also heralded an era of unprecedented access to a vast and growing array of movie and TV content. Gone are the days of being stuck with only those new and classic Hollywood films that someone else decided were worthy of showing at your local theater or on pay cable—you can now curate your own viewing choices from essentially the entire world’s cinema and television programming.
But while streaming services like Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Netflix, Disney+, Roku, Vudu, the Criterion Channel, and others do offer access to a tremendous variety of content, there are some key downsides. For casual movie viewers, some of whom are quite happy watching their content on a tablet or smartphone, they’re not a significant issue. But for serious movie enthusiasts—the kind of people who’ve invested their hard-earned money in mid-priced but lovingly-calibrated home theater displays and sound systems—they’re a deal-breaker.
For one thing, due to the byzantine nature of content distribution rights and dealmaking—and the advent of original programming produced by the streaming services themselves for exhibition to only their own customers—it’s become very hard to one-stop shop for content. Some movies are available on multiple services, some are limited to just one, and many (especially older classic and foreign films) simply aren’t available at all. In addition, as these deals expire or get renegotiated, titles that were available on one service can suddenly disappear and later show up on another. If there’s a film you’d really love to watch on the spur of the moment—particularly one that isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster—you don’t want to have to search multiple streaming catalogs just to find it.
Changing times can also mean that a particular film is suddenly no longer considered politically correct or commercially acceptable. Streaming services, concerned with the risk of offending their customers, might decide to make that film unavailable (for better or worse) without warning. In addition, if a director or studio makes a change or an edit to a film, the original version of that film too can simply disappear.
And while a few of these services do offer streamed movie content in 4K resolution, the higher compression and variable bit rates required to make streaming delivery work over Internet connections of varying speeds means that there’s just no comparison—in terms of sheer image and sound quality, the physical 4K Ultra HD disc experience has always been superior.
But if Digital is the future, all of this represents a real concern for 4K enthusiasts. How do we maintain the level of quality we’ve come to expect on disc in a world where the disc itself eventually goes away?
Well… it turns out there is a product that could show the way.
For the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to demo a Kaleidescape Strato movie player. And it’s been an eye-opening experience.
Serious A/V enthusiasts, and those familiar with the high-end home theater installation world, will likely already know of Kaleidescape. But for most of you—those that are film enthusiasts first and foremost—this may be your first exposure to them.
Essentially, Kaleidescape is a company dedicated to delivering a luxury home theater experience. Their goal is to provide the absolute best quality movie viewing option that’s possible in the home. And since the company’s founding in 2001, they’ve focused on developing the trust within the film industry—and the custom and robust technical engineering on the hardware side—required to achieve that goal.