My Two Cents
Monday, 18 February 2019 15:17

Criterion’s May slate, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace restored, and thoughts on the future of physical media

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There’s some new release news to report today, and then we’re going to return to the topic of physical media in the wake of the news about Samsung on Friday.

But first, late on Friday afternoon, Criterion announced their May Blu-ray release slate, which is set to include William Wyler’s The Heiress (Cat #974 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 5/7, an updating of David Mamet’s House of Games (Cat #399 – Blu-ray and DVD) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (Cat #975 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 5/14, Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (Cat #976 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 5/21, and Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Cat #978 – Blu-ray and DVD) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (Cat #977 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 5/28. We’ve updated our Criterion Spines Project page here at The Bits to include these titles and you can read more about them here.

Speaking of Criterion, we also learned on Friday that the Russian film studio Mosfilm has completed a new 2K restoration of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1966-67 film adaptation of War and Peace. The 7-hour/4-part series is legendary in cinema history as the biggest production ever mounted, besting even David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia by having an essentially unlimited budget, a bottomless supply of props and costumes from the country’s state museums, and a cast of thousands. The film was shot on Russian Sovscope 70mm film stock, but unfortunately it’s suffered from preservation issues over the years. That’s meant the only good options available for viewing in recent years have been DVD versions of modest quality. [Read on here...]

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But over the last several years, Mosfilm has restored the film frame by frame, collecting “parts of negatives from different archives” to assemble the best available source material, which was then subject to 2K scanning and extensive digital restoration. US distribution rights have been obtained by Janus Films, and the restored film is currently being screened in NYC at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It opens in LA next month. And here’s the best part: Criterion will be releasing the film on Blu-ray and DVD later in 2019. Having seen this film on DVD, this is the best news I can imagine. Honestly, I had feared this film was going to be lost to history. That it’s been restored is a near-miracle. This is a film that every serious fan of the cinema must experience at least once in their life. You’ve never seen anything like it.

A bit more release news to report today: Eureka! is releasing Lewis Teague’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Cujo on Blu-ray in the UK on 29 April. It’s a 2-disc set, released in a limited edition of 4000 units, with a 60-page collector’s book and lots of new interviews and extras. You can read more here.

On the 4K Ultra HD front, just as we said a week or two ago, Universal is going to be releasing Backdraft on 5/7 and Field of Dreams on 5/14. We’ve added them to our 4K Ultra HD Release List here at The Bits accordingly. BTW, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is likely due on 5/7 on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K.

Also, a 4K update from our retail sources: Fox’s Alien: 40th Anniversary Edition seems to have been pushed from 4/2 to 4/23. Keep in mind, it has yet to be officially announced, but adjust your tentative plans accordingly.

And here at The Bits today, we have a pair of new Blu-ray reviews for you including Dennis’ thoughts on Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-nominated A Star Is Born and Tim’s look at Tony Williams’ Next of Kin (1982) from Severin Films. Both are worth a look.

Samsungs, Oppos & Discs: The View from 2019 on the Future of Physical Media

All right, so that’s the news. Now I mean to talk more about physical media, specifically the future of it in light of Friday’s news that Samsung is following Oppo Digital’s lead in bowing out of the Blu-ray player business. And that’s a key point: Samsung is no longer going to be making Blu-ray players at all, not just 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players. As I said on Friday (and last month post CES 2019), this is certainly evidence of the beginning of the end of physical media.

But it’s important to stress this: The beginning of the end is not the end.

Here are some relevant statistics to keep in mind. Nielsen’s latest estimate is that there are approximately 119.9 million TV homes in the US. Of those, roughly 65% have a Blu-ray or DVD player (approx 77.9 million). Now... to be sure, that number is down from a decade ago, when 90% of homes had DVD players, but it’s still a large number. Of that 119.9 million, approximately 1/3 have 4K displays (approx 39.5 million). Per the Blu-ray Disc Association at CES 2019, the global installed base of standalone 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players was 4.5 million at the end of last year, and that number is expected to grow to 7.4 million this year (per Futuresource), to 10.7 million in 2020, to 14.2 million in 2021, and to 17.5 million in 2022. In terms of software, 4K UHD Blu-ray sales increased 83% in 2018 over 2017.

If you look at average sales of physical discs by format, NPO Videoscan pegs the market share of the top 50 disc sellers for the week ending 2/9 as about 55.2% DVD, 39.8% Blu-ray, and 5% 4K Ultra HD. Total disc revenue is down about 8% for the week ending 2/2 (per Media Play News) over the same week a year ago. But within that share, Blu-ray and 4K continue to increase as DVD declines.

02/09/19 UHD Market Share

What does all this mean? It means that the disc business continues to make a lot of money. Keep in mind, that number I posted a few minutes ago – 77.9 million disc players – is just disc players installed in the US. Both here in the States and globally, there is still strong demand for watching movies on disc. Yes, it’s down from previous years and it would be reasonable to assume that 8% drop probably extends globally. But lots of people have disc libraries, lots are still buying discs, and lots will continue to do so for years to come.

So now we get back to Samsung’s announcement that they’re backing out of the Blu-ray player business. Keep in mind, for many years now, Oppo has been at the forefront of making Blu-ray/4K players that enthusiasts wanted most, with Panasonic and Sony not far behind. With Oppo dropping out last year, Sony and Panasonic didn’t back off at all. Far from it, they doubled down, announcing new high end models hoping to capture Oppo customers (in addition to their own lower priced models). Samsung’s Blu-ray and 4K players have tended to be marketed not at high end enthusiasts but more middling and entry level customers. I suspect when they realized they couldn’t compete with Sony and Panasonic, that hastened their decision to exit the market. What that means is that existing pool of disc enthusiast customers all now shifts to Sony and Panasonic. The larger market share for each thus strengthens their position. And it’s no accident that Panasonic is adding both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision to their player and display lineups this year, in addition to standard HDR10. It gives them an edge over Sony, which continues to eschew HDR10+.

I’ve said before that I see physical media and digital streaming as complementary services. High end enthusiasts will continue to prefer physical discs for watching their favorite titles, as will consumers who live in areas without fast and affordable internet access. But there’s no doubt that digital streaming and downloads offer tremendous convenience for average consumers. While the world of digital streaming can still be a bewildering morass given its multiple competing (and sometimes gate-walled) providers, each with its own exclusive content, over time a handful of key players will emerge. And yes, there will be hiccups (like UltraViolet shutting down) that will continue to make digital movie lockers a sometimes frustrating proposition. But one suspects that this too will settle out in time.

What we’re seeing is a gradual shift in the way people consume media at home, from a nearly all physical media marketplace a decade ago, to one in which digital and streaming plays the major role. In this new market, physical media consumers will be the niche. Yes, there will be fewer hardware providers, but the ones that remain are in a strong position. And even as the major studios reduce their own disc output, an armada of independent studios and distributors has grown to license their catalogs for release on disc. I could see the market continuing in this way for a decade or more.

Yes, it’s likely that physical media will go away at some point. But that day is not soon.

Case in point: I worked in a Musicland store in 1986 when Compact Discs arrived and swept aside the vinyl LP market in a tidal wave of 5-inch plastic discs. And yet, 33 years later, vinyl LPs have made a small resurgence: 16.8 million of them were sold in the US in 2018 (per Nielsen). That’s up from 14.3 million in 2017 and 13 million in 2016. I shouldn’t need to point out the obvious, but I will anyway: A vinyl LP is physical media.

Record Store Day 2018

So yes, optical discs overall are in a gradual decline as digital takes root and goes mainstream, but Blu-ray and DVD continue to grow their market share and vinyl LPs are growing too. While the trend lines may be down overall, those lines are not going to zero anytime soon.

Which brings me back to my larger point: 2019 may genuinely mark the beginning of the end for physical media. But the beginning of the end is not the end.

However, I would strongly suggest this: If you do love physical media and you want to continue enjoying it as long as you can, you need to put your money where your heart is. Obviously, we all work within a budget. But when your favorite titles come out on 4K Ultra HD from the major studios, or a great new remaster comes out on Blu-ray from an indie studio, or even a deep catalog classic you thought you’d never see on Blu-ray finally shows up... don’t wait to buy them. Get the best sale price you can, but buy them. Because those sales send a direct message to the decision makers at the major studios. And those sales may be the difference between an indie company continuing to exist... or not.

Trust me, if you simply think: “Oh, I’ll just wait until next year when this title will be $5 in the bargain bin at Walmart,” you WILL be helping to hasten the demise of physical media. Like it or not, the message the studios will take is: “Well, I guess no one wants to buy these discs anymore. So why are we making them?” That’s what happened with TV shows on disc. Lots of people – and quite understandably – decided to skip buying TV Series: The Next Season on Blu-ray or DVD, preferring to wait instead for the inevitable and cheaper TV Series: The Complete Series box set on Blu-ray or DVD. The result was that for MANY shows, that The Complete Series set never came. Many studios simply gave up, having watched those individual season sales nosedive. Now the only place you can buy some of those shows is digital; more and more all the time.

All of that said, my advice about all of this physical media news is to relax. Buy and spin your discs, buy/rent and stream your digital content. Content is king – always has been, always will be. One way or another, the studios are going to find a way to get it to you. Enjoy it on disc as long as you can.

Stay tuned…

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