The Magic of The Disc Player

In a world awash with digital movie streaming services, Blu-rays and DVDs might have a surprisingly crucial role to play.

The Magic of The Disc Player

For the best part of two decades my movie collection has been digital. No discs. I once owned a handsome collection of VHS cassettes & DVDs, but broadband became fast enough to download movies at some point in the early 2000s, then fast enough to stream movies, and soon enough I stopped buying DVDs. I never made the jump to Blu-ray.

For a long time I thought this worked just fine. When I wanted to watch a movie, I usually had a way to watch it. Only in recent years, oddly enough, as options for reliable HD streaming have multiplied and outlets for movies to be streamed or rented after their theatrical release are plentiful, the “no disc” approach has started to feel incomplete.

Films can be found on any one of ten or so services these days, and often different regional deals are struck in each major market. A movie you see referenced on Twitter, or reviewed on Letterboxd, or discussed on your favourite podcast and mentioned as being “available on Netflix” might actually turn up zero results on Netflix where you live. Or it might be available on a different platform, or just not be available on any streaming platform in your country. Chaos.

Discovering movies is easier than ever, but figuring out where to watch them is a different kettle of fish. Outside a dozen or so “tent pole” releases from Netflix, Amazon, Apple, HBO, things get messy. There's no reliable, centralised source of data as to where a film can be seen (services like JustWatch are helpful, but they are not authoritative, and lack entries for many new releases). Even films from major studios don't always have their own official website, which could serve as an authoritative source for where they are available to stream, and easily give info relevant to the user's location.

The situation is fraught for old films, too. Studios and rights holders like to hold back their catalogues, drip feeding them to platforms and often licensing them for limited time periods. So just because you see Friday the 13th: A New Beginning on Amazon Prime, or available to rent on iTunes, doesn’t mean it’ll be there tomorrow when you’re actually in the mood to watch it. There’s an unpredictability involved that means the best tactic for streaming old films is often just to scroll sideways through a couple hundred tiles until you find something that’s “good enough.” Close enough to what you felt like watching. Forty minutes into the scroll, you realise you could have been halfway through a good movie.

Today's options for streaming and renting are, in fairness, quite impressive in some ways. They are in HD and presented nicely—usually with good subtitles options, for example. That's a Good Thing. But if you love cinema, these platforms don't belong at the heart of your viewing experience. You need something more comprehensive. Something you have more control over. And downloading movies via torrents or the likes limits your ability to genuinely say you love cinema. How can you both love cinema and avoid spending your disposable income on it? Those two things don't mix.

Theatrical viewings are essential for the biggest and most interesting releases each year. But for your favourite films, past and present? You want something rock solid. Movies that won’t vanish as licensing deals expire. A device you know will still function viably five years later, or can be swapped out for a new one that plays all the same movies. It should be a separate, closed system. You press “play” and it plays, with minimal variables. The speed of the broadband in your neighborhood should not matter.

A disc player is the only real option.

I finally purchased my first Blu-ray player, which also plays DVDs (a surprisingly crucial feature), a few months back. It was an early pandemic purchase. The moment I inserted my first disc—Freddy vs. Jason (2003), which was on discount at Amazon and which I had not seen since its theatrical release, despite enjoying it—something clicked. I had closed a hole in my movie playing options I didn’t know existed. Unlocked the ability to watch countless obscure old films, which are often available on DVD and nowhere else—case in point Gummo (1997), a film I had wanted to rewatch for years, couldn't find anywhere, but was available on DVD. I had also added a reliable way to watch new films that get stuck in streaming limbo for months or years. Flea market stalls and crummy second-hand DVD stores have become places of wonder and intrigue. I can feel excited about re-releases of great films from the past given fresh restorations, supplemental material, or artistic box set collections.

My new rule of thumb is whenever you would rate a film four stars out of five or better, get the Blu-ray. You’re going to want to rewatch it for years. DVDs are now one of my first ports of call for obscure old films unavailable from the usual platforms. The quality isn't great, but it's reliably mediocre. It's more than watchable. And it's comforting to know that when Skynet finally activates and the conventional internet goes down all around the world, I'll still be able to turn on my disc player, stick a round metallic disc in its tray, and zone out watching In the Mood for Love (2000) with the lights dimmed. No internet connection required.

I beseech you, cinema fans: plug the disc-shaped hole in your cinema viewing options if you have not already. The warm embrace of physical media awaits those who, like me, jumped to a “digital only” solution long ago and felt irrational levels of resistance to getting on board with Blu-ray so late in the game.