It’s no secret that the DVD retail industry is in trouble. Disc sales have posted double-digit declines this year, and studios are panicked and looking around for a scapegoat. I want to discuss one bright spot in all the gloom: rentals. As we have discussed in earlier posts, while sales of discs have been dropping, rentals are up.
Despite a prolonged recession that has stifled most other sectors, box office receipts are actually on track to beat last year’s. This, combined with the uptick in rentals suggests a simple fact: people are still WATCHING movies, they just don’t want to OWN them anymore.
The following reasons help offer an explanation, in my opinion, of why the viewing public (myself included) has lost much of its interest in purchasing movies. Whether you agree, disagree or think of additional reasons that I don’t mention, let us know your opinion in the comments. Here we go:
Renting Just Makes More Sense
In the early 2000s, I went to work building my DVD library with vigor. Each Sunday I would scan the ad inserts in the paper from Best Buy and Circuit City to see which movies were coming out on disc and were “on sale” for $15-$18. More often than not, I would buy several of them. Looking back now, I have no idea why.
Of the several hundred movies I own or have owned on DVD, there are maybe a dozen I’ve watched enough times to justify their purchase price. I try not to think about how much I would have saved if I’d had my current “enlightened” attitude towards renting in my misspent youth. Unless I absolutely LOVE a film I’ve seen in theaters or rented and know I’ll rewatch it over the years, it’s just not worth the price of the DVD (or Blu-ray now). Only three or four movies a year make that cut, and my wallet is all the heavier for the (belated) triumph of reason in my movie-watching habits.
TV has Upped its Game
I’m not talking about The Hills, five nights of primetime Jay Leno a week (Seriously, NBC? FIVE nights?) or the likes of this unspeakable disaster:
No, I’m talking about The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Mad Men and other outstanding shows of the last ten years or so. These are well-written, well-acted cinematic shows with a scope and production values previously only seen in films. While there have always been a few excellent serial dramas on TV, the last decade has seen the blurring of the silver screen and the small screen in a big way. Discerning television viewers now expect more from their favorite shows, and much of the magical “movie-ness” of feature films has worn off as superior fare has been created for TV. The result is that many, many Hollywood films now pale in comparison to the best television shows in recent memory. Why buy DVDs when you already have access to often-superior entertainment through your cable or dish?
Quantity over Quality
Now we come to it, the real reason why most movies today aren’t worth owning: they suck. One of the most frequent comments made on this website is that people don’t feel like plunking down their hard-earned cash to buy the crap films studios are churning out. And churning them out, they are. According to the MPAA, the number of films released domestically last year climbed to 610. 610!
An amazing film is a rare thing: a perfect storm where a great story, visionary director, talented actors and crew and supportive studio execs come together to create something truly outstanding. Such films don’t come along that often, and studios are businesses, with employees to pay and investors to satisfy. Thus they have to take a “more is more” approach to pay the bills, cranking out sequels, remakes and other formulaic drivel to make payroll and keep the lights on. Out of the ten highest-grossing films of all time, EIGHT of them are sequels or prequels. Risk is expensive, and in most cases a studio will go with a proven and/or cheap commodity, whether or not it’s the right choice “artistically”. The result is a bloated release slate, with only the occasional film worth the expense of purchasing.
What really bothers me, though, is that the public often rewards studios’ indifference to quality by making this behavior profitable. If I’m a studio exec who wants to keep my job and my cushy lifestyle, I’m going to greenlight the projects that get the most “bang for the buck”. Why spend several hundred million on a lavish period piece or compelling drama when I can toss out $26 million for Paul Blart: Mall Cop and watch it earn more than $180 million? There’s a reason why we get an endless parade of Scary Movie/Tyler Perry/Meet the Spartans-type pablum: they’re cheap and people pay to see them. They don’t appear nearly as interested, however, in owning them when the time comes. (Why people pay cinema prices to see those movies in the first place is a debate for another day.) Perhaps if potential DVD buyers felt that they had higher quality options, they’d be more willing to part with their cash. It might hurt studios at the front end, but there could be some serious payoff at the back end.
Even in tough financial times, people will pay to own a product they perceive is offering them value. Until Hollywood figures that out, Netflix, VOD and Redbox will continue to benefit from my (and your) buyer’s apathy. That, Insiders, is why we rent.