The Blu-ray dilemma

I love Blu-rays. They’ve got great visual quality and serve as a counterpoint to the high prices, loud audiences and endless ads at mainstream theaters. But Blu-rays are dying in the rental market with à la carte streaming taking its place, a more limited and often inferior substitute.

I’m aware that a defense of any disc media can appear shortsighted as tech shifts to mobile and the cloud. Streams clearly have several big advantages, most notably their convenience. But for the cinephile in me, Blu-rays for now are an unparalleled experience. There’s fewer artifacts or compression and no visual stutter from a bump in your internet connection. Almost every Blu-ray soundtrack delivers 5.1 surround. Also Blu-ray color depth and saturation trounces the content I stream from Amazon and iTunes.

Yet Blu-rays feel virtually inaccessible for rental. Netflix queue times are laughably bad; I’m averaging about two months from the time a new release movie is available for download or Blu-ray purchase, and when I get it from Netflix. I live in New York, a worldwide film hub, yet most local video options are long gone. Nearby self-service boxes from Blockbuster and Redbox have little selection.

This no-win situation is probably exactly what studios want: pony up $20 or more for an outright Blu-ray buy or suffer inferior quality (and no special features) at $5 for a 24-hour download rental. We deserve better.

Unfortunately, there’s no signs of the trend changing course. The studios set the rules. Distribution patterns for physical media take forever to change. If anything I’d expect more unskippable trailers and less content on rental Blu-rays to make the situation even worse.

So Blu-ray as a rental format appears dead, but movie streams and downloads don’t have to suffer the same fate. Hollywood has the chance to prevent a lot of problems (while cutting piracy) with a few changes in its download and streaming content:

Provide higher end streaming options that offer less compression and more special feature tie-ins. When I have to play a guessing game or run Google searches to find out if your “1080p HD” version is butchered by artifacts or other shortcuts, I’m out the door. Even at a slightly higher cost, I’d happily pay a $1 or $2 premium for an enhanced stream.

All films get 5.1 surround where available. It’s true if you listen from your laptop or mobile device, this doesn’t change much. But home theater packages have bumped up their quality in recent years at lower price points. Surround tracks can make a huge difference, and not just with blockbuster action films (e.g. the atmospheric surround touches in “Mulholland Drive” are pretty masterful.)

Cut the price of HD back catalog titles by at least $1 or $2. Why is the classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles only a buck less than a new release on iTunes? I know the “one simple price” mantra is popular for Blockbuster and the iTunes music store. But this is a very different market; a movie rental stream is a watch once, low investment impulse buy (just look at the popularity of Netflix’s instant streaming.) Tap into that by keeping the back catalog priced low.

Online delivery is clearly film’s future. Yet that medium, much like we’ve seen with music, has the ability to disrupt the Hollywood studio system. It won’t kill it, because they still hold most of the content (i.e. why the same few studios have ruled films for decades.) This, combined with growing frustration by consumers on increasing content restrictions along with pirated torrents being easier to access, can significantly harm Hollywood. If the studios don’t adapt and change, the market will force them to.