Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culture Shock 09.30.10: Doomsday is approaching for the DVD

A little more than a decade after its introduction, the DVD is already on its way out. It's a quick end to what was the most quickly adopted media format in history.

The evidence of the DVD's demise is overwhelming.

Best Buy plans to greatly reduce the amount of floor space it devotes to DVDs this holiday season, using that space instead for netbooks and tablet PCs — products that are actually in demand. And if you've been in a Best Buy recently, you've probably noticed the big-box retailer has already scaled back its DVD selection. Just try finding anything other than recent films or classics like "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." The midlist selection has all but disappeared.

Earlier this year, Movie Gallery, the nation's No. 2 video rental chain, went out of business. Last week, the No. 1 chain, Blockbuster, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in a last-ditch — and probably futile — effort to avoid the same fate.

Neither Movie Gallery nor Blockbuster could withstand the onslaught of Netflix, which delivers DVDs by mail, offers an unsurpassed selection and never charges late fees. But even Netflix is trying its best to phase out DVDs.

Netflix is aggressively pushing its on-demand service, which streams movies directly to viewers via the Internet. This month, Netflix began streaming films released by Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM under a new deal worth nearly $1 billion.

Netflix would much rather pay the movie studios for the right to stream movies than pay the Postal Service to deliver DVDs to customers within one day. Netflix's executives can see the future, and it doesn't include physical media like DVDs, which are rapidly going the same way as compact discs. (Best Buy is cutting back on CDs this year even more than on DVDs. You can blame — or praise — Apple's Steve Jobs for that.)

None of this means that DVDs are about to disappear completely. The Hollywood movie studios are still banking on high-profile new releases, and Blu-ray, the high-definition successor to DVD, still appeals to people with home- theater systems. But the studios are already cutting back. Most older movies still languishing in studio vaults will probably never be released on DVD.

To meet the lingering demand for those catalog titles, a couple of studios are adopting a middle ground. Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures have launched print-on-demand services via their company websites and The studios burn films to DVD-R discs when you order them.

DVD-Rs don't offer the same quality as commercially released DVDs, but they'll have to do for fans of obscure films that have not, and likely will not, make their way to DVD. For instance, Sony had scheduled a DVD release of the 1965 Sherlock Holmes film "A Study in Terror" for last year, to coincide with the release of the latest Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. But the DVD of "A Study in Terror" never arrived.

This month, Sony finally made "A Study in Terror" available as a DVD-R at its website. Clearly, someone at Sony has reconsidered the studio's approach to older films with cult followings.

Warner Bros. has been especially aggressive in shifting to DVD-R. It's print-on-demand films include "Under the Rainbow" with Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, the foodie murder mystery "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" starring George Segal and Jacqueline Bisset, and Peter Sellers in "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu." A few years ago, when Best Buy was still stocking midlist titles, all would have been candidates for traditional DVD.

A few other catalog titles may find their way to DVD through small, special-interest labels that have always catered to the cult-film audience. Synapse Films will be releasing three long-awaited horror films that had been gathering dust in the Universal Studios and Fox vaults: "Vampire Circus," "Twins of Evil" and "Hands of the Ripper."

Vinyl record albums have disappeared except for the few pressed to satisfy a small but devoted following of aficionados. DVDs seem destined to follow the same path.

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