Destroy All Monsters: Paramount, Netflix And The End of the Physical World

Matt Brown, Columnist

It took me till the second- or third-last episode of the second season of Netflix's House of Cards to really look at the series' opening credits again. They show a Washington devoid of people, a faded mausoleum of formerly tangible power whose sun is setting, while the theoretical purpose of it all - the citizens - have been rotoscoped out of the frame altogether.

Their cars occasionally flit by, sped-up streams of information as night falls and currents of light overtake the metropolis. That this unsettling visual metaphor should grace the head of every episode of House of Cards, the beacon of Netflix's self-generated content strategy, is probably accidental; but as night falls on the era of physical media thanks to digital content providers like Netflix, it's an undeniably loaded image.

Meanwhile, last month, Paramount Pictures announced that it would stop distributing film prints. This took me by surprise, only in that I thought this cliff had been jumped off a while ago. I was in a tiny multiplex in northern Michigan last summer and saw an actual print of World War Z, and was so surprised by its undeniably physical presence in front of me - dust, scratches, and oh blessed be, cigarette burns! - that I nearly ran to the projection booth and stole it.

The decline of the physical world in movies and television production and delivery makes an entirely logistical sense, and I don't much begrudge it. Physical objects are harder assets to manage than ephemeral ones. That's all any of this content is - assets - and while we can argue the lasting aesthetic value of, say, celluloid as a capture medium, we'd do well to remember that the media industry we're talking about exists in a realm of pragmatic realities like any other industry. Reduction of both cost and risk will forever be the grails to chase.

I don't really have a dog in the film vs. digital race, either. Pretty much from the moment in the 1990s that George Lucas announced he would shoot Star Wars Episode I using "video cameras" (he ultimately fell short of the goal by 3 years, and they would end up being called digital cameras, but hey, he was eerily close), I figured the game for analogue cinema was up.

I feel bad for companies like Kodak who bet their livelihood on the continued validity of traditional formats and lost, and especially bad for smaller theatres (possibly including that one in Michigan) who couldn't leverage enough financial support to convert to digital projection. Change always has cost.

And now that the digital pipeline is greased, I'm of course charmed that a bunch of old fuddy-duddies - including, amusingly, the director of the next Star Wars movie - are fetishizing celluloid right back into the digital sphere. At this stage, that sort of decision no longer really matters; moving images captured on film are just as easily dropped into the electronic whirlwind as native electronic ones. Pixels and data are what all of these artistic enterprises are inevitably driving towards, and where they will ultimately reside. How they get there is trivial.

But right alongside all of these changes, I must admit that this was the month where the transition away from physical media began to unnerve me on a deeper, marrow-bone level. I haven't been a cable subscriber in years, but I've dabbled in buying "Season's Passes" for shows I like in the iTunes store. As a delivery mechanism for television content, the iTunes store makes a lot of sense to me; I grew up in the proper television era, where the "owning" of a television series on DVD or blu-ray was really just an anomalous afterthought.

I studiously taped every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation between the ages of 14 and 17, editing out the commercials on the fly. I am used to TV being airless electronic junk content, whose permanence is entirely dependent upon my efforts to make it permanent.

But with movies, it's another story. I, like (probably) you, have far too many DVDs and blu-rays at home; they overwhelm the place. Over the past few years I've begun trying to downsize the physical reality of my collection for reasons similar to the overall efforts in the film industry: logistics, cost, and risk. When it became possible to buy movies in the iTunes store, my initial reaction was, "great, these won't take up room on the shelf."

Except, to a very real and maddening degree with movies, I've found that if it doesn't take up room on the shelf, I don't feel like I actually own it. The digital copies of Mud and Man of Steel that I've legally purchased through iTunes, and store in the cloud, and theoretically have use of for the rest of my (Apple Store account's) life, feel less like movies I've added to my collection than books I've swiped from the library and never given back - complete with ragged Dewey Decimal cards hanging off the back flap.

I'm sure the generation behind me will have no idea what I'm talking about; they'll look at compact discs the way I might look at a chalk slate. But there's something about our relationship to the physical reality of the pop cultural artifacts that my generation has spent its lifetime accumulating that is going to be seriously disturbed by the evaporation of these real-world objects. Suddenly, I have an understanding of VHS fetishists that didn't exist a year ago; and that's VHS, the most insubstantial of the substantial media.

I recall a clip of Robert Altman, speaking in the excellent PBS documentary series American Cinema, talking about why he would never use electronic film formats: because there was no guaranteed reality to them, and no certainty of their permanence. He said he didn't know, for certain, that the little molecules on a videotape didn't rearrange themselves in different ways at night, every time the current was shut off.

This was fanciful and absurd, but strangely prescient in a way too. I'm fully aboard digital formats in my home life, but the loss of physical, tactile objects is leaving me adrift on some kind of a mouth-feel level. Even removing the notion of content license expiry from the equation, Netflix has flung us back into an era where the idea of "owning" a piece of media content is antiquated; it's all there, and yet not there. Content becomes something to be touched fleetingly in the midst of a digital storm, before it passes by.

And by extension, then, isn't the content far less valuable and valued, if only on a subconscious level? How can one take entirely seriously a work of art that exists nowhere in the physical world, when (in truth) nothing separates the substance of Gravity or 12 Years a Slave from the substance of "Firework Nutshot Fail" on YouTube? Electronic content is everywhere, and the sun has gone down on the real world - but unlike the digitally created and delivered Washington, we the people still live here.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • I've really been enjoying having digital copies of some of our movies, mostly because calling up a film through Amazon Instant on our Xbox One for the baby to watch is so much more convenient than finding the disc and navigating through the barriers we've set up to keep her from the electronics. I know that's an edge use case, but right now I want to digitize everything. On the other hand, I'm not at all ready to let go of physical media, and using digital media more over the past month or two has only made me more intent on keeping a physical copy around. Right now, some of our digital movies are in Amazon Instant, some of them are in iTunes (which I can't easily stream to the TV because we don't have an Apple TV - I have to plug in the iPad to do it), some of them are in Ultraviolet, and some of them that I've ripped myself from our DVDs are just on a hard drive. I find it exasperating that I have to not only remember whether we have a digital copy of something I want to watch, but which service has it, and how to interface with that service from the TV. Until I can get everything in one place no matter where I got it and guarantee I'm not going to lose it whenever that service goes kaput, I'm unwilling to actually spend money on digital movies (everything I've got so far has been digital copies packaged with Blu-rays, or free Ultraviolet movies as sign-up perks).

    The music industry learned this a while ago, and it doesn't matter whether I buy something from iTunes or Amazon or emusic or wherever, it all plays the same in any music player. I don't get why we have to go through these DRM growing pains with the movie industry AGAIN.

  • Howard

    I stopped burning music on blank CDs..now google music lets me upload my itunes playlist in da clouds which I can stream on me phone.. I miss blank CDs.

  • Nicely expressed, Matt. A side note: David Fincher says that the time-lapsed photography was commissioned from a filmmaker for the title sequence, but that after watching it multiple times, he felt the people were distracting from what he wanted to communicate: that the series was more about Washington D.C. as a place, made up of monuments and buildings and streets, more so than the people who might inhabit it at a particular time. (From the audio commentary, available on Netflix.)

    Since I became a freelancer several years ago, the move to digital has been a financial aid: I could never afford to buy DVDs of all the movies I watch via streaming services nowadays. Still, I buy physical media when I can, even though that's not permanent either. I haven't given up my collection of 45s, even though I don't have a record player right now. And I regret that I was forced to sell off my laserdisc collection, just so I could eat that month.

  • Matt, I'm with you on still feeling odd about just having movies electronically. I don't have much of anything digitally and just have limited getting Blu-rays and DVDs to a few select titles each year. There's little sense that something will go out of print (though I know it still happens), and it's so easy to get movies from everywhere. I'm finally over this bug with CDs, but it took a long time. I still have most of my old CDs, but not I rarely buy new ones. It will probably get there with movies, but I'm not as thrilled with the idea. It's not like I'll be watching them on my phone anytime soon. That still seems ridiculous.

  • Jesse Kale

    I'll eventually move over to just downloading everything like everyone else when physical is dead in stores.

    I'm certainly not a fan of it. With a blu-ray I know I own it and it's there. With digital, if you download it and you lose it, you best hope that where you got it has the license still. Or you'll likely never see it again. This happened to me when I download a show I wanted to watch, lost my harddrive, and when I logged into itunes to get the file back, Itunes lost the license to sell it. Though, years later I got it back when a new license holder sold it.

    We're going to become less of a owning culture and more of a renting culture. Adobe and Microsoft have been trying that with their software for awhile now.

  • The irony of this whole "move to digital" is that I have have been witness to more disrupted screenings (including THREE at last year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival) than anything in the celluloid era. Digital content has just as much (if not more) problems than physical media.

    Also, as long as they still sell physical copies of films, I'm going to buy them (though I've started redeeming the digital copy codes - just in case).

  • davebaxter

    Yeah, but this has more to do with the unfamiliarity of the new formats and technology than with actual issues inherent with the proper use of it. Mismatches in format, bad burns that aren't tested on the right equipment before being sent to the festival, etc. I'm sure there was just as much confusion the first decade film was trying to be presented en masse to live audiences. But the "problems" inherent with digital media aren't equivalent to film.

    Preservation is simpler, and cheaper, and vastly more practical. If something happens to a film print, it's likely an expensive or heavy workload or both to solve the problem or fix it. With digital, you just make another copy, fast and cheap, and do it right this time.

    Digital also helps us dodge a lot of the worry of which film will be preserved properly, which will be re-released or upgraded to newer formats, etc., because now it won't be break-the-bank expensive to do so. Plus aside from general digital decay of information, upkeep and preservation of digital is just night and day difference from prints.

  • There was a shit-ton of technical issues at the last TADFF. It was insane. Skipping BluRays, audio issues, and more. Sheesh.

  • Kurt

    I had a similar experience down in Trinidad & Tobago in last year going to a multiplex to catch Kim Ji-Woon's THE LAST STAND and being treated to an actual print. I'm thinking the browns and yellows of the desert town in that film were far better served with the 'warmth' of celluloid frames passing through the gate, over refreshed pixels.

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