Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Future of Movies

A few years ago, there was a big To Do over the format wars: Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. While the majority of the world probably didn't have an idea what the war was about, to the parties involved, it got to be quite cut throat. In essence, it was a repeat performance of the Betamax vs. VHS war in the 80s: a battle for movie format supremacy. Two competing technologies emerged that did essentially the same thing: make films prettier. (Well, the slightly more complex function would be "store movies in a rich enough format to allow viewers the ability to see much more visual information on the screen," but that's too much of a mouthful, n'est-ce pas?)

In any case, after much bickering and feuding, HD-DVD was vanquished, and Blu-ray emerged to rule the world.

Or did it?

How many people actually own a Blu-ray player these days? How many people even own an HD television set? Back in 2009, 83% of American households had a DVD player. 7% had a Blu-ray machine. At the same time, 47% had a high definition television. (See here for source.) Looking at those numbers, one would think that the Blu-ray numbers would be higher. (Of course, some of this will have changed in the past year--and the survey cited seemed to count PlayStation 3s separately from Blu-ray players, despite the fact that PS3s play Blu-rays.)

Compare those numbers to a recent survey done by the Pew Internet Group: 69% of adult internet users have viewed an online video. That's 52% of all adults, and that number is only going to get bigger. In three years, the percentage of adult internet users who watched a movie or TV show online shot up from 16% to 32%. YouTube just celebrated its fifth birthday. Just ten years ago, the idea of watching a movie online would have been preposterous. The file sizes would have been unmanageable--the download speeds intolerable. And yet today we have YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and more. ESPN3 streams live sports online. Each of the main TV stations have places where you can watch their shows online, as well. We've gone from this being an unimaginable occurrence to being an everyday one.

Project this trend five years into the future. Bandwidth will have grown. High speed internet penetration will be bigger than ever. I used to buy DVDs--lots and lots of DVDs. Today, I don't buy any. I can have any movie I want delivered to my house in a day or two via Netflix. I can watch tens of thousands of movies and shows instantly--many in high def. Five years from now, I expect that to change from "tens of thousands" to "all" and from "many" to "all" as well.

So riddle me this--if I can get all of these films instantly through my internet connection, why in the world would I want to buy a Blu-ray?

The fact is that the days of buying media in disc form are numbered. Yes, it'll likely still be possible, but the majority of people will be buying things virtually--never seeing or receiving a tangible piece of something to put in a player. Even books are headed that direction.

So what does that mean for libraries?

It means we're going to have to figure out what in tarnation we're going to do about this. I'm currently the film collection developer at my library. We add about two to three hundred DVDs a year right now (thank goodness DVDs can be played in Blu-ray players!) How will that work in the future? When you don't have a physical copy to lend out, how do you let users borrow something? There are a couple of approaches these days. The first is to have virtual copies available online. Users check one out, download it to their computer, and it self-destructs when the checkout period expires. At that time, the virtual copy becomes available for someone else to checkout. A second approach is to have many many movies available, and then to charge each library per checkout--the library then never pays for the actual film. Instead, it pays for the uses of the films as it goes. A subscription model, if you like.

I see issues with both of these approaches, and I have yet to find an approach I'm in love with. But the fact is that we live in an era where things are changing so rapidly, it's hard to make any projections about the future. Five years ago, I couldn't have laid out the situation we're in today, and I'm confident I'll be able to say the same thing when I look back at today five years from now. I'm just happy to live in exciting times. :-)

How about you? Do you have a Blu-ray player? Watch many movies online? Tell tell tell!


  1. I don't have a blu-ray player. I don't plan on buying one either. I am a total fan of Netflix. Getting new discs through the mail is perfect, no hassle. I also love watching instant TV shows and movies on my iPad too. This doesn't stop me from borrowing DVDs from the library too.

    The most interesting thing is that it used to be all about how big your TV was. Sort like how big your speakers and stereo system were. Now with streaming video its become a lot more personal, like music has become a lot more personal. I'm sure there are lots of people who've hooked up their computer so they can still watch through their TV, but I think there are a lot more people like me who are watching on their laptop or iPad or other such video machine. Kids can watch movies on tiny screens in the roof of a minivan now. Who would have thought.

    Its nice to know that while video rental stores are closing down, libraries are expanding their collections. I think libraries will some day soon hit on the perfect way to make videos, ebooks and audio accessible to their patrons.

  2. I think we'll start seeing that willingness-to-put-up-with-small-portable-devices-to-watch-movies change some in the future. Right now, I'm okay watching a movie on my iPad--and I certainly will continue to be. It's easy to turn it on and watch it in bed. But as streaming and internet speeds advance, you'll be able to get HD quality picture and sound, and then TV size will start to matter more again. Right now, the picture's fine on my iPad, fine on my computer, fine on my TV. Once I have the internet speed to handle it (come on, rural Maine!), I'll likely opt more and more for my TV, just so I can have a better viewing and listening experience. Make sense?

    I hope libraries come up with the perfect lending solution for digital materials. Unfortunately, I think we're forced into a "hurry up and wait" pattern as we see which format emerges triumphant. We just don't have the funding to support all formats--Amazon, iBook, Nook--they all have their own proprietary formats. I'm gunning for something simple, like pdf, but then you lose some capabilities of the other formats, which are really nice. Decisions, decisions . . .