Roger Ebert has a thought-provoking post on the role of streaming video in financing independent and art house films, in which he argues that declining DVD sales will make it more difficult for DVD companies to pay for quality film restorations, leading to a situation in which “ non-blockbuster titles will undergo a sudden income crisis.” Ebert explains that in the past, DVD companies could rely on retail sales through direct mail or Amazon, to video stores, and to Netflix. But due to the availability of streaming video sites, DVD sales have been declining and video stores have been closing, while Netlix has begun to purchase fewer DVDs because of its increasing emphasis on streaming. Further, studios make less money selling streaming rights than they do selling DVDs.
Ebert’s argument builds upon the news that consumers will likely watch more movies online in 2012 than they do on DVD, a situation that is obviously unlike to reverse itself. I know that in my own household, my stepdaughter and exchange-student daughter rarely watch DVDs, other than infrequent trips to Redbox. I still receive DVDs from Netflix, but they typically collect dust. When we decide to watch something, it usually involves flipping through menus on Netflix, using both genre categories and (less often) our instant queue, to find something to watch. Very rarely do we have “appointment screenings” of movies, unless I am doing research on something. Ebert acknowledges that he divides his viewing relatively evenly between streaming and DVD, and I think we have reached a stage where, for many families, skimming streaming services has become a major option for passing time during the evening. In some cases, this may involve maintaining a Netflix membership and complaining periodically about the thin streaming catalog or rotating between Netflix, Hulu, and an independent site, such as Fandor (a site that deserves a lot of credit for not only supporting older titles but also for its 50/50 revenue split with independent filmmakers). But in the near future, it seems unlikely that there will be a single catalog where everything will be readily available.
With that in mind, we need to be attentive to the ways this will affect different aspects of the film industry. Ebert is probably right to surmise that film restorations may become prohibitively expensive for everyone other than a small number of boutique companies like Criterion, but I wonder how newer independent films will be affected, given that most of them will likely never be converted to film prints. Direct DVD sales (and sales through Amazon) are still likely to play a crucial role in financing independents (note my previous post on crowdfunding and the practice of pre-selling DVDs), but streaming and other forms of video-on-demand are also likely to play a critical role, and I suspect that Ebert is right to speculate that this may require consumers to pay more to support these films. As Ebert puts it, “Sooner or later, one way or another, streaming will have to pay for the films it streams. That means us.” Thus, we seem to have reached a strange point in which more choices than ever are (or at least appear to be) instantly available, even while those choices may be splintered between a variety of platforms and devices that sometimes make it difficult for consumers to seek out specific movies. At the same time, despite this wide range of choices, the loss in DVD sales continues to make it difficult to pay for and maintain catalogs of older films.