The Looming Crisis of Digital Delivery

Glenn Criddle

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | sept. 2018

Some early episodes of BBC's 'Dr. Who' were presumed lost forever after the original tapes were erased. It is through illegal piracy that some of these 'lost' episodes have survived.There was a time when the only way to see a film was when it was at the cinema. The reels of cinematic magic would tour around the country, showing in pop-up theatres for a day or two before moving on to the next venue. Between the rigors of touring and the fact that the medium itself, Cellulose Nitrate, was breaking down more self destructively than a first-time Oscar winner; these early days of cinema were very hard to come by and many films are all but lost. Seriously, the stuff would either decay or spontaneously combust. Though it seems like we have lots of surviving material, what we actually have represents a tragically small percentage of what was made, something worsened by a massacre of film stock during World War 2 when the old movies were plundered for their precious elements as part of the war effort or were recycled by their owners. Studio vault fires have also taken their toll. The drive to preserve film is a relatively recent thing as it's not really been valued for most of its existence and there are still plenty of voices that would claim that film is not an art form, not like literature or the fine arts.

Eventually some varied attempts at distributing films directly to the masses came about. Eight and 16mm film, Laser Disc, VHD (a vinyl video disc), VHS, DVD and Blu-ray etc. were met with joy from the public and paranoid suspicion from the businessmen at the studios who feared losing control of their product. With worries of piracy, the studios and distributors resisted the changing marketplace for as long as they could but eventually they jumped on board and while piracy is fairly common, the impact is arguable and certainly overstated by the studio suits.

The irony is that piracy has saved some film and TV from being lost forever. This isn't to condone or encourage it, but many a lost TV episode has been found on an “illegal" home recording. For instance, the BBC had no regard for preserving their old programs and after they had wrung what they thought was the last ounce of its useful life out of a program, they would erase the tape. Some enterprising viewers had recorded those episodes either by filming the screen (this was pre-VHS) or they captured the audio on tape, in many cases these are the only existing remnants of those broadcasts and in the case of Doctor Who's early days, this proved to be a lifeline for the preservation of the presumed lost episodes. This is not unique.

These days we have all manner of media at our disposal and a way to preserve the films we love and in whatever form the film took at the time of release, so the availability and security of our film art has never been so strong. However, we're now facing an industry-driven push towards getting rid of physical media that threatens to roll back the security and integrity of our media to pre-VHS days.

Digital media delivery has its benefits for sure: less room taken up on the shelf, convenience, instant access upon purchase – all good things, but what we're losing in exchange is less acceptable than many realize. When you buy a DVD you own it. Short of a disaster or robbery, that copy will sit in your house at your pleasure. It's a robust storage medium that isn't liable to being destroyed if the cabinet it's in breaks; however, if your hard drive dies then it's another matter for whatever is on there.

Paramount or Sony can't recall your DVD without your participation. If they want to change the cut and erase the old version you loved then that's just a few button presses at the digital hosting site. If they decide that “Gone with the Wind" is finally too much for our current touchy-feely society then they could delete it. If Amazon goes away tomorrow – unlikely I know but not impossible – what happens to your digital collection? You lose it. No compensation, no refund, no alternative source, nothing is guaranteed, your collection will go with the platform.

The problem is that you don't own a copy of the film when you buy it from the digital platform, at least not most of the time. In a resurgence of the paranoia of the past, the platforms and studios don't want you downloading the film in a form that you can make secure and when you can, it's usually wrapped up in a cloak of DRM that ties it to a mobile device, something that could hardly be called a permanent solution.

Then we have the “Lucas" effect, where a director or studio decide they want to erase the past by either tinkering with or suppressing an earlier version of the film. The debacle of the original Star Wars cut shows how studios and directors, much like games studios now, consider a film to be a work in progress. With a locked down digital platform you won't have any control over your collection. It's merely licensed to you for viewing and at any point they can come in and alter the edition you get to see. This has happened on a couple of occasions to my own digital collection, and it's worrying to think that now your collection isn't permanent, it's at the mercy of several other interests outside of your control. That's not good for the preservation of film history and as film history has demonstrated, the people on the business end of this deal are often less interested in film history than they are the bottom dollar.

Physical media is important if you love film. Digital media, for all its convenience, is at the mercy of a shifting, money-driven market and a vulnerable, centralized storage that could go away or change in nature and intent at any point. Keep collecting films; those physical copies are the track-tested way to preserve the history of our entertainment and art.

He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

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