The Golden Age of Physical Media (Part 1)

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As a kid, I’ll never forget reading about LaserDiscs in Fangoria magazine and frothing at the mouth as they described deluxe editions of my favorite films. Glorious widescreen presentations, commentary tracks, ‘making-of’ featurettes, special effects tests, theatrical trailers – all of it wrapped inside very cool packaging and priced to own for a small niche market.

While every collector of physical media is going to have their own idea as to what constitutes the ‘Golden Age’ as it pertains to consuming movies at home, this is mine. The perspective contained herein is my own and not intended to be any kind of definitive history, but rather a chronicle of how I got started with the hobby and why I continue with it.

Looking back on those early days, sitting on my bed beneath my crinkled Critters poster, thumbing through Fango and reading those LaserDisc reviews over and over, trying to get my head around owning such a definitive release (hah) of a favorite movie, well, I couldn’t have know then that the foundation was being poured for a lifelong pursuit of collecting. Along with all the ups and downs that are baked into such a hobby.

Hook ’em Early

As a high schooler in the mid-90s, it simply wasn’t feasible to own a LaserDisc player, let alone the pricey deluxe editions of HalloweenA Nightmare on Elm Street and Phantasm that were available on the format. Oh, how I wanted them, but there was a better chance of seeing God than bagging enough groceries to be able to find and afford them.

It was a company called Anchor Bay who gave us (then) younger fans our first taste of ‘premium’ collecting through a small series of widescreen VHS tapes that were issued toward the end of the 90s. When I finally got my hands on a widescreen copy of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was revelatory. Like seeing my favorite film for the first time.

Finally, Carpenter’s musical stings were accompanied by the appropriate visual compositions, music that had felt more than a little random when experienced via pan and scan (full screen) VHS. Take the sequence where The Shape stalks Annie on her babysitting gig. We see him watching her through windows and doorways, and it winds us up, bracing us for the inevitable when that we all know is coming. The suspense that Carpenter builds through these moments is simply nonexistent in full screen and watching Halloween in its proper aspect ratio via letterboxed VHS forced me to question how I had loved it so much during my formative film years when so many of its key strengths were simply unknowable.

But it was more than just the opportunity to see our favorite films as they were originally intended. Anchor Bay was giving those tapes extra features, too. Seeing Joe Bob Briggs’ name in the closing credits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 baffled me for years, but the widescreen special edition videocassette released sometime in 1997 answered that long standing mystery at last because at the end of the tape was a collection of deleted scenes (including Joe Bob’s). Sure, supplements were not as easily accessible as on LaserDisc. You had to fast-forward through an entire movie to show a friend a trailer, for example, but it was nevertheless a good start for fledgeling movie collectors, orienting us to certain ‘luxuries’ that were just around the corner.

I’m partial to Anchor Bay’s efforts to make collecting affordable, but they were far from the only ones doing cool things in those dwindling days of VHS. Many companies realized there was a market for widescreen presentations and began offering some of their titles that way. First thing I did after graduating high school was take some of that celebratory cash down to the mall and grab Universal’s widescreen VHS of David Lynch’s Dune. And Miramax had issued a really cool Scream box set that, if memory serves,  included three copies of the movie (the variant “blue” covers) where each tape included bonus features for the first time, along with a fourth cassette that ported Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s audio commentary from the LaserDisc.

There were other goodies in the box as well (I used to own it), but I am struggling to recall the specifics and could find no photo of the complete package. So don’t hold it against me if some of those details are a bit spotty two-and-a-half decades later.

At long last, collecting was not entirely relegated to those with lots of disposable income. I used to go into a store called Record Town in my local mall and would often pick up the $150 Pulp Fiction laserdisc, turning it over sadly in my hands, knowing that I’d probably never own it. I never did, but little-by-little, us newbies were finally getting in on that “premium edition” action and it felt great.

Enter DVD

All of this was, of course, preamble to the arrival of DVD. That’s where the fun began. The Digital Video Disc (DVD) format descended upon us from the heavens, and though it wasn’t exactly cheap to jump in at first, it was affordable to part-time working stiffs such as myself. My friend and I pooled our money to purchase a player in early 1998. It set us back $400. I was allowed to keep the machine at my place since my friend’s computer had a DVD drive, though we immediately agreed to start pinching pennies again to get him a machine, too.

Everything about DVD was incredible for the time: the quality, the extras, and eventually, the packaging. A genuine collector’s format. Something special. I finally knew what it must’ve felt like to be a LaserDisc owner. Sure, there were obvious differences between the two formats, though not in the broader picture. The biggest? DVD was going to catch on with the mainstream.

Prices were high at first. Never LaserDisc heights, though in my darkest day, I did shell out $35 for Fox’s Lake Placid DVD – a disc that offered no discernible supplements and had an underwhelming, non-anamorphic transfer to boot. Now that I’m thinking about it, I also dropped $100 on a used copy of Elite Entertainment’s very first Re-Animator DVD, which went briefly out of print sometime in the late 90s and I feared I missed my chance to own it. This was, after all, following the VHS days where many films had gone out of print and stayed that way. I was also haunted by how long it had taken me to get a copy of The Evil Dead on video tape (the original Thorn EMI release), something which did not happen until around this same time.

It should be noted that Re-Animator was re-issued to DVD no less than five times following my eBay panic purchase. And, yes, I bought some of those editions too. “The Sickness,” as a friend of mine likes to put it.

But wasn’t it incredible that any movie we wanted to buy was available from the get-go? My days of slumming the ‘used movies’ section of my local video stores, where I once walked for over two hours in a snowstorm to snag the last previously viewed copy of From Dusk Till Dawn, were finally over. With DVD, once a studio released a film to home video, we could walk into any shop and buy a new copy at sell-through pricing. That alone was remarkable.

If you were a film nerd, the future had arrived. Stuff was hitting DVD with a frequency that was impossible to track. For a poor college student such as myself, it took incredible amounts of thriftiness to keep up with the near endless wave of obscurities that were hitting Best Buy and Suncoast almost every Tuesday. Never in a million years could I have imagined owning pristine, widescreen copies of Pin, Link (one of my all-time favorite DVD ‘discoveries’) and Blue Sunshine – but Best Buy had these and so many more. And if they didn’t, then you were going to make a day of it. You were going to travel around to all the other area stores in order to locate whatever titles you were seeking. And if one happened to be elusive, then it made the hunt even more exciting. Eventual victory, so much sweeter. I remember asking my then-girlfriend, now-wife for a copy of Blue Underground’s The Prowler for my birthday and she had to go on her own maddening adventure across Boston in order to locate the *one* copy that was still sitting on a boutique shelf somewhere. Upon unwrapping that gift, she promptly told me, “It was so hard to find that I don’t know how or why you do that to yourself.” 

For those of us inclined, it was a thrill to shop cult and horror wherever DVDs were sold. I had several friends who collected with varying degrees of intensity, and one of life’s simplest pleasures through my late teens and early 20s was spending a coveted day off from the grocery store going on a “hunt.” We’d drive a few cities away to where there were plenty of places to check: Best Buy. Circuit City. Borders. Media Play. Suncoast. And it was striking because each store had a different enough selection so there was always some element of surprise.

The social aspect of collecting was a big part of its appeal for me. A way to strengthen bonds with existing friends while enabling me to meet new ones. Wonderful people who remain part of my life even today. It’s how I met renown film critic Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day, who happened to be working a shift at Sam Goody on a Friday night when I came in, and who struck me as so much more knowledgeable than your average clerk. A few years later he turned up elsewhere in my life and I remembered him so well that we became (and stayed) good friends. All because we had chatted about Escape from L.A. a few years prior.

It’s fair to say that DVD made me a few friends. It also made the celluloid world smaller. Asian and European horror films were no longer confined to the convention circuit or relegated to bootleg VHS websites. They were available in stores just like their North American counterparts. Plunking down for then-rarities such as Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (which I had only seen in an edited U.S. release called Unsane) had a too-good-to-be-true aura, but that’s the epitome of why film collecting was special and exciting. All of this fringe stuff was suddenly for sale on shelves in “the real world.” Looking back on it now, it feels like a fever dream.

Companies were also going the extra mile in terms of bells and whistles. You got liner notes, collectible booklets, and creative packaging. Back then, when a DVD carried the “special edition” banner, it was generally because there was something truly special about that edition.

Consumers were gobbling these titles up with frenzy and suddenly the practice of double-dipping was upon us, as if it had always been there. Anchor Bay, friend to the collector, was no less an offender, but they always tried to make their upgrades worthwhile. Nobody on Earth wanted to buy The Evil Dead again after Elite’s seemingly definitive release, but who in their right mind was going to pass up ‘Book of the Dead’ packaging? Groovy new extras?

And how many shoddy editions did Terminator 2 fans have to endure before getting that nifty metal case ‘Extreme Edition’? It was pretty awesome for 2003. Let us also remember MGM and their reissues of Rocky, James Bond, and anything else that would continue selling. Yes, newer versions usually offered better transfers and more supplements, but that never fully alleviated the sting of buying a movie multiple times.

It’s hard to say how long this Golden Age lasted. In my mind, the very best of it was four short years. 2000 – 2004. An amazing period, but a shockingly brief one, considering the impression that it left. At the time of this writing, in April and May of 2022, we are and have been in the midst of a second Golden Age for about a decade, but the circumstances are so radically different that I’ll cover them in a future essay. This one is dedicated to a world that simply does not exist anymore. So while great stuff has never stopped hitting the proverbial shelves, the breadth of mainstream enthusiasm, the widespread availability of  strange discs, and the sheer number of companies releasing them back in those days… It was a wild time.

Why was it so short-lived? It’s never just one thing, but you can blame market saturation for starters. With all the double-dips beginning to exhaust consumers, and an overall steady stream of titles cascading across shelves, the market expanded to a point where DVDs were everywhere, including drug stores and supermarket checkout lines. The bottom fell out once the demand failed to match this supply, resulting in the infamous $5 bargain bin at Wal Mart. Other chains became just as desperate to move inventory and suddenly DVD was priced to sell. In the minds of many consumers, a majority of these discs were now only worth $5. A premium collector’s format no more. Closer to a Happy Meal toy. And by the late 2000s, many stores had decided they’d had enough of DVD altogether, and began scaling their selections back more with every passing year.

At the same time, Netflix had established itself first as a viable rental service, encouraging a cheaper alternative to purchasing the rarities that horror companies were releasing. Why not grab something like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key as part of your subscription, rather than spend $20 to own it? That movie was released by a company called No Shame Films and they found it difficult to enter the turbulent DVD market during a period of drastic change and were out of business in the blink of an eye about two years later.

I have no desire to take a stance on the “downloads are bad, actually” argument. It’s an essay unto itself and the answer is hardly cut and dry.  But I have heard straight from the mouths of folks in the DVD business that downloads certainly did not help. But hey, they’re out there. They’re always going to be out there. For the purposes of this article, I will leave it at that.

Let’s be clear. Nobody is blaming collectors who like the bargain bin (I often partook). Nobody is blaming collectors who rented their cult movies from Netflix (I often did). And nobody is saying that if you torrented a movie, then you cost the company who released that transfer a sale. It is simply that these and other factors arose and signaled a decline for the once prosperous format. What’s really amazing about DVD is that even though its time in the sun was relatively brief, it continues to exist today, two and a half decades after originally hitting the market. Even more amazing? For many physical media consumers, it remains their format of choice.

Paradigm Shifts

Before we were able to enter the 2010s or “Golden Age II,”  we had to endure a format war: HD DVD vs Blu-ray. At this point in my life, I was working the most miserable job I ever had, but was being paid well and so I adopted both. I had no preference and was just glad to see so many movies released in HD. I clung to that HD DVD Streets of Fire disc like gold, along with my Xbox 360 HD DVD player add-on to be able to watch it, genuinely fearful it would never come out on disc again.

Oh, the naiveté.

The format war wasn’t fun, no matter which side you were on. It was fraught with the possibility that your investment would be incredibly short-lived. And fellow collectors were often sycophantic and increasingly hostile to people “on the other side.” Thankfully, the whole skirmish was over in just about two years. But even with Blu-ray as the victor, consumers were beginning to check out of buying movies altogether and this “dueling format” thing that accosted them as they shopped HD televisions certainly wasn’t helping. While DVD was the perfect storm of sell-through titles in a moment before the Internet revolutionized content consumption, the New World was beginning to announce itself and most people weren’t ever going back to “digital analog.”

As folks adjusted to streaming (remember when Netflix would only let you watch x amount of hours each month?), collectors carried on with an eerie sense that things were limping to an end. And if that’s too dramatic, then we did collectively realize that our hobby had climbed as far as it could in popularity, and was back on the road to niche. Jarring for those of us who lived through the Golden Age of the early 2000s. And while streaming is a fantastic convenience, the last twenty-five years of collecting has instilled in me a preference to see movies in the best available quality every time. I still prefer to own a disc rather than deal with the pitfalls of buffering downgrades, incorrect aspect ratios, and (occasionally) edited content.

Many were saying that physical media’s days were numbered, even with the brand new Blu-ray format beginning to expand across store shelves. It was disappointing to watch Best Buy go from a bastion of cult classics to more of a “just the hits” factory overnight. Now, you’re lucky if your local store carries that much. We buy online now. That’s how it is and that’s also the subject of a future essay. Just as LaserDisc had been the exclusive  “collector’s alternative” through the late 70s to 2000, physical forms of media (Blu-ray and UHD) feel like they’re steadily returning to a similar stature. It’s not surprising in a segmented world where everything has become niche. The shows you watch, the books you read, and the music you listen to. We’re in our own personalized silos these days with very few (if any) hallmarks of unifying culture.

As we slouch steadily into a world where everything is controlled by fewer and fewer mega corporations, I remain unconvinced that they will continue to find places for films such as Sweet Sixteen or Death Bed to live. And honestly? The look and feel of my personal library that I’ve cultivated for almost half of my life provides me with lots of enjoyment and convenience because one never knows when the urge to watch Future-Kill might arise.

I mean, it never has, but still…

What became of the Golden Age companies? Anchor Bay, which had been around since the VHS days in one incarnation or another, first Video Treasures and eventually Starmaker Entertainment, was acquired by Starz in 2006 and they quickly eroded. Other companies that were “in the trenches” such as Blue Underground and Synapse continued on and remain in business today, supplying us with some of the very best quality 4K discs on the market. Little guys like Code Red stuck it out and rebelled against the HD paradigm shift, continuing to release standard definition gems far into the Blu-ray era before finally making the jump. Bill at Code Red unearthed some of the genre’s most forgotten titles and I recommend everyone who’s reading this track down a copy of his Messiah of Evil Blu-ray if you haven’t already.

After the downslide of DVD, I’m not sure major studios were ever as interested in their catalogue titles again. And during the initial rise of Blu-ray, even special edition packages rarely felt all that special. Notable exceptions included Warner Bros., who went out of their way to make their Blade Runner and Exorcist releases as classy as possible. Fox’s Alien collection is a marvel (that you can get dirt cheap these days) and ditto Sony’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind set.

In general, however, Blu-ray felt a bit… safe. Standard blue case. Disc-only. Gone were the informative liner notes and self-indulgent packaging, traits that had come to define DVD at the end of its Golden Age. Things were tough in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, and with less people buying physical media, compromises had to be made. Even video game publishers had announced the demise of physical instruction booklets so it was beginning to feel as though the “good old days” were gone forever.

But hope was not lost. The beginning of Blu-ray saw slim pickings where cult movies were concerned. In the early 2010s, however, a few labels began to re-assess the market with a few exciting gambles, none of which was more significant than Twilight Time, a company that famously did limited edition pressings of their movies. 3000 copies and that’s all. Their 2011 release of the vampire classic Fright Night sold out in a flash. It was a seismic event that proved to waffling studios that there remained an audience for catalogue titles on disc.

Across the pond, the U.K.-based Arrow found success with their 2012 release of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters and, as a result, decided to focus their energies on cult cinema, gifting us with some of the most incredible Blu-ray packages the home video format had seen to that point. Multiple covers, mini-posters, booklets, you name it. They reignited the spark for many of us who remembered that Golden Age. And while we were beginning to feel as though we had lived through the best of it, maybe not…

That same year, Shout! Factory had decided to do the very much the same thing, launching their Scream Factory imprint with fully loaded editions of Halloweens II and III. These were tailored exclusively to rabid collectors and it was the start of a terrific line of horror and sci-fi titles that is still going strong today. That’s not to overlook other labels, like Severin, who were early to Blu-ray with releases such as Hardware and Santa Sangre, but Twilight Time, Arrow and Shout were impossible to ignore, showing there was gas left in the tank when it came to cult cinema.

And that’s where the next Golden Age begins.

Which means that’s where this article ends. Things change. Collecting physical media is no different. It was a bummer to see the sparkling sheen of DVD wear off, but it’s long gone now and we’ve been living in a completely different world since that happened. Books on tablets. TV shows and movies consumed on laptops and cell phones.

The world moved on, but we collectors are still going strong. So are our collections. And all those memories that went along with building them? In some ways, those are just as special.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying some of my novels, available in print, ebook and audio! Or you can always buy me a ko-fi!

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