Oh, we'll still have DVDs and Blu-rays around for a few more years, but they'll eventually give way to purely digital copies of movies that live on your hard drive or, more likely, live in the Internet cloud so you can stream them on any Web-connected device, wherever you happen to be.
Yes, just as you've finally finished converting your old VHS movie library to DVD, or your DVD library to Blu-ray, the industry wants you to convert once more (for a healthy fee, of course). But your shelves will clear up, you'll have access to all your movies at a click, and you'll be able to watch the same file on your smartphone or tablet that you watch on your living room flatscreen.
The latest indication that a disc-less future is already here comes in a study released last week by trade publication IHS Screen Digest (available behind a paywall here). According to the study, streaming viewing of movies will overtake disc viewing this year. IHS Screen Digest projects that there will be 3.4 billion online viewings of movies this year (and that's just the paid, legal ones), more than double the 1.4 billion streams and downloads tracked in 2011. By contrast, disc views will number 2.4 billion, down a bit from 2.6 billion views last year.
Driving those changes are such factors as the rise in digital memberships at such movie-streaming services as Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as increased pervasiveness of high-speed broadband and wifi services that make streaming as smooth as DVD viewing. In other words, it's consumer choice, favoring streaming over disc viewing, that's helping drive the nails into the coffin of the DVD business.
Still, most of those streamed movies are rented, not bought. As a result, the movie industry is making a lot less from streaming than from disc purchases. According to the study, movie fans will spend $11.1 billion on DVD sales and rentals this year, compared to just $1.7 billion from streaming views and downloads. That averages out to $4.72 for every disc view, compared to just 51 cents for each online view. Even four years from now, online movies will account for just 17 percent of the home market, while discs will still make up 75 percent of the market. (The other 8 percent will come from video-on-demand movies for cable and satellite TV subscribers.)
Nonetheless, the industry is fully behind the conversion away from physical discs. Not only will Hollywood save billions on pressing, packaging, and shipping discs, but it'll get you to pay for the movies you already own yet again, at least once more.
Later this month, Walmart, the largest brick-and-mortar retailer of DVDs, will begin its "disc to digital" conversion program, in cooperation with five of the six major Hollywood studios. For a fee as low as $2, Walmart will sell disc owners a digital copy of their movie (as long as it exists in the library of UltraViolet, the cloud storage service launched last fall by the five studios), which can be streamed an unlimited number of times on hundreds of compatible devices, from set-top boxes and video game consoles to tablets and smartphones. There are still a lot of service gaps and unanswered questions about the Walmart-UltraViolet initiative, but it's a start, a way to persuade streaming fans to buy movies instead of just renting them.
Once the kinks are ironed out, it's just a matter of time before DVDs are phased out. Ready or not, here comes a disc-less future, one with its own pros and cons.
- You can stream a movie anywhere, anytime, on any device.
- You can clear out the miles of shelf space you have devoted to DVDs. And you don't have to schlep the discs with you when you're away from home.
- For now, online is a much cheaper way to watch movies than discs.
- Your DVDs will make nice coasters.
- You'll be paying again for content you already own.
- Cloud storage means entrusting your files to a third party, so permanence and accessibility aren't 100 percent ensured -- just ask Megaupload users who are locked out of their lockers and may never get their files back.
- If you like the extras that come with DVDs, whether its behind-the-scenes featurettes, filmmaker commentaries, subtitles, or even just the physical package, with its photographs and liner notes, then you're out of luck with digital copies.
- For the next few years, there will still be a lot of gaps -- movies that are legally unavailable as digital files, areas where poor connections will interrupt your ability to stream a movie, an inability to buy digital movies for others as gifts, picture quality that may not be as good as DVD (let alone Blu-ray), and other technical and legal issues that have yet to be resolved.
Still, according to IHS Screen Digest, a discless future is what you want, and it's what you'll get, though it may not take the form that either consumers or industry folk currently imagine.