Digital Crave

Why DVD Still Makes Sense

Digital Crave

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Is there a certain film that, if you come across it flipping channels randomly, you feel compelled to watch no matter what? Even though you've seen it roughly 34,000 times? Even if it's just the last half hour of the movie? Even if it's on the Spanish language station?

I have a theory about these films — I call them comfort movies. They're familiar and soothing, and you can watch them again and again in the same way that you listen to old favorite records. For instance, anytime The Hunt for Red October is broadcast on basic cable (according to my rough calculations, about once every 9.4 hours), I must watch that movie. It might be a submarine movie thing, because the same happens with Crimson Tide and The Abyss.

Evidently, I find underwater drama soothing, for reasons I probably don't want to know. I suppose I could pay a therapist $120/hour to find out, but I suspect no good news can possibly come of that.

Comfort movies and DVD

I review movies and DVDs for a living, so I have copies of all these films on a shelf somewhere. For me, they really are like old records, and knowing that I have a physical copy of them really is a comfort. Because I've learned the hard way: If you're relying on digital download and on-demand services for your movies these days, you might literally not know what you're missing.

As with music, movies are slowly but surely "going digital." Increasingly viable digital distribution — via iTunes or Netflix or your local cable provider — prompts the question: Why even bother anymore with DVD, or its posh cousin the Blu-ray disc?

Well, I'll tell you. I spend an alarming amount of time watching films and TV series collections on home video, and as such have given this matter an inordinate amount of thought. Here are some of the reasons to stick with DVD and Blu-ray in an increasingly downloadable world....

DVD Extras: Digital versions of movie titles never have the full suite of extras you get on the DVD or Blu-ray. In fact, many don't have any extras at all. This is on purpose, of course — it's one of ways Hollywood is trying to prop up DVD sales and rentals.

For those of us who value the behind-the-scenes details of a movie — the making-of docs, deleted scenes, alternate endings and gag reels — this is a dealbreaker on certain titles.

Some films, particularly historical epics or based-on-a-true-story movies, are genuinely enhanced by extras material which provide factual context in the form of documentaries or expert interviews. For instance, when director Robert Redford's underrated 2010 historical drama The Conspirator came out on DVD, it included a full-length documentary on the Lincoln assassination. Watching them both together made for a fascinating home video double feature.

For blockbuster popcorn movies, particularly effects-heavy action pictures, the extras are sometimes even more interesting than the movie itself. Take Disney's sci-fi reboot Tron: Legacy. Not a great film, but the DVD extras included some amazing behind-the-scenes material on the film's gorgeous art design and terrific music (by legendary electronica duo Daft Punk).

Image and Sound Fidelity: For most movies available via download, particularly older titles, digital copy means a fairly radical dropoff in audio and video specs. The issue is further complicated depending on what device you're transferring the movie to. Digital movies designed to be watched on a portable device necessarily have a smaller file size, which means lower-quality sound and image.

The good news here is that high-definition versions of new movies are becoming more common at the big online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, and many of the on-demand services for the living room TV have HD options now.

Closed Captioning: Due to certain technology issues with digital distribution, you can't always get closed captioning on purchased or rented digital titles. And even when you can, they may not function across various devices. It's a case-by-case situation, usually, and highly vexing if you've come to rely on closed captioning for whatever reason.

Subtitles can be hard to find with on-demand services, too — for instance, if you watch Netflix on your living room TV via a game console or set-top box. (Although thanks to some new initiatives by Netflix, that situation has been improving recently.)

Lending: This might seem obvious, but there's one very simple thing you can do with a DVD or Blu-ray that is ridiculously complicated when dealing with digital media. You can grab that DVD off the shelf and lend it to a friend. I tend to be highly evangelical when it comes to movies I'm really into. I've probably circulated my DVD copy of Martin Scorcese's Hugo to a dozen other parents at my kids' school.

Thanks to the many technical and legal compilations of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, you just can't do that with a digital copy of a movie — or a book or a record, for that matter. This is a ginormous Digital Age dilemma that is still sorting itself out, but meanwhile it means DVD has an advantage when it comes to one of pop culture's most enduring pleasures — sharing movies with friends.

I imagine the day will come when we will all have instant access to high-quality digital movies, with all the extras attached and all the viewing rights included. But that day isn't here yet. When I crave one of my favorite comfort movies, I'm glad I still have my old-fashioned DVD library.

Hugo DVD

Case Study: Hugo

The utterly enchanting Hugo, director Martin Scorcese's love letter to cinema and childhood, makes a strong case for DVD/Blu-ray over digital. I like this movie a lot, but my kids absolutely love it, which means it's been in heavy living room rotation for weeks now.

Had we opted for a digital rental of Hugo — via iTunes, say — we would have been able to watch it exactly once, within 30 days of purchase, and would be required to finish the film within 24 hours of pressing play. As parents know, kids just don't tend to operate within such schedules.

The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack also includes five excellent featurettes that explore details of the film's production and elements of cinematic history. For the grown-ups, this stuff is gold, and you can't get the full extras package in any downloadable bundle.

Finally, Hugo is a lush film, both visually and aurally, and with Blu-ray you get maximum home video specs with 1080p high-definition and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Hugo is also one of the very few films to make truly artful use of 3D technology, and the retail package includes a Blu-ray 3D disc for those with the proper home theater setup.

Note: This was written by Glenn McDonald, a Digital Crave contributor.
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