2019: Beyond Discs & Cinemas
2019 was the year in which nothing new happened in the audio/video marketplace, and yet everything changed in the world of home entertainment. We saw no meaningful new AV standards or formats, unless you count the fact that a handful of 8K TVs and projectors hit the market. And we don’t. Not yet. We also saw Dolby expand the capabilities of Atmos in the home,
upping the number of speakers that could be supported in media rooms or home theater. But that’s more evolution than revolution.
So, what changed? In a sense, you could say market forces that have been simmering for a while finally boiled over, and we all had to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, commercial cinemas are no longer the gold standard by which we judge our movie-watching experiences.
Why Go Out to the Movies?
Granted, blockbuster franchise films still dominate the box office, with billion-dollar worldwide hauls almost being taken for granted. The thing is, though, that’s really the only thing drawing us to the local cineplex en masse anymore. Scour the Top 20 list of highest-grossing films for the year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t a superhero flick, Star Wars film, Disney movie, or sequel/ remake/reboot of some sort.
That doesn’t mean these are the only sorts of films we’re watching anymore. Far from it. It’s simply that these big event films are the only ones that really offer anything we can’t experience (arguably better) at home. They’re meant to be seen in crowds. They’re designed to trigger our popcorn-binging reflex. They are, in short, events.
With but a handful of exceptions, anything smaller, more meaningful, or contemplative in the world of cinema is far more likely to find its audiences on sofas or home theater recliners. And the underlying reasons for this are numerous (and a long time coming), but I would argue that the reason this trend hit a tipping point in 2019 is that 4K finally became mainstream. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s difficult to buy a new TV now at any price point that doesn’t offer a better image than you’ll find at your local cineplex, and that has a lot more to do with HDR than anything else. Granted, the device on which you do your streaming makes a big difference in terms of the quality of presentation, but who could have imagined just four or five years ago that we would soon be able to stream truly reference-quality imagery and sound into our home cinemas by way of a $99 box and a $15-a-month subscription service?
The display is only half the equation, though. All of those people coming home with new UHD/HDR TVs are also discovering that there’s simply a ton of amazing-looking content no more than a click and a stream away. Sure, you could argue that Netflix has become the equivalent of the $5 DVD bin at Walmart, but the service is also the only place you can watch Martin Scorsese’s new film, not to mention David Attenborough’s latest planet-spanning documentary series.
Ding Dong, The Disc Is Dead
The rise of new streaming services like Disney+ late this year further nail the coffin closed on commercial cinemas as the pinnacle of popular entertainment. But there’s another mainstay of the movie world that is taking an even worse beating as a result of the rise of streaming. This was the first year since 1993 that I didn’t buy a single movie on a disc of any sort. Discs have defined my entertainment experience since I plunked down $250 for thirteen pounds’ worth of LaserDiscs dubbed The Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Edition late that year. When I purchased my current home in 1998, one of its most appealing features was a closet off the main den that would perfectly store and conceal my burgeoning DVD collection.
I’ve probably got one final disc purchase left in me—next year’s 27-disc, nine-film Skywalker Saga collection, which also, poetically enough, carries a $250 price tag and will finally bring my physical home video collection full circle, just as I begin to winnow it down.
Make no mistake, though: I’ll continue to buy films for home consumption. They’ll simply be on Vudu and Kaleidescape going forward. I’m not alone in that, either. Disc sales have been on the decline since 2008 and show no sign of rebounding. We’ll almost certainly never have another disc-based home video format after UHD Blu-ray. And indeed, movie studios are already losing interest in that one (as evidenced by the fact that more and more films are receiving 4K home video releases purely in the digital domain, either streamed or downloaded).
This was also the year in which completely non-traditional forms of media hit the mainstream in a big way, which has to be factored into the decline of cinemas and discs alike. A little show called Critical Role, which started a few years ago as a live-streamed home Dungeons & Dragons game, exploded into the public consciousness thanks to the most successful video Kickstarter crowdfunding project of all time early in 2019. The eight best friends who started the show have also created a full-fledged “television network” around it, distributed mostly through Twitch and YouTube, which features shows ranging from art tutorials to video game live-playthrough/puppet show mashups to a weekly late-night talk show about painting miniature figurines hosted by that kid from Boy Meets World.
And I don’t mean to claim here that rolling dice and roleplaying as elves and half-
orcs is the future of home entertainment or anything, but it’s certainly part of it. The success of Critical Role not just as a show but as a network points to a pent-up desire for something different. Something genuine. And given that virtually anyone these
some content from the Critical Role “network”
days can get their hands on near-commercial-quality video gear and upload their antics to the internet, it stands to reason that the real innovation in terms of what we view on our TVs and projectors will, in the coming years, increasingly come from the occasional lark of this sort.
Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and other tech companies are sinking hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into creating new films and TV shows that wouldn’t have looked out of place on cinema screens a few years ago, proving that there’s also still plenty of appetite for mid- to big-budget traditional media in all of the usual genres. It’s simply that the way we view that media has forever changed, and when the entertainment history books are written, I think 2019 will be undeniably viewed as the turning point.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.