An Argument for the Loser’s Side: Physical Media in a Digital Age

“Video stores like mine have been crushed and forgotten about for the last ten years!”

Having been born in the year 1995, I am a part of a group of people that don’t quite fit into the confines of being a Millenial or a member of Gen Z. Being a part of this age group in limbo means that I spent my adolescence growing up both, a time where I had to get off the internet when my mom needed the phone, as well as an age where I can turn my lights on through an app on my phone. This also means that I remember a time in which I would go to Blockbuster Video and cry because the VHS tape for Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman, 1989) was always rented out before I could get my greasy Happy Meal hands on it, while also remembering video store bankruptcy sales, thanks to the domination of streaming services.

It is these foreclosures that are at the core of the Canadian short film The Last Video Store (2013) directed by Tim Rutherford and Cody Kennedy. The film takes place in a world ravaged by a war between physical media stores and digital media streaming services. The film follows a delivery boy who brings a nondescript package to one of the last video stores in Alberta (one of the actual last video stores in Alberta), run by a VHS obsessed video store clerk (the actual owner of the store). As the delivery boy enters the store we see that it is covered from floor to ceiling in enough film memorabilia and VHS tapes to make any cinephile think that the boy just entered heaven. After opening the package, much to the excitement of the clerk, they see that it contains an unmarked VHS tape. However, once they put it into the VCR, they realize that it was actually sent by the big streaming corporation, as it takes over the entire television set, turning it into a giant tape-destroying monster meant to wipe out and assimilate the business into a generic streaming service.

The Last Video Store – Directed by Tim Rutherford and Cody Kennedy

Although the film portrays the struggle of video stores in an absurd way, its opening title card “based on true events in the near future…” remains valid. Of course, much like the film, my take on the subject is dripping in nostalgia. However, I do feel that there are some objectively positive arguments to be made on behalf of video stores and with them, the existence of physical media. 

There is one obvious point in which it is clear that streaming services have the upper hand and that is in its sheer amount of selection. Netflix Canada’s library is comprised of nearly four thousand different films, while Amazon Prime’s library boasts twelve thousand. However, I would argue that this maze of seemingly endless options isn’t quite what it seems to be on its surface. While it may seem as though you could watch literally anything you could ever think of, you are simply seeing what the company feels aligns with their brand or adheres to an arbitrary level of quality. For example, if you subscribe to Disney+, you will only see films that are owned by the mouse. If you choose Netflix, you will have their own originals pushed down your eye sockets, as well as films that adhere to their list of technical requirements that essentially gatekeep any low-budget/independent films from even submitting to be considered to join their platform. You could make the same argument against Blockbuster, as they very intentionally controlled which films they would carry in their stores. However, this does not take into account independent or smaller video stores in which you would have the option to rent or buy a selection of tapes and DVDs that were subject to less unnecessary scrutiny. Being from Montréal, I will give a very specific example. Back when the option was available, you could go to a Blockbuster and find a film that would be more desirable to the general non-film savvy audience, or you could have gone to the now-shuttered La Boîte Noire who carried some films that you would never find at such a large chain of video stores and even ask an employee for a recommendation for a film that you may have never heard of. The idea being, that if you tried hard enough, you could find what you were looking for at a store that suited your tastes while also forming a human connection with like-minded individuals. In the digital age, you are essentially praying that an algorithm will show you something that you might enjoy, or that the specific streaming service that you pay fourteen dollars a month for will one day pick that film you’ve been waiting years to see.

I would be doing my argument a disservice by not mentioning the difference between scrolling for hours and physically handling the media that you are debating on watching. I believe that a big reason that we spend hours scrolling through different categories on Netflix (or other streaming services), is that, on the surface, the films have no personality. Instead of looking at a case that is essentially in itself an art piece, you are more often than not shown a generic thumbnail that maybe has a famous actor in it. A great example of this is the film Zodiac (2007) directed by David Fincher. Currently while scrolling on Amazon Prime this thumbnail image will be your first impression of the film:

While telling you nothing except that whoever was in charge of this image doesn’t know how to use Photoshop, this photo also does not draw you into the film. It holds no artistic value and could be a completely different film if you just switched the title out for something else. It is ultimately meaningless. The same could not be said about the physical release of Zodiac shown here:

This release of the film was made to look like the threatening letters that the Zodiac killer would send to newspaper outlets. Although it may seem somewhat cryptic, the physical release cover is leagues beyond the streaming thumbnail as these letters play a pivotal role in the film and will have a different meaning once the film ends. These days, there are a handful of distributors going the extra mile to give you unique physical release experiences such as Criterion, Shout Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, and Arrow Video. Their releases aren’t just barebones and lifeless thumbnails, but something that has had so much thought and love poured into it just so that you, the viewer, could have a more meaningful experience. To me, this is an objective win on the side of physical media, because if you were browsing in a store and picked up this Blu-Ray case you would be given a more meaningful experience just by looking at it.

It is also important to note that without the option to access physical media you run the risk of losing the film altogether. An example of this would be my hunt to find the film Invasion! (1999) Directed by John Paizs. I scoured the internet for days on end looking for somewhere to stream this film with no luck. To my knowledge, this film does not exist as far as streaming services or even paid video-on-demand services are concerned. However, my effort was not in vain as I came across a listing on eBay for the film on DVD for a cool fourteen dollars. In this instance, I was lucky because the film was released at a time where physical releases were the norm. With that no longer being the case, I have not had this same luck with newer and smaller independent Canadian releases. I cannot even begin to count how many hours I’ve spent looking for specific films that don’t have physical releases and haven’t been picked up by streaming services.

Invasion! (1999) – Directed by John Paizs

This brings us to yet another point, possibly the one that offends me the most as a viewer and as a filmmaker. After many days of looking for the film Mass for Shut-Ins (2017)directed by Winston DeGiobbi out of Nova Scotia, I finally found a solid lead showing that it was on Amazon Prime. However, when I clicked on the link it told me that the film was not available in my area. Therefore, as this film has not been put elsewhere (to my knowledge), it is impossible to watch. I have a film on the Prime streaming service so I am familiar with the rules and what you can expect when submitting to them. What surprised me the most is that my film would never be available in Canada, the country in which it was made and where I live. Rather, it would only be made available in the USA and the UK. Unless I move, I can never watch my own film on this service. There are, of course, more Canadian-centric streaming services such as CBC Gem and Crave that allow you to stream Canadian films in Canada. However, being noticed by either as a smaller creator is nearly impossible without proper backing and, in the case of Crave, your film would be hidden behind multiple paywalls. This is why I am an avid collector of physical releases of Canadian film and treat my collection as more of an archive, as I feel that it is in constant threat of being lost. I have lists upon lists of films that I will most likely never be able to see thanks to how physical media has been nearly phased out.

So, we settle. The war is nearing its conclusion and we are at the mercy of massive corporations. We all pray that our films will be picked up by a corporation’s service for a limited time, instead of calling up an independent shop and striking up a conversation about having your film placed on their shelves. If you are like me and have a catalogue of films that you cannot find on streaming services, put in the effort to find the distributors that are still fighting the good fight, who put out impeccable releases of films that you love or will love. Support the act of archiving media. Support art.

The Last Video Store (2013) – Directed by Tim Rutherford and Cody Kennedy

The Last Video Store is available to watch for free on the National Film Institute of Canada’s website: