To my left is a book shelf. On it I have an array of books and DVDs, including my James Bond and Lord of the Rings box sets, as well as my copies of Dune, Lacan’s Ecrites and Ian Fleming’s biography. I know that if I wanted to, I just have to go over to the shelf and take a book down to read it, or ask someone to pop a DVD into the player to watch it. My collection will remain there for as long as I want it, and to add to it I simply have to trundle out to the shops to buy a text I want, or failing that order it online. It would then be mine to read or watch indefinitely. Simple.
Or that’s how things were until recently. These days online streaming is getting more and more popular. Of course, streaming has definite advantages, especially for people like me: instead of needing to ask my PA to put a disk in the drive, to watch a film I now just need to go to a streaming website and select the film I want to watch. The thing is, there are more and more streaming services on the web – Amazon, Netflix, Disney etc… – so to watch a specific film you need an account with one of those websites. If you don’t have an account you can’t watch the film; and you can only have an account if you pay a (usually monthly) subscription. Your ability to watch a specific filmic text is therefore no longer as simple as owning a DVD, but depends on which streaming services you’re subscribed to and your ability to pay. That has, in my opinion, reduced rather than opened up our access to film.
For example, I just came across a reference to a new Beavis and Butt-Head film, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe. I used to love Beavis and Butt-Head, so was interested to see their return to the screen. I was also in the mood for some inane puerile humour, so I punched the title into Google and found it was available to watch on Amazon. That would have been fine as I can access Amazon, but when I clicked on the link I was told I could only watch the film if I was signed up to Paramount Plus, which would cost me seven quid a month after a first free week. This I was loathe to do: subscribing to more and more streaming services would just cost me more and more, and end up spiralling out of control. I thus couldn’t watch the film: it had not been released on DVD or in any other format, and could only be viewed via Paramount.
In theory streaming is great: having access to films over the web should make them more available than ever before. Only, the streaming system is becoming more and more monetised; putting films behind online paywalls makes them harder to watch, and once you have watched them you can’t actually keep them to watch again in a few weeks or months unless you keep up your subscription. Such sites have effectively made themselves gatekeepers for certain – usually very popular – films. It kind of makes me miss DVDs: at least they remain on your shelf, indefinitely, rather than having to pay a plethora of different companies again and again, whenever you want to watch a certain film. DVDs might not be as convenient as watching a film online, particularly for the likes of me, but, like books, once you have bought them they remain yours, and you don’t have to keep paying a company which may have played no role in their creation, whenever you want to watch them.