It isn’t necessary to look at the sales figures to know that there has been something remarkable about the rise of digital video discs (DVDs) in the past six years. They are the fastest growing entertainment technology of all time. In what seems like an instant, they have appeared at the front of music stores, in supermarket aisles, and under our noses when we pay for petrol.
Design gurus have theories about why certain objects infiltrate our lives without resistance, and certainly the thin, light-refracting slickness of the disc – the brittle, magical fact that something that small can contain Citizen Kane or The Battle of Algiers – is attractive. But a comparison with the music industry explains why these qualities alone are not enough to explain DVD’s triumph. When audio compact discs came along in 1982, there were grumbles and protests, because their aim was to replace a much loved home format: vinyl. Film buffs, by contrast, collected video tapes with weariness. VHS was a crude, fuzzy medium, comparable to audio tapes rather than vinyl. With the advent of DVDs, cinephiles abandoned VHS in a heartbeat.
So complete has been the DVD revolution that it is hard to believe that the first discs were sold in the US, by Toshiba, as recently as 1997. Philips and Sony quickly followed suit, and as word got around of their vastly improved image sharpness, colour registration and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, discs flew off the shelves. In 2001, 13m western European homes had a DVD player. By 2006, 103m will. Discs themselves are seeing a 36 per cent year on year sales growth. In 2001, the UK’s total box office was ?690m, whereas its DVD and video market was ?1.5bn, over 50 per cent higher. Nowadays, in nearly every territory DVD and videotape revenues far outstrip theatre and television sales and merchandising income; the video proportion of this is falling fast. In other words, those little discs of rainbow light, what the US film industry’s chief spokesman, Motion Picture Association of America boss Jack Valenti, called “that beguiling discovery,” will, within a few years, be the central plank of world cinema’s revenue platform: the reason, if you will, for cinema to exist.
Many of the implications of this have already been noted, but two have been overlooked. The first is that the entertainment media’s obsession with weekend box office figures…