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The state of play / Blu-ray only
In a sorely delayed revival of our weekend blog, Slarek outlines the real world problems that continue to impact on the maintenance of the site, and reflects on Indicator's decision to release titles on Blu-ray only from this point on.
17 September 2017

The state of play

When your life is as upturned as mine is at the moment, making promises is a risky business. When I started the weekend blog I did so with the intention of forcing myself to write an entry every week on whatever subject came to mind. It didn't work out, at least not in the way that I had hoped.

As regular visitors to the site will know, the past year has been a tumultuous one for me, as post-operative problems following an operation on my foot have massively impacted on my mobility and physical wellbeing, and a string of serious health issues have meant that my ageing mother now requires 24-hour care, which my sister and I are committed to providing. This has meant that the site has gone from being an all-encompassing hobby to something I have to shoehorn into what little free time I can now find. More than once I've considered putting the site on hold, but it remains a welcome and necessary distraction, something I believe in and am able to focus on that is not connected to my day job, my stupid foot, or my mother's suffering. While she fitfully sleeps, I review a disc's special features, and when my sister moves into the driving seat I get to watch the films themselves.

Things have been particularly tough over the past couple of weeks for reasons I won't go into, which has impacted on my own health to a degree, hence the sporadic updates and reviews that have consistently missed the release dates. A degree of stability has returned, and while the situation is unlikely to improve in the immediate future, for now I intend to keep things ticking over and hopefully boost the frequency of review postings. We're already late on a couple of recent Eureka titles that will nonetheless be completed in the next few days, and have just received the latest review discs from Indicator, two of which I've already dived into and am looking forward to writing about. A seriously busy Camus will be helping out when he can make time, and we're likely to see some new coverage from past contributors Lord Summerisle and Jerry Whyte over the coming weeks, with Jerry representing us at the London Film Festival (though I am also hoping to make it to just a few screenings myself). I've also recharged my determination to post a blog every week as originally intended. Watch this space, as they say.


Blu-ray only

A couple of weeks back, Powerhouse Films announced that from October onwards they would cease releasing titles on dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and focus exclusively on Blu-ray instead. The press release made it clear that the distributor was aware that the announcement would not please everyone, but concisely – and in my view persuasively – outlined exactly why the decision was made. Interestingly, our news story about this – which quoted the press release in full – was read by more people than any other we've posted all year. It also prompted a fair few responses, with plenty of appreciation for the logic thinking behind the move, but many also lamenting the decision to abandon DVD as a format of film delivery.

My initial reaction was a nod of acceptance and understanding. Both Eureka and Arrow have released a number of Blu-ray only titles and Criterion have stuck exclusively with Blu-ray for its UK releases. I'll also freely admit that despite owning a large number of dual format titles, I'm not sure I've ever even taken the DVD out of the case of any of them. Then again, the whole concept of a dual format release was not devised with the likes of me in mind. As Powerhouse pointed out in their press release, the inclusion of both DVD and Blu-ray discs in the same package was aimed primarily at those who had yet to invest in a Blu-ray player, to provide them with a DVD that they could play now and a Blu-ray for when they made the later jump to HD, negating the need to repurchase the title at a later date.

We all tend to make assumptions based on our own experience and life choices, and despite having upgraded a little reluctantly to HD back in 2008 (the cost and the difficulty of getting just the right TV and Blu-ray player were both key factors here), in no time at all I became an HD whore, replacing old DVD titles on Blu-ray and reluctant to watch an SD title at all of I knew there was an HD version within theoretical reach. In the case of titles like Alberto Rodríguez's arresting crime drama Marshlandand Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter's science fiction thriller Cargo, which were released on DVD only in the UK, it meant buying a digital download of Marshland on iTunes and importing a German Blu-ray of Cargo, which also sported a terrific 5.1 surround soundtrack that was absent from the stereo-only DVD. Distributors like Second Run continued to put out titles on DVD in transfers of exceptional quality, but even they have begun dipping their toes in the HD pond, and a quick look at the gorgeous transfer on their recent Blu-ray of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen should quickly convince you that this is absolutely the version to own.

I thus, in my own happily cocooned way, have tended to presume that the vast majority of movie devotees have also long ago made the upgrade to Blu-ray. After all, if a distributor has gone to the trouble creating a pristine 2K restoration of a film, what true film enthusiast would not want to see it in the best possible quality? And yet the response to Indicator's press release made it clear that DVD is not just still very much alive and kicking, but is still the format of choice for a good many viewers. It also remains the default format for libraries who lend out movies as well as books – one respondent assured me that his local library would only stock Blu-ray discs if they were in a dual format set that included a DVD. I shouldn't really have been surprised. Pop into my local Asda or Tesco and you'll quickly notice that the DVD racks in both are still considerably larger than their Blu-ray equivalent, and if the DVDs weren't still selling then this simply wouldn't be the case.

Cost was certainly once a factor in the upgrade process. When I bought my full HD plasma TV it put a serious hole in my pocket, but even the cheapest TV you can buy now is at the very least HD ready and more than likely has a full 1080p display, and quality sets from reputable manufacturers have plummeted in price over the past five years. Speaking personally, I cannot remember the last time I visited a house that didn't have a flat screen TV in the living room, which means that most viewers have the expensive aspect of the HD upgrade in the homes already. Perfectly good Blu-ray players can now be picked up for little more than the cost of a couple of discs (multi-region players cost considerably more, but that's a subject for a different discussion), and being backwardly compatible can still be used to play all those DVD titles in your collection. It's also worth noting that a fair few of those who've not got around to buying a Blu-ray player may unknowingly have one in their possession in the shape of a PlayStation 4 or X-Box One gaming console, both of which are capable of playing Blu-ray discs using their built-in software.

Having been a little slow to make the move myself, I will now enthusiastically suggest that if you've not yet made the jump to HD, it really is worth doing so. You probably have an HD TV already, and if you don't have a gaming console then you can find solid entry-level Blu-ray players from the likes of Sony or Samsung for under £50 if you look around. And it really is worth it, for the substantial increase in picture detail, the richer colours and the more film-like image you'll find on the best transfers. As Powerhouse once again pointed out in their press release, you also get to see the film play at 24fps, the speed at which it was originally shot and projected, and not speeded up to the DVD (and VHS) standard of 25fps, and you'll not only have access to those titles that only get released exclusively on Blu-ray only, but also still be able to play the ones that only land a DVD release.

Having said all this, of course, I've yet to even mention the looming presence of Ultra-HD 4K, the adoption of which will again require the purchase of new screens and players, both of which are currently prohibitively expensive for those on a budget. It's thus quite possible that we'll be having another version of this same conversation in the not too distant future, as us die-hard HD devotees with no space for the larger screens that Ultra-HD really needs to properly flex its muscles defiantly proclaim that we're still perfectly happy with Blu-ray.