Some people still buy them—though not necessarily who you’d think.
As Tiger King 2 enthralls and appalls viewers and some fans of Star Trek: Discovery lament the idea of having to shell out for another streaming service subscription, take pity on the once-hot video technology now more likely to be a makeshift coaster for your coffee: DVDs were once the future—but now they’re difficult to shift.
At the height of the DVD boom, back in 2005, Americans spent $16.3 billion on the things—$55.50 for every adult and child in the country, and more than the amount former US president Donald Trump spent on his failed border wall. Today, eBay buyers are not interested in taking them off your hands and secondhand retailers pay basically nothing for HD versions of classic movies.
Ultra HD Blu-ray discs weren’t even a thing until 2015, and they lasted just four years before their inventor, Samsung, decided to stop making hardware to play them. What, then, is the legacy of the DVD revolution?
The number of total physical video transactions made worldwide has dropped from 6.1 billion in 2011 to 1.2 billion in 2021, according to market research firm Omdia. Just 300 million DVDs are expected to be sold worldwide this year, down from an average of 2 billion every year between 2005 and 2009. But there are still 300 million of the things—even if your collection is long gone or gathering dust on the bookshelf. And as demand for DVDs has plummeted, video streaming has risen in its place. Subscriptions to services like Netflix have increased from 39 million worldwide in 2011 to 1.2 billion today—almost swallowing the DVD industry whole. Almost, but not quite.
“There is a solid cohort of consumers wedded to DVDs,” says Liz Bales, chief executive of the British Association for Screen Entertainment, an industry body. “It just suits their demand.” In the UK in 2020, 7 million people still bought a disc-based TV show or movie. Five million Americans bought a movie for the first time between April and June 2021, according to David J. Holliday, president of Technicolor Home Entertainment Services, which produces more than 80 percent of every disc-based format around, from DVDs to Blu-rays to video games.
DVD purchases make up 7 percent of the global home entertainment market, says Omdia, while digital video accounts for 70 percent of the industry. It’s a tale of two trajectories: In the United States, the value of the digital home entertainment market rose 33 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), while physical sales dropped 26 percent. Internationally, the $35 billion digital video market is 10 times the size of the $3.5 billion physical video industry. The market is declining, Holliday says, “but in recent years, particularly since the onset of the pandemic, the rate of decline has diminished.” Surprisingly, given their changing role in the world of entertainment, it’s thought that the lion’s share of DVD purchases are new movies, with a smaller proportion accounting for collector’s editions and box sets.
It all begs the question: Why do DVDs and Blu-rays still exist? And why does Technicolor expect to print and ship 750 million discs this year? The answer is simple: Some people still buy them—though not necessarily who you’d think. While pop psychology would suggest that older generations are clinging to their love of the physical disc, those over the age of 60 make up a smaller proportion of the disc-watching population than their share of the total US population. Instead, those aged 25 to 39 are more likely than most to watch DVDs, according to the MPAA. And they’re often collectors, locked into building out their collections. “I think the term ‘legacy format’ plays into this,” says Tony Gunnarsson, principal analyst of TV, video, and advertising at Omdia. “We have people who have been buying and renting DVDs for so long that they continue to do so.”
That includes Jeanne Sager, a social media marketer from New York state, whose DVD and Blu-ray collection covers four shelves in her family home. Many of the discs in the collection were bought for her child when they first got into movies. “We also tended to collect along the way, as we live in the middle of nowhere, so going to the movies is a bit harder when your town has a theater with just one screen,” she says. Now she doesn’t know what to do with the collection. They take up space—but she fears that getting rid of them could make it much harder to watch her favorite movies or TV shows. “I’m wary of getting rid of them because when you do want to watch something, even with 37 different streaming services out there, it seems the one thing you really want to watch isn’t on them,” she says.
The DVD’s popularity differs depending on where in the world you look. In the UK, the collapse of the high street played a large role in the format’s demise, almost as much as the rise of Netflix—which, lest we forget, started out as a DVD rent-by-mail company. (The company still rents out DVDs in the United States, but those rentals account for less than 2 percent of its US revenue.) Gunnarsson believes around 60 percent of the global DVD market is still based in the United States. Yet the holdouts, wherever they are in the world, are united by several shared goals. “DVDs were a sign of your identity and your personality,” says Gunnarsson. “You’d see rows and rows of DVDs in a home, rather than books.” That’s why Cheshire, England-based radio producer Tom Green still hoards around 300 DVDs at his family home—including whole seasons of The Simpsons that he knows he’ll never watch again because he also subscribes to Disney+.
Green describes himself as a “normal bloke in his early 40s” who has a passion for physical media, storing his DVDs in ziplocked wallets that are tucked away neatly in his home. “They represent a part of my life, and a part of me,” he says. “They’re a curated collection—each item carefully acquired at some point. Every one was a choice I made.” That’s now changed. “Netflix and Disney curate my streaming selection. Not me.” Many also fear the possibility that streaming services can pull popular shows and movies without much notice—as exemplified by Star Trek: Discovery’s disappearance from Netflix.
Green recognizes that his collection is an exercise in futility and that as production of new DVD players slows down, the plastic discs will become even more worthless than the 1 pence (1.34 cents) his local secondhand store recently offered him for pristine Blu-ray discs in their original boxes. “It’s essentially just wasted plastic and cardboard, a relic of the past, a pointless waste of carbon and [work hours] that doesn’t even do the job as well as the streaming version,” he says. Yet he still holds a candle for DVDs. As a teenager, he dreamed of having a cinema room filled floor to ceiling with DVDs. At the age of 41, he managed to do so. “It’s essentially empty,” he says. “Everything I watch comes through a tiny Amazon Fire Stick. Of course it’s convenient. Of course it’s economical, but there’s no joy in it. No pride. No mates are going to come round and coo over my carefully imported selection of Hong Kong action films or Criterion Collection editions of Oscar-winning movies.”
Others elect to keep DVDs and Blu-rays because of the higher audio quality. Twitch streamer Freya Fox grew up in the early 2010s when DVDs were enjoying their moment in the sun. “I’m used to the lossless quality that only a physical disc can provide,” she says. “While streaming is convenient, it can’t always deliver essential auditory experiences like Dolby Atmos very well yet. Blu-rays can, and without any hassle.” Discs are also useful for those who travel, being more reliable than iffy internet connections in hotel rooms. It’s also a boon for small-town America, adds Holiday. “Consumers in rural areas with limited access to high bandwidth internet access rely on physical media for access to high-quality content,” he says. They head to Walmart, which is the biggest retailer of DVDs in the United States, or to Amazon, which is the second-biggest. “Having physical copies will always be king,” Fox says.
For DVDs to undergo a renaissance similar to that experienced by vinyl or cassette tapes will require a big shift, says Green. “We need to wait for the generation that controls ‘culture’ to be a post-media generation. We’re yet to move beyond the era where we see DVD and Blu-ray as something other than our old media. Culturally they’ll only become interesting when they’re seen as their old media.” And that’s perhaps why manufacturers keep making DVDs—and committed collectors hoard their discs. “On a long enough timeline, everything becomes interesting again,” says Green. “Usually after 95 percent of people have consigned their collections to the tip.”