I’ve said a few times that I think the decline of the past in popular culture – our decreasing familiarity with work made before a certain time – may just be a reversion to the natural order of things. There was a period when TV stations needed old movies, TV shows and cartoons as cheap filler programming, so young people could grow up with Bugs Bunny cartoons as part of their lives even though Bugs Bunny cartoons hadn’t been produced regularly since 1964. But that wasn’t normal, historically. Francis Coppola recently gave his historical take on the idea of artists making money off their creations, pointing out that some of the ways artists expect to make money are relatively new, and might not last:
In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.
Another thing that may have been even more of a historical outlier was the idea of owning movies. The Hollywood studios are still reeling from the end of the DVD sales boom, and a lot of people are talking about the value of owning movies in physical media. I sympathize with that personally, because I still enjoy DVDs. (For one thing, streaming isn’t all the way there yet in terms of quality; for another thing, those of us without will power sometimes feel a need to get off the internet for a couple of hours, which means it helps to have some entertainment that doesn’t require an internet connection.) But of course the idea of owning your own copy of a movie, as a mainstream mass phenomenon, was incredibly short-lived. Owning your own copy of a film on actual film was always a hobby for a few collectors. The arrival of home video in the ’80s was more about renting than owning. Thanks to the pricing of DVDs, the bad decisions of Blockbuster, and a bunch of other interlocking events, there were a few years in the last decade when owning movies really took off beyond collectors. But it couldn’t last. Most movies or TV episodes are watched only once. People naturally gravitate to formats where they will only have to pay to see them once: theatre, renting, streaming.
Physical books may or may not survive the rise of new online forms, but they do have the advantage that no matter what technological changes occur, a paper book will be usable. This doesn’t apply to DVDs (or music formats, for that matter). Besides, books always had that cachet of looking good on your shelf. To a certain extent vinyl records did too. With a few exceptions, like Criterion discs and HBO box sets, DVDs and Blu-Rays never quite made it to the level of status symbols. Like CDs, they caught on because they provided a mix of quality and convenience in their delivery of something popular (music, film), but there wasn’t any special cachet attached to owning them, and there wasn’t any special reason why people would hang onto them if something even more convenient came along. Owning a film probably wasn’t meant to be a common thing; streaming is probably closer to the norm of how we experience film.