Aug 9, 2011


The other day, I saw the awesome looking trailer for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  (Here is a link so you too can be impressed.  And, yes, that brief flash you saw is Sawyer.)  I was thinking about the Mission Impossible movie franchise and thought that I would like to watch them again before the new film came out.  I thought the first film was amazing - a very rare action film that was brainy and brilliantly written. As good and smart as the first one way, the second one was stupid.  The best part about it was that I had just come back from Australia and was able to sit there and point out all the places I had been.  I didn't see the third one when it was in theaters because I had a strong aversion to violent movies at that point.  But I have caught most of it over the years and thought it wasn't bad.  I definitely wanted to give it another chance.

So I decided to go back and watch those movies again.  I own the first one on DVD.  So that's easy enough to watch.  But, how would I go about securing the second and third movies?  This used to be a pretty easy proposition.  Get in the car, drive to Blockbuster or Movie Gallery, get the movies, go home.  But now, that isn't so easy.  When we lived up in Tallahassee, I watched as all the video rental places disappeared.  Literally.  Every single Blockbuster and Movie Gallery closed.  The stores couldn't compete with the cheaper options: Netflix and Redbox.  Blockbuster even helped kill itself by creating the Blockbuster Express kiosks housed in places like Publix.  So, the thought of going to the movie store has become a very foreign idea.  There are only eight Blockbuster stores in the entire Orlando area.  None of those stores are within a reasonable driving distance from downtown.

I am part of the reason that the stores all closed.  We started using Netflix a few years ago and it quickly became a much easier option.  Much of what we were interested in was available over their streaming option.  And if it wasn't, we could usually put it on our DVD queue and get it within a couple of days.  The newer films were easily (and cheaply) available at one of the dozens of Redbox kiosks at 7-11 or Walmart or McDonalds.  Or, I could just grab it when I was grocery shopping at Publix.

I was quite content with this plan until my decision to watch the Mission Impossible series.  I checked Netflix.  The first movie was available through streaming, but I already have it.  Neither of the other two films were on the instant queue.  They were available on disc.  I knew from past experience that there was no way MI2 or MI3 would be in the Redbox or Blockbuster Express inventory - they were too old.  So, no stores in the area.  No instant streaming.  No kiosk renting.  My options were now stripped down to buying the DVDs somewhere (uh, no thanks) or getting them through Netflix on disc.

Now, this all happened on the same day that Netflix decided to flex its money grubbing muscles.  They split their membership options into Streaming and Shipping.  You couldn't have both any more, unless you were willing to pay twice what you were paying.  Instead of $9 a month, it was $16.  I, like many others, took great offense at this proposition.  In fact, I went on my Netflix account and changed it to just streaming within minutes of learning of their sneaky move.  So, now I didn't even have the option to get the discs from Netflix.  Blockbuster kindly offered a new streaming rental service within days - and I could get MI2 through it for $3.  But MI3 still was unattainable.  The only way I could just sit down and watch MI3 was to rent it through iTunes on my computer (since I don't have Apple TV).

This brings up an interesting conundrum.  For convenience's sake, consumers have actually limited their choices.  Movie studios have to be nervous about this turn of events.  What do they do with their back catalog?  I know that Netflix and other companies have been trying to force us into all streaming for movies.  It makes sense on their end.  They don't have to pay shipping or deal with physical inventory.  Their only real cost is licensing (which they would pay either way) and bandwidth.  In comparison, that is a much cheaper option.  That is why we have seen so many companies jump into the online on-demand movie business.  We have seen companies like Netflix and Vudu and Amazon and Facebook and even Blockbuster all leap into the fray.  It is a big money move.  But, what does that mean for older movies that are not in the instant inventory?

What it means is that movie studios are going to be forced to allow their films to go that route.  The other option is that studios will have to go back to a day where their movies were not available to consumers after their theatrical run.  Yes, people still can buy the DVD and watch the movie on cable or On Demand.  But after the initial burst, it will be harder for consumers to get the film without paying full price for the physical disc.  I don't see studios being happy about losing that rental income.  That used to be what could turn a movie profitable if it was disappointing in the theater.  I remember back when the movie Hudson Hawk came out when I was in high school.  It was this big budget action comedy with Bruce Willis.  My friends and I thought it was hilarious.  But most people didn't get it and so it tanked in the theaters.  However, once it came out on video, those fans of it could spread the word and get others on board.  It actually became a pretty big hit on video - which turned the movie into a profitable film.  It was a similar story for movies like Last Action Hero and The Cable Guy.  They were misunderstood or poorly marketed in theaters and only really got the appreciation they deserved on video.

There have been tons of movies that gained a second life on video.  Films like Donnie Darko, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Office Space, The Big Lebowski, Tron, and Blade Runner became huge hits thanks to their life on video.  What is going to happen with movies like that in today's environment?  The initial burst on video release will still help a film.  But it really is that period in between the point where a movie is on the "New Release" wall and where it hits the "Instant Queue" status where it gains cult success status.

Let's look at Shawshank Redemption as an example.  It was criminally mishandled when it came out in theaters in September of 1994.  The biggest thing that it was marketed with was the line "from the short story by Stephen King."  If you see that, what do you think?  Horror film.  That's what I thought when I saw it.  I passed that movie up several times in theaters because I had no clue what in the world it was about.  A prison?  Stephen King?  Some actors I am not really emotionally attached to?  It got nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture - which gave it some box office bump.  Still, the movie grossed under $30 million.  It didn't win any Oscars because it was nominated in one of the greatest years ever.  The Best Picture films were Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank, Quiz Show, and the inexplicably included Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Other films that came out that year included: Lion King, True Lies, Natural Born Killers, Nobody's Fool, Ed Wood, Speed, Interview with a Vampire, Maverick, Legends of the Fall, Hoop Dreams, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber.  It is little wonder it got overlooked.

On video, though, it gained life.  People remembered that it had been nominated for Oscars.  In the Blockbuster model, they could stroll through the store and look at the case and read it.  They could see that it wasn't a horror movie.  They started to hear other people who had watched it.  Word of mouth overcame the horrible marketing.  Other movies would come out and have their videos cover an entire section of the wall for a couple weeks.  But, soon, they would be forgotten.  Shawshank sat there in its smaller numbers and were constantly checked out.  The popularity on video led TNT to purchase it to show.  It gained a HUGE popularity on that channel.  Even to this day (fourteen years after it first aired), TNT shows it at least every other month.  The movie is on most Top 100 lists.  It is hard to find someone who hasn't seen the movie - and most of them agree that it was incredible.  That never would have happened without the video opportunities.

That is a movie that is going to be hurt in this new model.  So will movies that came out before there was such a streamlined DVD process - ones from the 1970s and 1980s.  I remember the headache of trying to find the original Tron before the sequel came out.  It wasn't available anywhere.  I couldn't find it to buy at Walmart or Best Buy or Target.  It wasn't available at all on Netflix (streaming or DVD) or in Redbox.  On Amazon, it was only offered on VHS or some lame DVD transfer - usually for a ton of money.  (Disney really dropped the ball on that whole process.  I know they wanted to reintroduce it on DVD and Blu-Ray when the new one came out that way.  But they probably cost themselves a lot in box office income by not having the original available.)  The only place you could get Tron was at a video rental store that had held onto its copy - something that there were none of in Tallahassee.

We are kind of in an in-between phase.  I'm sure that movie studios will have to buckle and make their whole film inventory available through streaming.  Right now they are really losing out on exposure.  A lot of people are only going to go with streaming options.  So, movies that aren't available that way are toast.  Honestly, I'm not sure how much that will help, though.  You lose the "walk by" factor in this new model.  What you see is limited by logarithms and computer generated suggestions.  When you have a whole family sharing an account (like we do), those suggestions get very messed up.  My kids watch a ton of Veggie Tales and Cosby Show.  So my suggestions are peppered with kids shows and 80s television.  (Personally, I don't want to watch Punky Brewster when I have a free moment.)  I will miss out on movies I would like because I lose space to dumb suggestions like Phineas and Ferb.  And, if I hear about a great movie, chances are I won't be able to get it.  [To show you what I mean.  Let's say you read my list of great 1994 movies and wanted to see Quiz Show since you missed out on that one.  Too bad.  Not on instant streaming on Netflix.  Not in Redbox.  Not streamed or rentable on Amazon.  Not available on iTunes.  You can buy it or try to find a rental store.]

Personally, I hate what Netflix did.  I think they are trying to force the hands of the movie studios.  They want the cheaper streaming option on all films.  And they were willing to hurt consumers to do it.  They knew that very few people would completely dump Netflix over the move - most would do what I did and just drop down to either DVDs or Streaming.  Either way, they only lost $1 a month per person.  But did they really lose anything?  Now, they are offering half the service and still getting 88% of the pay.  And, there are going to be people who would bump up to the $16 option just to not lose their selection.  And, over time, there will be more people who do that because they will be frustrated by the inability to find older movies.  In the long run, they will make more money.  And I still will have to jump through hoops to see Mission Impossible 3.