by James Wallace Harris, May 5, 2023
Ideas for this essay began when my Blu-ray player died. I got on Amazon to buy a new one, and then I asked myself: When was the last time I viewed a movie or TV show from a disc? When was the last time I bought one? I went and looked through our bookcase which has five shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays. Most have not been played in years, and some have never been played or even opened. I bought them because wanted to own them.
I realized that owning movies has a mindset. I’m trying to decide if I need to change that mindset.
This essay isn’t aimed at film fans who actually collect movies with a purpose. Nor is it about minimalism and getting rid of stuff. What I’m talking about is how buying movies changed us. We had one pop culture mindset before VHS tapes and DVDs, another afterward, and an even newer mindset is emerging with streaming. And those mindsets say something about our individual psychology.
Before the advent of the VCR, the main way to see a movie was when it was at the theater or rerun on television. If you wanted to see a specific film you might have to wait years. I used to go to science fiction conventions and one of their highlights was the film room where they’d run classic science fiction movies all weekend. There were also film clubs and festivals, but those were for serious film buffs. And a few people, usually rich ones, collected movies on film.
For the most part, people didn’t own movies and they had a mindset about how they watched movies. Starting in the 1980s, the VCR became popular. This created two industries – selling movies on tape, and tape rental stores. That’s when people really got into owning their favorite films and a new mindset emerged.
It changed society. Not everyone collected movies, but it was pretty common. Then came the DVD and it caused even more people to want to own movies. Most people just rented films and Blockbuster became part of popular culture too. Still, a fair percentage of people wanted to own movies.
Now we have streaming. Streaming has killed the movie rental store. A few still exist, but that way of life is now dead. And I think a lot of people have stopped buying movies on DVDs, Blu-ray, and 4k. Diehard fans still collect, but ordinary people have stopped.
Susan and I bought a lot of films on DVD and Blu-ray over the years. A few years ago we gave bags of them away to friends and the library. But we kept one bookcase of our favorites. Now I’m wondering if we even need to keep those.
Whenever I want to see a specific movie I can usually find it streaming on one of the subscriptions I already own, or on one of the free streaming services that use ads. Or I’ll rent it on Amazon. And if JustWatch can’t locate what I want, I’ll check YouTube, and pretty often, those forgotten films are usually there. It’s extremely rare that I can’t find a movie on the net.
For decades I believed if I really wanted to see a movie that wasn’t easily available I had to buy it. And it annoyed me when there was something I wanted to see and it wasn’t streaming or for sale. There’s a psychological component to that, maybe not a good one.
For the past few years, the only time I bought a movie or TV show on DVD/BD was because I couldn’t get it anywhere else. And most of those shows were oddities that I could have easily gone without seeing. Still, it’s weird of me to go to such lengths to acquire something I wanted on a whim.
But I’m also thinking about something else. Why do I feel I should see a specific film or television show when I want to? It’s because, in the 1980s and 1990s, we took on the mindset we could own movies and television shows. Previously, the mindset was movies and television shows were ephemeral. That fate would present us with what we needed to see. Owning is a mindset that says we can control reality.
Streaming presents a new mindset. What is the new mindset it creates? Is it one of a library in the cloud? A universal library? Well, actually, it’s a bunch of libraries in the cloud with different fees and requirements to use them. For music, I depend on Spotify, it is an almost universal library of songs and albums. Subscribing to a combination of three to six subscription services like Netflix, HBO Max, Apple TV, Hulu, etc. will get you a library of thousands of movies and television shows. Apple News+ gets me access to hundreds of magazines. Scribd and Kindle Unlimited get me access to countless books and audiobooks.
The trouble with this new mindset is you have to maintain lots of subscriptions. Subscribing to a bunch of services gives the illusion of owning a giant library. And I think that’s why I subscribe to so many services. It gives me the illusion I own all these movies, television shows, albums, books, audiobooks, etc. But do I even need to feel like I own a library?
I do have some friends who have tremendous discipline and only subscribe to one movie/TV streaming service at a time. Their mindset is different. My mindset is to pretend I own the Library of Congress. Their mindset is to enjoy everything at a branch library before switching to another branch library.
But I’ve been thinking about the mindset I had back in the 1960s when I watched movies and TV shows based mostly on serendipity. Back then, when I wanted to see a movie, we looked at the movie section in the paper and picked out something to see. Or we turned on the TV when we wanted to watch TV and flipped through the channels till we settled on something. I didn’t try to find something very specific or seek the very best of the best of all time. I had a small selection and picked whatever struck my mood at the moment. I didn’t read reviews, check ratings, or study books. I accepted what reality offered.
In 2023 I usually have a target in mind and go looking for it. I’d read about what others are watching and recommending, and decide that’s what I want to see. My friend Linda recommended The Diplomat, and I rejoined Netflix to watch it. It’s not like I didn’t already have thousands of shows and films to see on Prime, Hulu, BritBox, AppleTV, and Peacock.
Susan hates when we have company and we all decide to watch a movie together. The act of deciding what to watch drives her up the walls. And often our guests get frustrated too because there are so many choices and we’ve all developed highly individual tastes. Back in the old days, people were more willing to watch whatever was on with each other. Owning movies I think changed us all.
We all became aficionados of exactly what we loved. We all conditioned ourselves to seek out movies that pushed our own unique emotional buttons. We moved away from going with the flow. Owning movies changed us. It conditioned us to specialize and be picky. It made us want to watch exactly what we wanted to watch.
Oh, I’m sure millions of people subscribe to Netflix and when they want to watch something click it on and then scroll around until they find something to watch. They never got conditioned to seek something specific. I did. I didn’t collect to complete a collection. I bought movies because I wanted to be able to watch what I wanted when I wanted. Streaming does a better job of getting me what I want, when I want, without owning it.
However, I’m now asking myself is that good? What if the mindset we had back in the 1960s was actually better for us psychologically? Both owning and streaming fulfill our desire to control reality. What if going with the flow isn’t a better way? That would be more like Eastern philosophy.
I am not a hoarder, not as people see them on TV. But when it comes to books and movies, I guess I was. Owning a library of anything is a kind of specialized hoarding. There’s a psychology behind that. I’m wondering if late in life, at 71, I shouldn’t alter that psychology.
14 thoughts on “The Emerging Mindset of Not Owning Movies”
All this is a version of hoarding but not in a bad sense? It’s just a nature of humans to want to acquire and control something that they think is important. The old saying about “my hoarding is logical and has a purpose. Where as your hoarding is just crazy… That should make us laugh at ourselves
Good essay. I am probably about to buy a movie disc for the first time in 13 years.
Here’s the backstory: I read a great book last year The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. Hollywood has adapted it twice, once in 1944 and again in 2004. I eschewed both versions, after I read reviews that they both stank.
Then, last summer the director of the 2004 film version released an ‘extended and remastered’ cut. It removed 30 minutes of the original film and replaced it with 40 minutes of entirely new footage that the studio had excised. The new version is supposedly more faithful to the novel and features some good performances by the actors.
I really want to watch the Remastered version, but it was only available to rent/stream from AppleTV for 4 weeks. Now it is only available as a Blu-Ray.
So streaming is not always an option, even for new releases.
This is exactly why I still buy DVDs. I’ll read a book and then want to see all the movie or TV adaptations. That happened with The Pursuit of Love books by Nancy Mitford. There were three TV adaptations. I had to buy the oldest on used DVDs. They weren’t even region 1 so I had to buy a cheap region free DVD player.
I recently read The High Window by Raymond Chandler. I had to see the two old movie versions. Luckily they were on YouTube.
Many thanks for this piece, as always, Jim! I haven’t yet started exploring watching movies by streaming, etc. My wife and I don’t have Netflix or anything similar. We watch our movies on DVDs borrowed from the public library. I don’t necessarily need to own all the movies I watch, although it’s nice to have a handful of DVDs of movies we really like. One of these days I might break down and buy a set of DVDs of the old Outer Limits series, although I can still take these out of the library.
I haven‘t bought a DVD or CD for over 10 years. My Apple TV+ and Disney+ subscriptions run out soon and I won‘t be renewing them. I still have Netflix. I‘ve never felt the need to own. I give away all the books that I have read. I guess I just don‘t want to own so much stuff, although I haven‘t moved for 15 years now. I am actually pondering to get an old fashioned library card again, once I‘ve gotten my physical bookshelf a bit more.
“What if going with the flow isn’t a better way?”
I’ve been pondering that lately, but about travel. It used to be if you were traveling you’d stop off in a town, and look around for a likely eatery. But now I check to see what’s ahead and then look at their reviews before making my choice. I’ve basically gone from “surprise me!” to “let’s have someone tell us all about it before we step foot in the door!” As much as I enjoy reading reviews, it’s really taken the fun out of eating on the road.
I’ve been slowly reducing the number of DVD and Blu-rays (as well as donating hundreds of books) because my wife and kids have no interest in my book collection or my movie collection. My kids are totally into streaming services. But will streaming services provide the content I’m interested in? What about the Bonus Content on DVD sets? I’ll probably retain about a hundred of my favorite movies and TV shows on discs. But the rest will have to go to a Good Home. As we age, we have to de-acquistion many of our cherished items.
i reckon at this point my question is not the logic of piling up video of one sort or another as much as whether the filmgoing experience will ever make a comeback. i’ve seen the wild bunch in a theatre a number of times, but didn’t really appreciate the directors vision until i saw it in 70 millimeter some years back in san francisco. home video has distinct advantages,but that’s another pitch from another soapbox.
I’m coming to a conclusion after reading this blog that watching movies or listen to music now a days (being too selective) will separate us more than in the past, when every body in the family gathered to watch tv or listen to the radio with very limited options. it is though to find people with the same taste for movies and music.
Another good middle ground is borrowing movies from the library. My family borrows a variety of movies and we exchange them weekly. Sometimes, my kiddos will borrow a movie they seen before. I don’t mind cause it’s cheaper than renting Redbox are having multiple streaming services.
My wife and I borrow all our movies from the library on DVD. I hope our public library doesn’t start cutting back on DVDs in favour of streaming, etc.
What you may find interesting on this topic is actually how the erosion of ‘fair use’ and ‘public domain’ have changed the cultural thoughts on ownership.
You can pull up ‘Free Culture’ by Lawrence Lessig if you really want to dig into that, but in the broad strokes, with copyright being extended further it means some works that would have been in the public domain no longer are… and digital ‘rights’ has almost completely destroyed ‘fair use’.
These two things have impacted how we see owning anything. They’re even doing it with cars now. Really. Seat warmers in a BMW are by subscription, so how warm your buttocks are is directly related to not owning your own car.
The joy of ‘owning’ movies in the periods you discuss is that we could *share* them. Which was fair use. Now, if we both have kindles, I can’t lend you a book.
“Digital Rights” went wrong.
I’ll check out Lawrence Lessig.
The people who make money will always find ways to make even more money.
I’m actually spending far less on albums and movies now by using subscription services than when I used to buy everything. And I have a far great selection. For many years (decades) I bought 2-4 albums a week. Back when CDs were $15, that’s $120-240 a month. Now $15 a month gets me and my wife millions of albums. That’s great for us consumers, but not so hot for music creators.
You know, I hadn’t thought about my own spending on music over the years. I largely bought CDs and ripped them to MP3s long ago, and I infrequently purchase music now.
I’m not the target market, I suppose. Is this where I’m supposed to let out an existential scream? 🙂
I remember buying two 45s a week, maybe a LP here and there, so that I could record on reel to reel and put on cassettes.
You’re absolutely right, especially with recording studios making their mint.
In fact… we can see the decline in music sales. I’m not sure how much of it is because the music sucks though. 🙂