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.