In the beginning, there was stage. Thousands of years later, we found a way to record a performance and replay it in a public space, thus bringing one performance, carefully edited together, to millions of viewers. The movie theater was born. But only fifty years later, we were able to pipe that same performance into home television sets, and here is where most innovations have occurred in the past three decades.
When VCRs became affordable in the 1980s, people began to record television programming and to rent movies from video stores, giving the consumer more choice than was available just by switching channels or visiting a different movie theater. This technological advancement was soon matched by alternative forms of connectivity (antenna, satellite, cable), increased programming (thousands of channels), and different payment options (network bundles, cable, pay-per-view).
Other innovations have appeared in the past decade that seemed to further destabilize the model. DVRs allow consumers to record shows more intelligently than they could with VCRs, and to edit out the commercials. The recent deprecation of analog connectivity might shift the sorts of programs people watch once they convert to digital. By-mail video subscriptions (Netflix, Blockbuster) mean fewer trips to the video store and better prices. Online streaming has made movies and especially television shows freely available (not counting ISP fees and any commercials included, as with Hulu).
There have been few times in my life when I've had television service, so my technological path has been along the lines of improvements to home video. Beta > VHS > DVD > Blu-ray (soon). In terms of where I obtain the movies to be watched, this has gone from 3-hour trip to video store > local video store > subscription at local video store > by-mail subscription.
I grew up among a large video collection, and I've continued that practice in my own household. However, two things have caused me to rethink home video purchases. First, as an adult, I find I want to watch more movies fewer times each, rather than few movies many times each. I don't know what it is about familiarity that drives childhood habits, but I could watch a movie ten times as a kid, no problem. As an adult, I've never watched a movie ten times, and few movies even approach that number. So the impetus to own movies has decreased, in that I'm now leaning toward variety, rather than rewatchability. Second, the technology is unstable. Books and boardgames are timeless technologies. Incremental improvements in these forms do not obsolete previous editions. Not so with home video. There came a time when my parents were buying up used Beta machines so that our Beta collection could still be enjoyed. At some point, the format was no longer supported (no one sold the machines, no one fixed the machines, and no new movies were available for the machines), and we had to bail. An entire movie collection was lost. Laserdiscs were a flash-in-the-pan that I skipped, but once I begin shifting toward DVD in 2003 (later than many people), I was and am faced with a large, problematic VHS collection. With the emergence of Blu-ray, I suspect that VHS will finally be fully discontinued (since DVD will become the new, outgoing technology). My VHS machine no longer rewinds. Books just work, but a home video collection relies on translation technology. If I can't rewind my collection, I can't watch my collection. Someday soon I won't be able to buy a rewinder.
DVDs are sleek. But Blu-rays are sleeker. Just as DVDs took up half the shelf space of a VHS, Blu-ray cases are half as wide as their DVD counterparts. And Blu-ray players play DVD, creating the best technology bridge we've had to date (I discount combination VHS/DVD machines). Nevertheless, I'm sick of format changes, and everyone is talking about collections living in the cloud eventually anyway, so my home video purchases have slowed way down. I bought fewer DVDs than I did VHS, and I suspect I will buy fewer Blu-rays than I do DVDs.
Along comes Netflix Instant Play. I just resubscribed last week, and was happy to discover that Netflix's Instant Play option is now available to Mac users. I haven't yet made up my mind if this is outright the best thing ever, or just the best thing since hydrogen and oxygen first formed water, but it's one of the two. I hope soon to have a Blu-ray player that will stream Netflix directly to my TV, so, assuming that works smoothly, this is what we're looking at: a tremendous library of titles, available all the time (never checked out), that play instantly (they don't need to download for an hour or even a minute) just like a DVD does, in high quality, for a cheap price. It's all the flexibility of renting/paying-per-view, but at a decreased cost, without ever leaving the house, so it's as if I pulled it from my own private collection. With the service stick around? Worst case scenario, at some point in the future the technology either flops or becomes too expensive; at that point, I would still have the option of pursuing some other technology for a home video collection, and in doing so I would have benefited from Netflix's service because it would have carried me past one or two now-obsolete technologies (e.g. Blu-ray and Next-Big-Thing). Not all Netflix movies are currently available for Instant Play, but they are adding titles faster than I can catch up with the back log, so I'm not hurting for choices.
So far I've watched six movies. The quality has been great, and in each case, I was not so excited to see the movie that I wanted to bother to queue it, wait for it, watch it, then return it. If I could watch it immediately, yes I'd bother, but otherwise, not. All six have been great fun: Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), My Man Godfrey (1936), How to Steal a Million (1966), Show Me Love (1998, Sweden), Charade (1963), and His Girl Friday (1940). I did encounter a problem trying to watch The Amazing Adventure (1936), but the site has a mechanism for reporting problems, so I have no doubt the problem will be resolved.
Once I have this streaming to my television (instead of to my computer), this means that for about fifteen dollars a month, I can watch as many movies as I want, pick from any title, at any time, and without having to go anywhere. Dangerous! For me, this is a great opportunity to enjoy the films of the past. But it also means that instead of buying a movie when I want to watch it many times over, I could just watch it on Netflix. Someday I might want to actually own a tangible copy of the movie, but with technology changing so fast, what's the point?