Disc? Stream? Download? How do we watch movies in the age of digital home viewing?


Yesterday afternoon, I made a purchase on an online retailer. It was for a blu-ray box set of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. A collection of three films – Three Colours Blue, Three Colours White, and Three Colours Red – sat on my shelf, watching me as I ordered its replacement. But the collection I already had was on DVD. I wanted it on blu-ray. I wanted to watch Kieslowski’s strange, hypnotic films in high definition. So here was I, making a purchase not solely because of the content, but because of how I wanted to watch the content.

How cinema is consumed outside of the theatres is this day and age is a fascinating, daunting, sprawling topic. It has been debated by many. David Thompson, one of the great writers on cinema, devotes large sections of his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us to how audiences now watch films. He says that he knows ‘a sixteen-year-old so entranced by [Terrance] Malick’s The Tree of Life that he watched it five times in a couple of months, always on a computer screen’. He goes on to debate this. Is it a good thing that someone so clearly interested in cinema would prefer to watch such a visually arresting on a computer rather than projected on a large screen?

I always try to watch films first in the cinema, but in the age of the DVD and the blu-ray disc, it is not realistic to avoid home viewing and still consume vast amounts of movies. I try to make the experience as ‘cinema-like’ as possible. I have a very big widescreen HD TV (thought sadly the one in the image to the left is not mine – if only!), I watch films in high definition if I can (the closest the market offers to the quality of a film print at an affordable price), and I like to have the lights off an immerse myself in the film. I asked a variety of people who are surrounded by films on a daily basis – critics, filmmakers, academics, and film students – about how they watch films when they are not in the cinema. I also asked if HD was important to them, and if they streamed or downloaded films to watch on a computer. It is interesting how varied the responses are, and how some seem to disagree on the best way to watch a motion picture outside of the cinema auditorium.

Robbie Collin, film critic of The Daily Telegraph, shared his thoughts on movie watching:

“I’d always buy Blu-rays over DVDs, although I will still buy a DVD of a film if no Blu-ray edition exists and there’s unlikely to be one in the near future. (E.g.: the last DVD I bought was Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf, about three months ago.) I love the format simply because in terms of picture quality, sound and frame rate, it’s closer to the cinema than anything else – and the cinema, for me, is still the very best place to see films. Also, films are often restored before they make the transfer to Blu-ray, which is great in itself: buy the absolutely stunning Masters of Cinema edition of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (seriously, buy it, it’s one of the greatest films ever made) and you’ve helped fund the preservation of that film for future generations.

“I tend not to use downloading or streaming services for three reasons. Firstly, my internet connection isn’t reliable enough to watch anything longer than a ten second clip of a cat falling off a table without buffering. Secondly, the picture and sound quality of streamed video is noticeably worse than on optical discs, either blu[-ray] or DVD. And thirdly, the vagaries of licensing and copyright means that films can disappear from streaming services at any time, and I don’t want to find out in a few years that I can no longer watch my favourite films even though I’ve already paid for them.”

Mr Collin and I seem to have similar thoughts on how and how not to watch films. He highlights a very interesting point about internet connections effecting streaming and downloading services. In this age of high-speed broadband, distributors are keen to persuade consumers to watch their films without buying a physical product. However, I’m sure many people know that the term ‘high-speed broadband’ is a very loose term. My house is provided internet by Virgin Media, a company that allegedly gives their customers the “fastest” internet connection “in the UK”. But after many, many months of trying to improve the speed, my laptop and television still display the buffering symbol for a long time if I ever try to stream hi-def content.

For me, the idea of suffering a drop in picture quality for the sake of viewing-convenience is preposterous. I want to watch films in the best clarity possible. But not everyone is as much of a convert to HD. Francine Stock, writer on film and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, says that she does watch films at home on both DVD and blu-ray, but feels “high definition is to be avoided as it makes films look dreadful”. On the other hand, however, Matt Bochenski, editor of Little White Lies, says that he watches films on blu-ray, as he believe “high definition is important”. Filmmaker William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist and The French Connection, told me that he likes to watch films multiple times on a big screen in HD. For special occasions, Francince Stock says likes to use a projector and screen. Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, has not entirely adopted blu-ray and HD simply because his MacBook has a DVD drive. He too likes to connect this to a digital projector.

Francine Stock also confesses to “watching films on a laptop, and with iPad downloads”. I have watched films on an iPad before, but it isn’t something that I’d recommend. Dr Michael Williams, a senior lecturer in film at the University of Southampton, said that, although her prefers a larger screen, “once you start watching [on a laptop or iPad]you forget the screen is small, and with headphones it can be an immersive experience”. And James King, film critic and broadcaster for ITV, also champions the iPad, and says that his blu-ray player “barely gets a look in”, as he’d usually pick convenience over HD.

It seems viewing films, at home or in the work place, is an activity that requires a balance of respect to the work being watched and convenience for the viewer. There isn’t enough space in this article to include all the responses I received about film viewing outside of the cinema. For this reason, a separate piece will be published very soon that features all the information and comments I managed to collect. I hope you find them all as intensely fascinating as I did. Film is a medium under negotiation. The word “film” is fast becoming a misnomer for an art form that now so rarely involves celluloid. But if we are going to continue to watch movies, love them and be enthralled by them when we are not in the comfort of a darkened auditorium, I think it is important and relevant to discuss how we watch them, and how this may continue to change as time marches on.


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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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