Rumours on Disney and the Halting of Physical Media

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Around August this year, rumours emerged that Disney planned to stop releasing live-action titles in 4K Ultra HD and even Blu-ray disc formats and titles of the recently purchased 20th Century Fox.

Though well-known industry insider Bill Hunt corroborated this rumour over at The Digital Bits website, Disney later released a statement formally denying this, stating that “there are no plans to discontinue releases in a particular format”. The source from Disney elaborated upon the company’s goals: “We evaluate each release on a case by case basis and pursue the best strategy to bring our content into consumer homes across platforms that meet a variety of demands.” 

While this seems to have cleared up the confusion from initial reports, many have misunderstood what the news was originally conveying. Specifically, Disney aimed to suspend releases of live-action titles not related to major franchises or property (and thus more profitable material) from the two companies. The most noticeable thing within Disney’s response is the absence of mentioning ‘catalogue’ films, and partly explains the major misunderstanding that resulted from the first rumours. In addition to their remaining animated films not yet released in the 4K UHD format – particularly ones which have not yet had remakes – major new films will still be released by the company, as shown in the release of the 2020 Mulan remake on November 10th. For those who have paid close attention to home media news, the news does not come as a surprise at all considering Disney’s long-term resistance to the 4K format and their general low output in releasing catalogue live-action titles. This is not to mention the success of Disney+ and their strong focus on pushing the streaming service forward, especially during the 2020 pandemic, with several films considered to be released digitally instead as opposed to on disc.

There have been some exceptions to this rule as with the release of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Home Alone’ in October and November respectively, though this can be explained by the fact that existing 4K HDR assets were available at the time. Similarly, other popular titles such as ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘Unbreakable’ were also being considered for UHD physical release because of existing restoration efforts and HDR work, particularly as no extra costs needed to be spent unlike several other titles. Another, much simpler reason for this seeming ignorance of other titles in contrast to these examples is the fact they fit more in line with the Disney brand image than other possible films they now hold, not to mention their popularity. Many other Fox titles, such as Booksmart and The Art of Racing in the Rain, were in the process of being released to 4K and other disc formats before the Disney acquisition stopped this and shut down Fox’s Home Entertainment department in March. One of the more obvious issues in 2020 has, of course, been the COVID-19 virus, especially with many films that need restoration requiring filmmaker involvement to approve any possible revisions and supervise over the process toWalt  remain accurate to the original look in aspects such as colour grading, aspect ratio and even audio. Many of the films needing restoration work would also need to be done from the ground up following the pandemic, and with Disney’s current focus clearly lying elsewhere – especially after the most recent announcement of films and shows – it seems unlikely that attention or funding would be paid towards this, at least not at the time being.

To be clear, the common myth many like to propagate of the ‘death’ or obsolescence of physical media is by no means true, nor something to worry about too deeply just yet. With the large volume of films being released in a variety of formats every year from the expected major studios, there also exist unique distributors such as the more well-known Criterion and Arrow, not to mention more obscure and exclusive outfits like Vinegar Syndrome and Plain Archive that remain well-regarded and still turn a profit. Indeed, as a market, physical media sits as being valued at $10 billion worldwide just from disc sales alone, albeit dropping around 18% every year. DVD remains the most popular of these formats, with research in 2019 showing that it accounts for 57.9% of sales, whereas other products such as UHD-BD, though relatively stable in terms of sales, naturally account for less as a new, more niche, and expensive product. It is currently clear that, as long as this interest remains, physical media will exist for some time despite the falls it takes.

Nevertheless, though no one can not be entirely certain of its future, nor, in relation to the topic at hand, what exactly Disney plans to do with the expansive range of films and other IP desperately in need of restoration now at their disposal until 2021, the growing threat of streaming is becoming much more alarming. The launching of thousands of satellites across the earth by Space X and Amazon, for example, all of which should be online in the next year, will be broadening the availability of online media and streaming much wider than ever before. Indeed, if Disney were to refuse to release much of the catalogue it now owns from Fox – something they have reportedly already began to do, effectively putting several films on moratorium – not to mention some of their own so that it can primarily developing Disney+ instead, it sets a disturbing sense of portent for the future of not just physical media but general media that is owed proper preservation, as well as complete, unrestrained access and the highest quality possible.

With the recent news of a massive streaming war brewing across Europe, and the fierce competition already present within that side of online media, the possibility of other studios falling in line as a result to focus on streaming only – thus restricting even more media – is certainly a truly worrying thought. Of course, we shall have to wait and see what comes. However, the future feels more uncertain than ever, and the issues this raises for the future of physical media are more deserving of attention in an already tumultuous and decaying industry.

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2nd year Film Studies student dabbling in all forms of media with a critical and passionate eye. Also an actor and creative writer with a particular interest in ancient/middle ages history and various forms of literature. Often seen being a videophile.

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