‘There’s something comforting about it’: the collectors who won’t let go of their DVDs and videos

For some of Australia’s most hardcore film buffs, streaming will never match the tactile, finite and nostalgic lure of the hard copy

Olivia Bennett’s VHS collection started at a charity stall.

She had grown up in “the type of family where we’ll always have a movie on in the background,” she says, but it wasn’t until high school that her personal interest really bloomed. It was 2010 and DVD sales in Australia were booming. People were shedding their old VHS cassettes like dead skin.

Many of them, apparently, found their way onto a Lifeline table operating out of the convention centre in Brisbane. At 50 cents for five, she couldn’t pass up the chance to snag a handful of beloved titles on the cheap (“It was a money thing”). And then another, and then another.

“My mum and I would take trolleys … each time we were going in. And we’d go several times a day [a day] and sort through.”

More than a decade on, she has a thousand-strong collection which adorns one entire living room wall in her family home – edge to edge – a wallpaper of plastic anachronisms. There are “obscure Disney films like Sword in the Stone and Pete’s Dragon,” she says, alongside cult classics like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. In the photo she sends me, three copies of Lethal Weapon take pride of place.

Olivia Bennett’s wall-to-wall VHS collection
Olivia Bennett’s VHS collection in her Brisbane home. Photograph: Olivia Bennett

While she’s now moved interstate, her collection back in Brisbane has held steady throughout the advent – then stranglehold – of streaming. The movies themselves may have made the jump online, but one of Bennett’s treasured features has not: the pre-show ads in all their grainy, campy glory.

“There’s always that ad that’s like, ‘Don’t pirate!’ … [and] there were a lot of theatrics to trailers. You know that classic American voiceover for all the trailers? Something about that voice reminds me of a specific time.”

Nostalgia is a primary force driving collectors of physical film media, whose titles sometimes predate them. Bennett’s VHS tapes, she says, are a lens to experience “the 90s … a period of time that I was born in but didn’t necessarily get to grow up in”.

For others, a commitment to hard copy is the only way to skirt around the fickle decisions of streaming services, where availability of titles is subject to an impenetrable alchemy of considerations: audience demand, the whims of licensing, and sheer storage capacity.

“It’s insanely expensive to store stuff for it to be streamed,” says Dr Ari Mattes, a media lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, whose own DVD and VHS collection numbers somewhere in the 40,000s. “It’s not like going to a video store … you can’t have 50,000 titles on a streaming service.”

Ben Kenny in his DVD rental store Film Club
‘The only way to be sure that you’ll have access to something forever is to actually own a physical copy of it’ says Ben Kenny, pictured here in his now-closed DVD rental store Film Club. Photograph: Manon Keus/Ben Kenny

Ben Kenny, the owner of the now-defunct Film Club – Sydney’s self-described “last, best” video store – agrees. “The only way to be sure that you’ll have access to something forever is to actually own a physical copy of it.”

Over its decade-long life, Film Club gained a reputation for servicing “that five or 10% of whatever generation is obsessed with films,” says Kenny, who describes the community which formed around his store as “the island of misfit toys”. When it shuttered this February, collectors all around Sydney made the pilgrimage into Darlinghurst to snap up the goods in a closing sale.

Titles went fast. Some, like a 2008 Criterion Collection version of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, had been long out of print, with resales on eBay costing hundreds of dollars. “We just got hit hard by people who had clearly been eyeing off things … customers knew the value of a lot of the stuff we had. But it was good to see it go to a good home.”

The scarcity of some hard copy film editions isn’t all that different to rare books, says Geoff Gardner, the founder of Cinema Reborn, a boutique film festival in Sydney dedicated to screening classics seldom seen on the big screen. There are ways, of course, to bypass the shortcomings of streaming services through what he winkingly calls “the backchannels” and “the illegitimate”, but it doesn’t compare to the solidity of “filing it away, putting it in the box”.

“It’s the same as the book collector’s mentality. You just like to know you have it. And if in a wild moment you think you want to see six Joan Crawford films in a night…”

Sign up to receive Guardian Australia’s weekend culture and lifestyle email.

His personal stash now clocks in at 8,000 DVDs, amassed over decades. But that’s nothing, he goes to great pains to emphasise, compared to fellow cinephiles. “A lot of people are very, very remorseless … they’ll spend hours in the DVD shops [overseas] finding films that have not been released in other places, but have been released in Italy, Spain, or Japan.”

The subculture Gardner describes is holding steadfast. But could it ever experience a proper resurgence – like its cousin, the vinyl revival of the last decade?

“With vinyl, the audio quality is actually better in terms of the range that you’re able to hear, which isn’t the case with DVDs,” says Mattes, “[But there’ll always be] something about a physical medium – the tactility of it … There’s just something innately comforting about that.”.

DVD collector Dr Ari Mattes and his collection
‘[There’ll always be] something about a physical medium – the tactility of it’ says Dr Ari Mattes, a lecturer and avid DVD collector. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

A return to older formats, even for the average viewer, says Mattes, might also go some way in alleviating selection fatigue – the hours spent scrolling online, undone by the tyranny of choice.

“Say you’re a normal person, not like me with an insane number [of titles] … when you go to pick something, it limits your choice in a really productive way.

“You can look at your collection and go, ‘okay, I’ve got [a finite] number to pick from’ … instead of the absolute doubt that you have on streaming.

“[There’ll always be] something about a physical medium – the tactility of it … There’s just something innately comforting about that.”


Michael Sun

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'I bought these items and I couldn’t stand them': inside the mind of a Batman collector
Darren Maxwell’s Batman collection spans everything from badges to branded ice-creams. But a new documentary shows fandom is not all fun and figurines

Luke Buckmaster

30, Jun, 2020 @3:07 AM

Article image
Open thread: do you still use DVDs or videos? Has your collection survived?
As Sydney’s ‘last, best’ video shop closes, what’s the future for physical media in Australia, and for the communities who collect them?

Michael Sun

11, Apr, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Looking For Alibrandi at 30: ‘There’s a white-hot shame about sticking out’
A new stage adaptation of Melina Marchetta’s classic spins the Italian Australian experience into a universal story of otherness, family and freedom

Walter Marsh

06, Jul, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Bringing order to the chaos of reality… Jarvis Cocker interviews six collectors
What impulse unites a collector of ceramic cats with someone who gathers broken records or sweet wrappers?

Jarvis Cocker

08, May, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Mad Max films depict a world increasingly degraded. Furiosa will be far from comforting
As the gap closes between George Miller’s imagined dystopia and the real world wracked by climate crisis, the Mad Max films have never been more important

Luke Buckmaster

07, May, 2021 @3:19 AM

Article image
Dinosaur head sold for $6m at US auction reveals new breed of art collectors
Sale of Maximus T rex at Sotheby’s reveals growing interest in palaeontological finds at auction houses

Alice Fisher

17, Dec, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
David Ayer: ‘There’s something maternal about the tank in Fury’
Henry Barnes: Brad Pitt’s new film follows the fortunes of the crew of a Sherman tank, but it’s far from being a standard war movie, says its director

Henry Barnes

16, Oct, 2014 @2:48 PM

Article image
Clementine Ford: ‘There’s something really toxic with the way men bond in Australia’
As her first book, Fight Like A Girl, hits shelves around Australia, the flame-throwing feminist says men have to give up some of their power to redress the imbalance women experience

Brigid Delaney

28, Sep, 2016 @1:35 AM

Article image
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: a strangely comforting show about the most heinous crimes
The long-running drama series might trade in human depravity, but by focusing on victims and delivering them justice, it delivers hope and comfort too

Victoria Hannan

06, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
'Every Australian film-maker owes something to director Paul Cox' | Luke Buckmaster
Friends speak about the passion, big heart and hatred of injustice of the ‘father of independent cinema’

Luke Buckmaster

20, Jun, 2016 @3:30 AM