Earlier this summer, subscribers to the US streaming service HBO MAX were alarmed to discover that dozens of the platform’s offerings – from the Covid-themed heist thriller Locked Down to the recent remake of The Witches – had been quietly removed from the service, their respective Anne Hathaway performances raptured from film history like characters from the network’s own eschatological drama The Leftovers (itself, aptly, still available to stream).
The news seemed like vindication to those who had long warned that streaming was more about controlling access to the cultural commons than expanding it, as did reports (since denied by the show’s creators) that Netflix had begun editing old episodes of Stranger Things to retroactively improve their visual effects.
What’s less clear is whether the commonly prescribed cure for these cultural ills – a return to the material pleasures of physical media – is the right one. While the makers of Blu-ray discs claim they have a shelf life of 100 years, such statistics remain largely theoretical until they come to pass, and are dependent on storage conditions, not to mention the continued availability of playback equipment. The humble DVD has already proved far less resilient, with many early releases already beginning to deteriorate in quality.
If your Shoah box set is primarily a display piece destined to remain in its packaging for ever, then questions about the long-term integrity of optical media formats are largely academic. But those who intend to actually watch their carefully curated film collections might find the necessary hardware more difficult to come by.
Digital movie purchases provide even less security. Any film “bought” on iTunes could disappear if you move to another territory with a different rights agreement and try to redownload it. It’s a bold new frontier in the commodification of art: the birth of the product recall. After a man took to Twitter to bemoan losing access to Cars 2 after moving from Canada to Australia, Apple clarified that users who downloaded films to their devices would retain permanent access to those downloads, even if they relocated to a hemisphere where the adventures of Lightning McQueen were subject to a different set of rights agreements. Thanks to the company’s ironclad digital rights management technology, however, such files cannot be moved or backed up, locking you into watching with your Apple account.
Anyone who does manage to acquire DRM-free copies of their favourite films must nonetheless grapple with ever-changing file format standards, not to mention data decay – the gradual process by which electronic information slowly but surely corrupts. Only the regular migration of files from hard drive to hard drive can delay the inevitable, in a sisyphean battle against the ravages of digital time.
In a sense, none of this is new. Charlie Chaplin burned the negative of his 1926 film A Woman of the Sea as a tax write-off, almost a century before Warner Bros would hit the delete key on its unreleased Batgirl film for similar reasons. Many more films have been lost through accident, negligence or plain indifference. During a heatwave in July 1937, a Fox film vault in New Jersey burned down, destroying a majority of the silent films produced by the studio.
Back then, at least, cinema was defined by its ephemerality: the sense that a film was as good as gone once it left your local cinema. Today, with film studios keen to stress the breadth of their back catalogues (or to put in Hollywood terms, the value of their IPs), audiences may start to wonder why those same studios seem happy to set the vault alight themselves if it’ll help next quarter’s numbers.
Three ways to keep your movies for ever
Build a bunker
Best practices mandate storing optical media such as DVDs and Blu-rays between 18-23C and 20-50% relative humidity in order to maximise their lifespans. Assuming you’re fabulously wealthy, why not build a controlled-environment vault in which to store your Lord of the Rings extended editions and six duplicate copies of Lord of War?.
(legally, of course)
The best way to protect against the loss of digital data is to keep multiple copies of a file in different locations. The popular filesharing protocol BitTorrent is built on exactly this kind of decentralisation. Simply download a free client like qBittorrent and public-domain classics like Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and the Lumière brothers’ Train Pulling Into a Station can legally be yours in perpetuity.
Make your own film prints
In 2019, the BFI announced a five-year plan to create brand new 35mm prints of 100 “carefully curated classics of British and international cinema”. Stored and handled with care, these prints could last for centuries, preserving films like Citizen Kane and Brief Encounter for future generations. For an estimated £1.5m, the same future could be ensured for 100 of your own favourites.