After years of false harbingers, Disney+ could finally signal the end of home media. The new streaming service from the Mouse House is beginning to take shape, with a raft of enviable original content - Star Wars' first live-action TV series, multiple Marvel Studios shows, live-action remakes - and incredibly competitive price-tag. Although it's what we've all seen before that may be the most important.
Over the past ten years, how we watch movies - at home and at the theater - has changed massively. Streaming services like Netflix and its many inheritors and imitators have altered viewing habits, possibly forever, making it easier to watch a massive selection of movies at home over the internet.
This revolution has a two-fold impact. On the one hand, it's given theaters yet another battle with the living room; after TV in the 1950s and home video in the 1980s, streaming has shifted audiences' priorities and what they'll go out and pay to see, leaving behemoth blockbusters ruling and smaller movies struggling (and heading straight to digital as a result). But on the flipside, it's also pinching the now well-established physical media market. The progression of VHS to DVD to Blu-ray has felt like natural progression (give or take a Betamax or Laserdisc), but as 4K becomes close to standard, the unimaginatively 4K Blu-ray doesn't look to have a substantial impact.
Today, as a culture, we buy fewer movies. Instead of purchasing a new DVD or Blu-ray to get a new release at home, we wait for it to stream. And when it comes to catching up on legacy titles, checking whether it's on Netflix/Prime/Hulu (delete as appropriate) is the new normal. And now tech giants have started to pull the plug; Samsung announced it would stop making Blu-ray players earlier this year, suggesting the future is niche and high-end. Yet physical media still clings on. Ease of access and competitive pricing - Amazon Prime means the wait for getting a new title isn't that inconvenient to instant access, and is often cheaper than a rental if not available via subscription - as is the fact that the splintering (or cable-ification) of streaming services means a lot of desirable movies aren't available.
Disney+ begins that change. To understand why, we must first understand how Disney's approached physical media and the Disney Vault.
The Disney Vault Defined Home Video
Disney has always had a strong lock on branding, and part of that includes a sense of exclusivity to its animated classics. They would be re-released in theaters every decade like clockwork, allowing new generations to discover them while building up an air of mystique. This transferred to their VHS rollout. Instead of releasing a movie and having it be available essentially forever, Disney Animated Classics (their own branding) would be available for a limited time before they went back inside the Disney Vault.
As the adverts told it, the Disney Vault was a mystical place, a secret room where dreams are occasionally released to mere mortals. More accurately, though, it's a marketing trick. The only vault the "Disney Vault" looks like is Scrooge McDuck's. (Yes, technically a vault at Disney of past releases does exist, but this is not what the promotional spiel was about).
Essentially, Disney was pulling a similar (if less nefarious) trick to De Beers with diamonds. They owned the mass supply but were limiting public access to create scarcity, thus increasing the cost; Disney films on home video rarely ever fell below release price. It was an incredibly savvy move that worked better than one of Genie's wishes; the Disney Vault commanded viewers to buy and own the movies. This practice continued into the DVD, Blu-ray and even streaming eras, with re-releases getting snazzy rebranding to further up the sense of exclusivity in a bid for a double-dip and it impossible to guarantee a film will be available on any given subscription service.
It's the sort of bold and brash practice that, had any other studio attempted with any sort of back catalog, audiences wouldn't have accepted. But Disney's brand was strong and the movies in rotation so beloved that their fans were happy.
And now it's all over.
Disney+ Ends The Disney Vault - And Physical Media?
Disney+ is a new era for the company in many ways, but perhaps one of the least remarked is how it implicitly smashes down the walls of the Disney Vault. At launch, every main series Star Wars film, almost all Pixar, a good portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and every single Disney animated movie will be available (the gaps in the acquired franchises are a result of existing streaming deals, with the remainder expected to be completed what the rights expire and revert to Disney).
That makes the service incredibly competitive from a legacy standpoint alone, but the inclusion of all animated films means that, for the first time, all Disney classics are available in one place. Previously, that was only possible by purchasing DVDs at the right time. Disney is essentially discarding decades' worth of marketing reinforcement in a move that is both an admittance that the home video landscape and audience demands have changed, and a bid to redefine what the future can be.
This isn't just symbolic. Having all of Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar (give or take a Jim Crow) in one place sets a new bar for streaming accessibility. With Warner Bros. about to get in the game with its own service, the expectation of this becoming standard (as opposed to the fractured offerings on DC Universe, which lacks all DCEU films and the Arrowverse) is high. If the gatekeepers of their own content will offer it up for a $6.99 monthly subscription, it's clear the old rules of physical media no longer hold true.
But as much as this can feel like a paradigm shift, it's still really an evolution of the Disney Vault idea; the only difference is that here the exclusivity has shifted from the time a film is available to how you get it. You have to subscribe to Disney+, but then you can get everything. The only loss is to the method of delivery. And that may bring us worryingly close to the implied Disney Vault: when nobody owns any physical copies, a film genuinely can go away forever.