10:43 p.m.: I’m like a tourist admiring the Leaning Tower of Pisa in an empty aisle of the local Meijer.
I can feel them staring, those passers-by shuffling past with carts of frozen pizza in tow. Gertrude — according to a nametag pinched between sags like laundry on a limp line — eyes the bulges of my coat pockets. How many DVDs have you got stuffed in there, sweetie? How many have you smuggled, darling wrongdoer?
Her suspicion is valid. After all, Sunday inches toward Monday, and here I am, some college kid camped out in front of a four-foot-high cardboard DVD promotional display. The time has come. A decision must be made.
To buy “Les Misérables” or not to buy “Les Misérables” — that is the … first-world problem. But a problem nonetheless.
Does anyone buy movies anymore?
This isn’t a hypothetical question; I’m genuinely curious. Between Netflix, OnDemand, local video rental houses, online streaming and YouTube, why drop $20 for a movie that can be so easily accessed for free?
I was raised on a steady supply of blank discs, the titles of movie after movie scrawled onto the surface in permanent marker. To burn a friend’s copy of “Donnie Darko” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was, and is, as natural as breathing.
Sure, I’ve sacrificed the pleasure of, say, holding the official packaged product in my hands. And who knows how many directors’ cuts I’ve allowed to slide by — unwatched and unappreciated. What kind of person would I be today had I not grappled for that special edition of “Twilight” five years ago, the one in which a tiny strip of film was included then admittedly lost somewhere beneath my bed within weeks?
But even that DVD purchase remains underutilized, and I must ask myself: Why bother?
Don’t sound so surprised. I — and every other viewer and potential consumer — haven’t fooled the film industry. Studios and distributors have combatted our persistent apathy (and piracy, if we’re being honest) for years, but the urgency to wring our wallets dry has intensified with the ever-increasing accessibility of pass-along and online content, a.k.a. free content.
Rather than coerce audiences to theaters through notions of artificial scarcity — if I don’t watch “Spring Breakers” right now, I’ll have to suffer months in “Breakers”-less limbo until its DVD release! — retailers have begun to offer our favorite titles in such a short period of time that one may say “Les Misérables” hit shelves before the movie itself had even finished. But why? To coast on that post-Oscars buzz; to take full advantage of Les Relevancy before our collective cultural memory trades in the giggling glory of Anne Hathaway, and we fall for J-Law all over again (or she falls for us … literally).
Or because Universal Pictures knows that I’ve been itching for a copy since Night One, and some smart executive thought to her or himself, “Fans are going to get their grubby, little hands on this film regardless; we might as well release it to the masses in the hopes that some diehard — namely a particularly obsessive film columnist — will gawk at the product during her regular grocery runs.”
Oh, how right you were, Universal Pictures. Gawk I did. I planted myself at the foot of that “Les Mis” display like a starry-eyed stalker worshipping her idol, willing to down whatever Kool-Aid that cardboard shelf had to offer. And yet …
It wasn’t enough. Andrew Jackson remains snug in my pocket because my earlier doubts resurfaced: Really, why bother? It was no secret that I’d already attained my own personal copy of the film for late-night sob sessions months ago, yet I was still drawn to the polished packages nested (calling — no, singing — my name!) near the check-out line. To buy or not to buy?
The last hardcopy DVD (for which a receipt exists) that found its way into my possession is “The Artist.” It was last year’s stocking stuffer, still yet to be opened. As much as j’adore charming, toothy Frenchmen, I don’t think I could’ve, or would’ve, shelled out the cash even for the best 100-minute silent treatment of my life.
So, at what point do we decide that not even the most beloved of films can persuade us to break out the big bills? As any media industry worker will lament, nobody knows. But continue to plaster the local grocery store with the faces of Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, and I might just be sold.