This is a subject most people only give a second thought on if they're thinking about their childhood or how much they're willing to spend on a movie. Although in the end I would say there are a few key types when they're looking at movies on different formats:
-Gotta have the highest resolution copy of everything. Fight Club now in Blu-ray? FUCK YOU DVD! I've got a NEW copy to pick up.
-Well all I have is a cheap DVD player from Wal-Mart so I guess I'll buy it on DVD.
-Why would anyone buy anything new when they could go to Goodwill and buy movies on tape for a dollar?
-I'll buy what I can afford. If it's a good deal on Blu-ray I would rather have that.
...and the list goes on.
Then you have people like me where the format you watch it on really does matter. Now for me a theatrical format is the the ideal format for any film, but even in there it differs but only slightly. I'll save that for another second dis. But there's a list of different factors that go into this that determine what would go best with the proper home video format to give you the best experience based on what you're watching. I'll go piece by piece and provide specific examples for these to give you an idea what I'm talking about.
Please note I will only touch on formats I have extensive experience with. This list will not include formats like Betamax or HD-DVD.
VHS: This format is a classic to many people my age because this is how they experienced most of the movies they saw growing up. This is also a format I would say a lot of people still have even if it is just collecting dust in their basement. Most of the time when people revisit VHS these days is when they re-watch an old favorite from the 90s or earlier, or are too cheap to buy newer formats (I know some folks like this). I don't blame them for being cheap or nostalgic but there's one major killing factor in VHS that drives me away from it. Full screen. Now not all films on VHS are in full screen. There are some widescreen versions but those are few and far between. I only have a hand full myself. But a film being in full screen for a purist like myself is blasphemy. A film should only be viewed that way if that's how it was intended to be seen. This makes VHS almost always an awkward choice when collecting. You're more than likely getting an incomplete version of a film that looks less legitimate. There are only three situations in which I would intentionally watch or purchase a movie in the full screen format on VHS outside of the obvious:
-The first would be nostalgia. I grew up watching certain movies like this. When I watch it any different than on VHS it does feel a bit off. Two examples that come to mind is Dumb & Dumber and Airplane! A couple times I watched the same movies on DVD. They were in their proper format and the exact same movie. For some reason I couldn't get past in and wanted to go back to my VHS copies.
-The second would be temporary compromise. I have a lot of Disney movies in their old clam shell cases from the 90s. Some of these are already intended to be full screen because of their age but most aren't. Now here's another thing. The DVDs are rare and expensive. But these are great films! And if I can get them for a dollar a piece and replace them later on after I saved up enough cash I am willing to do so. This goes for any other rare/more expensive title. I would never do this with mainstream popular titles like The Dark Knight (not on VHS of course, too new) because those would be cheap really quickly anyway. I wouldn't be waiting long for those so I wouldn't bother with a potentially slightly cheaper copy just to have it.
-Lastly the rarity of an edition or cut. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is THX-1138. When I was in high school George Lucas remastered and re-released a director's cut of this early arthouse film of his in theatres and providing that DC on DVD shortly thereafter. This did not include the original cut of the film. I stumbled across a VHS copy of the original cut of the film at a video rental store a few years back and knew I had to pick it up. I am still yet to get the DVD DC but when I do I plan on keeping my tape copy for collector's purposes since it is technically different.
The obvious is that the format is already supposed to be full screen. This is why I'm okay with my VHS copy of King Kong and other older films. I don't need them on DVD since they're already in this format. It's not just because of this, though. Sometimes VHS' quality of video is what makes the film. When I watch King Kong and Son of Kong on VHS I get a different experience than when I watch Mighty Joe Young, another monkey movie I have on DVD. These were all made around the same time, all black and white, all a similar theme, all have stop motion for the apes, but it feels different between formats. The reason why is because DVD is too clean. Having the grain and fuzziness of VHS is a plus cause it puts you into the seats of the people who saw it way back when it first came out. Film was not as crisp and clean as it is on DVD way back then so it's unrealistic to watch it on DVD. It's a much richer experience with not as rich quality in image and sound.
This is something that I'm not that strict on in most areas because it's really hard to be. However there is one film I am the strictest with on VHS. The Shining. Arguably it's my number one favorite film of all time and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Before I get into why I prefer my VHS copy I want to go into a little history. When Stanley Kubrick was first utilizing widescreen he, of course, hated how when they went on home video they would be in full screen. This means all the work he put into making 2001: A Space Odyssey the visual beauty it is in the widescreen format was almost a waste because so much of it would be missing in the home video release. So starting with The Shining and everything he made after that (Which was just Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut) he filmed it in a unique aspect ratio. How it worked was that in theatres it would be presented widescreen but when it was on home video it would be in full screen but wouldn't lose any of the intended art or charm that went along with it. How it worked was that when in widescreen it would show more on the left and right but less on the top and bottom. Whereas on home video it would reverse that. Less on the left and right but the treat is that you get more on the top and bottom. In other words Kubrick had very specific intentions when it came to the home video releases of his films (as he was with everything else he was involved in). So one reason why I have it on that format is out of respect. He intended on me seeing it in this full screen format on home video and in the widescreen theatrically. I have seen it theatrically and it was the only time I saw it in widescreen.
The other reason why I am strict about having it on home video is again the image quality. The Shining is scary as shit! It's a freaky, freaky movie. There's a reason why it's called a masterpiece in modern horror, because it is! I feel a level of this is spoiled when it's cleaned up and released digitally mastered. Go ahead and do that with other Kubrick films but not this one. The blur and fuzziness in the screen not only takes a person back to the seats of it's original release in 1980, but it adds to the creepiness. Is cleanliness scary? Well... not typically. But a clean picture is very post 2000s with HDTVs and such. This was in a much different era of film. This one needs to have that blur and fuzzy image to keep it at the creepy level it needs to be. It may be a minor thing to some people but this makes the imagery that much more unsettling I feel. The mystery of staring directly into the unknown or not knowing exactly what horror you're looking at. You may have to lean in closer or become more involved to understand what's going on. Then when it hits you it's so much more effective because of the level of investment you put into it. When it's crisp and clear it's less of a surprise cause you may be able to see father ahead, literally, than was intended.
I will always make sure to have a VHS copy of The Shining, specifically the original run of the tape, on hand for me to watch until I can find one no more. Then the next step if I'm forced to "upgrade" to DVD I would only buy the older Stanley Kubrick Collection edition of the film that was still presented in the full screen format.
My conclusion of the format? It was good in it's day. It worked. We didn't know any better and it's what was available to us. It has not aged well, though. I only revisit this format mostly out of nostalgia. Otherwise I try not to go toward it.
Laserdisc: This is going to be the most obscure format on the list. To those of you who don't know, laserdisc is the disc format that came before DVD, and it's the size of a vinyl record. Since putting a film on a disc was such a new technology only so much video could fit onto a single side of a laserdisc. This means for a typical ninety minute film you may only have to flip over the disc once to watch the last half. However if you're watching Ben-Hur you're looking at playing part one, watch about an hour, flip the disc over, watch about the same amount, put in the next disc, watch another hour, flip over the new disc, watch the rest of the film. It's pretty prehistoric in execution but the quality of the film was greatly increased over VHS. This format would die really quickly because the mainstream chose convenience over quality, but luckily DVD wasn't too far off from here. Which is a shame because I look at laserdisc like the vinyl records of it's time, obviously. They were a nice, high quality, their cases could hold more so they looked like art books as is, and they could do more overall unlike a VHS tape. This is also when a particular film distributor started up that would help me in my journey through discovering more and more film, The Criterion Collection.
The Criterion Collection is something I will need an entire separate entry to talk about so I'll only touch on it briefly here and in the DVD segment next. In short, The Criterion Collection is a film distribution company that specializes in the most important, most unique, and rarest of films and puts them into the best package deal you'll ever need. Obviously with continuing changing technology there will always be something "better" that comes along but essentially their mission is to give you the last version you'll ever have to buy. That's because they use the format at hand (in this case laserdisc) to give the best possible picture and sound as well as include tons of bonus features. On the discs there will be interviews, special commentaries, a documented history on the film they're presenting, among many, many other things. For a point of reference think of the special features on an average modern DVD but then put it on crack cause they try and gather everything important that needs to be on there and put it on there. This may also include essays as inserts with the package deal. So this is where The Criterion Collection first started to shine and set an example. They weren't the only ones to do this. In general the laserdisc version of a film would have more to it. Most of the time with a VHS tape it would be just the movie and maybe a trailer of the film at best. Laserdisc offered much more and was presented the way the film needed to be. That's right. Laserdisc were in flippin widescreen... for the most part. There are still some laserdiscs that came out in full screen (I sadly have a few) but for the most part you'll see plastered across the cover "Letterbox Edition" or "Widescreen."
There are drawbacks to this format, more than other formats sadly. As good as the image looked, as good as it sounded, as pristine of an edition you'd be getting of many films, boy oh boy were there some issues with the format.
First was the issue I mentioned earlier, the flipping of the discs. As of this point the most people would have to do is switch to tape number two if they were watching Lawrence of Arabia or something because of how long it is. But with laserdisc only holding so much on each side of each disc you're going to see plenty of stops and starts during any movie depending on length. But unless it's a short film or a TV show episode you really are looking at getting up during any movie at least once or as much as three times to watch the whole thing. Personally I think this is a minor price to pay for what was such a great technology at the time of it's release. I think it shows laziness for this to be a drawback to the format actually. However it is pretty nice to just start a film and let it go until the end. Imagine what it would be like if you went to the movie theatre today and you had to wait about a pinch of time every 40-60 minutes for the projectionist to change reels? It would really take you out of the action.
However this is a much larger price to pay when it came to lasers back when they came out, the price itself. These were pretty expensive when they first came out. Now that's the case for any new format. For a more recent example I remember when Blu-ray first came out and you were looking at paying $30-$50 on a single movie that may only have some special features. BD is still a bit on the expensive side but it's slowly gone down, but that's because it has caught on in the mainstream. Since lasers never had that mainstream appeal they never caught on as well as other formats which meant that they didn't drop in price a whole lot up to their demise. It's just not something people were willing to invest in at the time. Too bad there wasn't a game console that played laserdiscs and then everything would have been better!
(Well, the 3DO planned to have a VCD (Video CD) player attachment but it never came out).
The last thing is more of a modern problem with the format, rarity. Unlike VHS tapes which you can still find a huge pile of for dirt cheap at any thrift store you're not as likely to find lasers. I'm lucky that I like within walking distance of a book store that has a stack of them for a reasonable price, but that's my selection. That's what I have to work with. If they don't have anything I'm particularly interested in then it's not as exciting or maybe not even worth my hard earned money. Another option is to shop online (Duff's Laserdiscs, check it out) but if you don't know, lasers are heeeeeeeeeavy. If you stack a bunch together it could potentially cost you a lot just to ship them. I have ordered lasers online before and it did cost me quite a bit to have them shipped. Good thing the initial price of the movies were really cheap. This is also a blessing in disguise cause it makes me appreciate every one that I have more. If I was buying them left and right constantly like I do with DVD it wouldn't be as special when I get a new one.
Much like VHS there is a level of appropriateness of what should be viewed on this format. While VHS is the best, easiest solution for much older films, laserdisc is mostly appropriate for what was released in that time frame or slightly earlier. This is because the films released in this time was before the digital remastering was as popular or as intense in the cleaning up. So if you pick up, let's say, Alien 3. Say what you will about the film itself but it still has it's original, non-digitally remastered flaws within the copy on it's first release on laserdisc. Also it's in widescreen and it doesn't have the potential for lines across the screen like VHS has. It's much smoother of a home experience. Basically the feeling it gives is similar to the experience you would have in the theatres. So I would say the widescreen copies of most films released somewhere between the 70s and the 90s on laserdisc are the closest to the original experience when it was first in theatres. Not like this is going to change anyone's mind since we live in an age where sharper automatically equals better, period.
Another level of appropriateness comes alive in TV shows on laserdisc. When watching a TV show on a VHS tape, even an official release copy, it still has that taped off of TV feel to it cause a lot of the flaws of a tape come through. DVD is too sharp for older shows which I'll get into in a little bit. But with laserdisc, much like with the films, the best and most authentic experience is with shows that were released when laserdisc was out or shows a bit before that. The best example I can give is Twin Peaks. When Twin Peaks first came out I was too young to know about it nor would have my parents allowed me to watch it. I did watch a lot of TV throughout the 90s so I do have a good understanding how TV looked and felt back then. Twin Peaks has been released on multiple formats but the one I have is on laserdisc. I have never seen this show outside of laserdisc and I never would want to watch it any other way. Much like The Shining I love the way it looks on the format. I know VHS would have that taped off TV feel like I mentioned earlier, and I've seen screenshots online taken from the DVD and it's too sharp for my tastes. Even though I never saw it when it first came out, the laserdiscs bring out the look and feeling a show in it's original run in the 90s had. Also I feel it does a great job of presenting the world properly, just like the shining. It seems to have this blended glow to the image. Not fuzzy, almost glow-like, though. And if you've never seen Twin Peaks let me tell you, it's a strange world. As I watch through it I don't really look at it existing in a universe you and I could live in. It's a whole other world filled with bizarre characters and horrid things happening underneath a pleasant looking exterior. You know, what David Lynch does best. Having the particular look to it's laserdisc execution brings alive that feeling. It looks great because of these details.
In the end laserdisc is incredibly niche, even back when it first came out. It never gained a lot of popularity. I'm just glad there's still a crowd out there that's into it enough so people like myself can discover and collect and enjoy it's greatness.
DVD: Without a doubt the most popular format available right now. It's cheap and easy to use DVDs and you can pick up a DVD player for as low as $20 now. They're everywhere and you can get almost anything you want on them. If you're looking to start a good sized collection of films I would start with collecting DVDs. You can get a lot of great, classic films to kick start it for dirt cheap. Seriously. Target has a $5 section and they always have some good classics in there (among some crap). Also DVDs will work on most devices these days because of the ease of the technology. You can use them on your computer, most modern gaming systems, watch them in your car, on a plane, built into your TV, etc, etc. Also for what they are and how cheap they are they do look really good. The average DVD has a great image for it's price. And if you're watching it on something HD compatible it upgrades the image quality to look even better than the standard definition.
Now that I'm really thinking about it, I don't know what all I can even say about DVD. Not because I have nothing good to say about it, only that I have little bad to say about it. It's a damn near perfect format. Most of the time the movie choice is in the original widescreen format. It tends to have a nice, crisp picture that suits the movie you're watching, and lots of times it at least has a fair amount of special features for the film buffs out there. There is just so much good about DVD that this will probably be my shortest blurb about any of these formats. Seriously! To put it another way, most of the movies I own are on DVD. Not even necessarily out of coincidence. It's because it's a beautiful format, they're easy to afford (I have gotten tons of great movies in the clearance bin at Half Priced Books), and you can currently watch them just about anywhere. They're even bigger than VHS ever was back in it's day.
The only downfalls I can think of for DVD are two things. For one it has the same problem of CDs when it gets scratched. If your DVD gets scratched than parts of the movie will either skip or freeze. This is one element that VHS has over DVD. When a VHS tape gets old it simply has a bit of a fuzzier image but doesn't skip or stop the movie entirely. Not a major annoyance. Just be sure to take good care of your movies. Also the problem is easy to fix if you know how to buff it.
The other problem I have with DVD is the fact that it still produces (not as much recently) in the full screen format. I don't have as much of a problem with this when it includes both. I have Little Miss Sunshine on a double sided DVD. One side is full, the other wide. Then I have Finding Nemo, it includes a second disc that has the full screen version. To each their own I guess. If that's what they want then go for it. Just remember that they're totally destroying the original vision into a cramped mess. Yes you watch the same movie but in a downgraded image, but I digress. The bigger problem I have with this is when a movie is sold as either one format or another. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Take a look at the DVDs just below and tell me what looks different.
In case you can't tell the only sign of what the screen ratio is, is in the bottom left hand corner and is nearly invisible. This is a much more extreme example so I'll also show a more prominent example as well.
I know people like myself who look for these things knows where to look. But if you're the average shopper, walk past the new release rack and just grab the movie you could be in for something that isn't what it should be. Also I'm sure a lot of the average shoppers will look at the two, see the different color label but then wonder what the difference is. More than once as a gift I did receive the full screen version of a movie. I have since replaced them or approached the person to see if I could get the receipt to do an exchange. They've always understood so I never offended anyone with it.
But those are essentially my two big complaints with DVD. When it comes to the special features it's always a mixed bag. Lots of times the more features it has the more expensive it will be. So if you buy the $5 bin edition of Lord of the Rings you're not gonna get as many special features as the mega, four disc edition that you have to pay around $30 for. That's a given. Also it really depends on the video quality based on who released the movie. But for the most part the format is a beauty with very few flaws. I know I'll be watching my DVDs and won't replace them until the damage done to them through multiple viewings makes then no longer watchable. It's a beautiful format and I prefer to watch about 9 out of every 10 movies on that format.
Blu-ray: This is a format I was really excited about when it first hit. Being a big fan of Playstation I knew I would be getting my hands on some BDs when the PS3 hit (which I was able to get about 3 months after launch). I actually went out and bought my first BD before I even got a PS3 (The BD was Saw 3). Just something to get me hyped up about it. I think it's safe to say I got caught up in the HD wave of entertainment that hit bigger in the mainstreams nearly a decade ago. Although it wasn't until after some time that I finally got myself an HDTV to play it on. Luckily I had other resources at the time so I could utilize the system the way it was meant to be played. So I got the system, got the movies, got the TV and I am in HD heaven. However it didn't take me too long to discover some things about BD that are big drawbacks or just plain unnecessary.
First I'll start with the good. Given the right movie the BD copy can look damn good. There are a few movies/franchises I intentionally buy on BD because of how they look or are presented. One of which is the Chris Nolan Batman film. These are big stories so I want them presented in such a way when I watch them at home. Also, getting them on BD is the best because it's the most complete version available. When The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were in theatres there were scenes that were filed using IMAX cameras. These scenes filled up the standard square image of the IMAX screen giving more on screen at once, whereas in the standard theatrical run it was presented cropped so you're missing things on the top and bottom. While it doesn't give the full image on the BD copy, it does fill up the screen entirely giving a likeness to the experience there was in the IMAX theatres.
The movies I also like to get on BD are Pixar and select super hero movies. I could have gotten The Avengers on a great deal on DVD on Black Friday but I wanted to get in on BD. Haven't gotten it yet but I am holding out for a good deal on the HD copy. This again deals with the scope and visuals. It looks damn good and feels damn good in HD so I feel it is giving it proper treatment. But along the visual spectrum I also insist on getting the Pixar films on BD. I recently picked up Brave on BD and it looks incredible. Having that crispness in the picture enhances the visuals that were being accomplished in the CG animation. I love the way it looks and feels and I wouldn't want to watch it any other way. BD gives off amazing visuals and incredible sound. Also they tend to have way more special features by default over DVD so that's an added bonus.
Now as good as BD is on the surface, there's plenty about it where it doesn't necessarily fail, but just makes the format a bit unnecessary.
One thing I've noticed is that unless a film is especially strong in the visuals it's not that much of a different experience watching said movie on DVD. Now it is noticeable how much crisper it is, but I'll use The Hunger Games as a recent example. On Black Friday I picked up The Hunger Games on BD. About a month or so earlier I saw it as well on DVD from Redbox. Yes I could notice the difference between the DVD copy and the BD copy. However it was mostly in the brighter scenes (i.e. the TV interviews, the hotel rooms) but since a lot of this movie takes place in darker areas it didn't quite have that excelling visuals that other titles have. It wasn't terribly noticeable throughout the movie as a whole. And besides, if you're engaged in the movie chances are you're not focusing on the overall video content but rather the story, especially if it's a visual difference as little as the one between DVD and BD. So would have I bought The Hunger Games on DVD any other day? Of course. It was mostly because of the deal that got for the BD.
Ironically the HD quality of the image can hurt a film, too. This mostly applies to older titles, independent films, or horror films with specifically designed darker scenes/imagery. Now it may sound like I'm contradicting myself. If the crispness wasn't noticeable in the darker scenes in The Hunger Games then why would it make a difference in a horror film? Simple. The Hunger Games turned down the lights cause it was night time. A horror film is dark for the purposes of atmosphere so it is used differently. Also since a good element of horror is the unknown then why would you want to watch one in HD where the quality of the image is higher? Objectively it just doesn't make sense. As a double whammy I am thinking of the Paranormal Activity franchise. One could make the argument that the characters purchased HD cameras for the purposes of filming their events. But I think there's a big difference between homemade HD and professional HD. Watching an indie film that is supposed to have this "home-made" element in HD just doesn't make sense. It's like how a lot of movies nowadays are both intentionally messy looking yet have this crisp, bright image (see the Transformers movies). But not just with Paranormal Activity having that mixed elements of making it unnecessary HD. Another horror movie I'm thinking of that came out around the same time I was getting into BD is Silent Hill. Now say what you will about the movie, but the point is to get into this very atmospheric, terrifying world. I just can't help but feel that, that world is tainted when it all is so crystal clear in front of you. Having that slight blur and grain that goes along with DVD in a BD player can go a long way.
Now with older titles it's a different story. Yes I am guilty of owning a few older titles on BD, but again it was a matter of a heck of a deal so I'm a little bit of a hypocrite there, too. But here's the thing. Whether it was pushing boundaries of visuals at it's time it still worked with what it had then. Whenever you go back and do a digital remastering of a movie chances are something is going to look off. That's because unless it was a really well done organic effect it's not going to age well. Lots of times putting an older movie in HD does not increase it's visual value, it degrades it. It mostly brings forward what didn't look good about that movie in the first place, only it's now easier to notice them. I see this as a big problem. I can only imagine watching something like Back to the Future in HD and noticing some of the visual effects look worse than what you remember. Not because of the age of the film (although that does help), but because the HD makes it so much more obvious that they're there. When the films of the 80s and earlier (and I guess the 90s, too) were made they didn't have HD in mind. I imagine a lot of people would make the same argument toward some movies on DVD, which I can see, but you don't have a lot of other options unless you want to buy 35mm or have a full screen VHS.
Then there's the sound. You know when you watch a movie and it's a talking scene? You turn up the volume so you can hear them clearly. But then BOOM it's an action sequence and shit is blowing up left and right. It nearly kills your eardrums so you reach for the remote to turn it down as quickly as you can. In my experience with BD I have found it does this only way more extreme. Since BD has as crisp of sound as the movie will allow (and your speakers) it provides a much bigger boom when the sound is booming. I imagine this all works out a lot better and level with a surround sound but what the hell do you want? I can only work with what I've got. So when I am watching Watchmen let's say. There's a lot of talk in it that is pretty soft like in Dr Manhattan's history scene, along with a somber soundtrack. In-between points of that part and other parts of the movie are really loud, intense sound effects and music. It's almost staggering how loud it gets just after I get it to a comfortable volume for the speaking parts. So either I get an un-level sounding movie where the talking parts are super quiet with the loud parts just right, or vice versa. Whereas the only other option is to constantly turn the volume up and down which is really unnecessary Also I'd have to stare at the yellow volume bar every few minutes of the movie which can really take you out of it.
In the end it seems like BD has a lot of problems. It's probably not as bad as I think especially since I've had some amazing movie experiences with BD since getting into the HD craze. However a lot of the movies that come out for the format are just so unnecessary. Like I stated earlier the quality of the image isn't that drastically different depending on the title. It's certainly not worth replacing your entire collection of movies on, even if you have a smaller collection. Just something to migrate to eventually. I can't think of a single title I upgraded to BD from DVD simply for the sake of having it in HD. I know people who have and it's a waste of money. Either get it that way in the first place or save your money for a different, new movie. One example I have of this is Clerks. Now I love Clerks like a lot of you do. But if you've seen it you know how old school it is. The movie was made for less than 20K (more or less) and was shot in B&W, having it in HD seems contradictory. A DVD makes sense cause it can clean up some of the problems it may have from the original print to make it look a little nicer, but to go from low-low budget to a transfer to High Def just seems so unecessary. Honestly the only reason why I have the HD version is because, again, of a sale. It has all the same special features as the Clerks X 10th Anniversary DVD, but I was able to get it cheaper. This means it includes both cuts of the film, multiple commentaries, the excellent doc The Snowball Effect, and many more things. However watching it in HD just feels somewhat off.
Strangely I love watching my BD copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey but that's a whole different story. That movie was way ahead of it's time.
Digital: I was hesitant to even bring this one up. I don't even see this as an actual format but I felt it was worth talking about anyway since it's been gaining a lot more popularity.
With digital I have a lot of mixed feelings. Companies like Netflix and Amazon provide services where you can rent a digital copy of a movie and then when you're done with it you just "return" it (or take it off your watch list I guess) and that's it. I'm guilty of using this for sure. I used to have Netflix and now use Amazon Prime. I have no problems with a rental service utilizing digital copies of movies cause it's really convenient. I just log in, choose my movie, click play, I'm good to go. It's just as easy as grabbing a movie off my shelf and popping it in. You're good to go in no time. It's when the purchase of a digital copy comes into play that I have an issue with. But there are three different types of purchases when it comes to digital copies.
First there's straight up buying a digital copy. This is done either through services like Amazon or iTunes. You pick the movie you want, purchase, and download the file to your computer where you can then watch it on many different devices like your computer, smart phone, or put it on a game console if applicable. Again a quick and simple process, and I have a lot of problems with this method. The first being that watching a movie on your phone is such a dumb idea. It turns what's great about cinema into a youtube video. Crunching down what was originally intended for a gigantic screen onto your teeny tiny phone screen is killing the overall experience. It takes away any sense of scope, impact, or excitement you would get on most other screens. I'd rather watch The Avengers on my parent's 13" square TV they keep in their kitchen over watching it on my phone. In terms of watching it on other portable formats is a mixed bag. I don't advocate watching it on your computer for a lot of the same reasons. Tends to feel more like a youtube video. But I am guilty of this one as well. I had a lot of long nights when I was working the graveyard shift at a hotel a couple of years ago. Didn't exactly have a TV sitting by my side. Basically digital downloads, while convenient, kills a lot of what makes the movie great in the first place, at least when it's put on mobile devices.
Another problem I have with digital downloads is the price. I have seen online plenty of times the options to buy a digital copy of a movie and whether it's on PSN, Amazon Instant Video, etc, it always seems to be more expensive than the DVD or even the BD copy sometimes. What a flippin waste. Basically it's as if the buyer is paying for a convenience fee even though it's just as easy to order the DVD copy, only then you'll have to wait a couple days at least if not a little longer before it comes in the mail (What will we do?!). And if you're going to buy it for keeps why would it matter if it takes a little longer to get the DVD? And if you're in such a hury that you don't have time to run down to Best Buy to get the DVD you should probably re-examine your time management skills. And you know what's included with a digital copy of a movie? Just the movie. Sometimes there's maybe one or two quick behind the scenes videos but nothing substantial. So you're essentially paying more money for a video file to download that offers nothing more than just the movie itself when you could pay around the same price for a DVD copy with more features. Basically until the prices are lowered for digital copies (it's cheaper to distribute!) then I cannot justify or recommend anyone buys any movie digitally. Unless there's a sale.
For the record I'm the type to want a physical copy of a movie. That shouldn't curb my thoughts, though. If it was cheaper I would definitely advise to buy digital if it was up their alley.
The other form of digital download is when it's included with a physical copy. This is where I think digital downloads belong for the most part. To me the main feature is the physical copy. It's the go to piece for watching a movie of any kind unless it's a rental service and in that case it's interchangeable To me a digital copy is a special feature at best. If you buy the special edition DVD or BD it tends to include a digital copy. This means that if you really want to, you can choose to watch it on a mobile device or don't want to use up and potentially damage the physical copy.
Keep it as a special feature. Either that or start lowering the price of the digital copy. Absurd.
Conclusion: My conclusion is more of a list. My list is based on my personal preference but also in the execution in what they did in their times and how well they stand up over a longer time period. The one I would put in first place is DVD for it's consistency, current availability, and how universal it is. My second place is laserdisc because of it's underrated quality and because it's a personal favorite. Then I would put down Blu-Ray for third place because it's not a necessary upgrade unless you're a tech junkie, but it's still a pretty nice format. Then in fourth is VHS because it has not aged well but it still has that nostalgia factor to it. Lastly I'm putting digital in dead last because it doesn't really count in my opinion.