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Streaming Isn’t Everything, and Blu-Rays Are Back to Prove It

Late last month, while most Black Friday shoppers were looking for deals on high-definition televisions or new computers, Zach Killebrew was searching for Ingmar Bergman. Killebrew, a 24-year-old software developer, is the creator and moderator of Boutique Blu-Ray, a subreddit for obsessive collectors of high-end (and often pricey) movies. They’re the sort of fans who post photos of their latest Blu-ray scores, document their growing collections, and eagerly share updates on new “boutique” releases, which range from obscure ’80s horror flicks like Maniac to the 30-disc Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema collection.

It was that hefty Bergman box (which lists for nearly $300) that had Killebrew up late the night before its release scouring websites, calling local stores, and even contemplating driving to a mall about an hour away from his home in Smithton, Illinois, just to secure his copy. He eventually landed one right before the collection’s first printing sold out.

For dedicated Blu-ray hunters, such victories are hard-won. To most others, though, the notion of agonizing over physical media in 2018 is completely baffling. “My friends are always are always kind of puzzled when I say, ‘I went Blu-ray shopping,’” says Killebrew. “They usually say, ‘Why don’t you stream it?’”

Within the small but thriving community of Blu-ray enthusiasts, the answers to that question tend to vary. Some are drawn to Blu-ray because of the unsatisfying video quality of streaming films; for others, it’s the sheer joy of tactile pop-culture paraphernalia, as some small-label discs come with elaborate packaging and hours of extras. “Customers want to see these movies on their shelves,” says Jesse Nelson, owner of Diabolik, an online store that’s been trafficking in rare and specialty movies since 2003. “They want to post pictures of them on Instagram sorted by director or label: ‘Look at all these great titles I have.’”

But one of the main driving forces behind the Blu-ray renaissance is the simple fact that the mainstreamers—which include everyone from Netflix to Amazon Prime to Apple—all have sizable gaps in their movie libraries. Those limitations have become painfully clear in the last year, as some film lovers looked around and noticed that many of their favorite movies, whether vintage releases or even semi-recent blockbusters like True Lies, were nearly impossible to find in digital form.

That point was reinforced by the sudden closure of the ambitious and well-curated FilmStruck, which featured Warner Bros. classics and arthouse flicks from Criterion Collection. FilmStruck’s demise made clear just how ephemeral streaming is: If your favorites aren’t on your shelves, there’s a chance they could disappear on short notice. “There are movies that I want to watch, or share with others, and increasingly they’re not there when I try to find them on Amazon Prime or Hulu,” says Killebrew. “Having a physical copy is my back-up.”

Killebrew’s video collection, which he estimates includes about 300 titles, features everything from arthouse entries to more out-there genre films—evidence of just how expansive the so-called “boutique Blu-ray” market has become. Its biggest players include outfits like Scream Factory, which focuses on classic and next-wave horror; the decades-spanning Kino Lorber, which has released everything from a six-disc box set on early female filmmakers to vintage dumb-fun Burt Reynolds flicks; and Twilight Time, which specializes in out-of-print studio entries, such as Robert Redford’s ace 1972 heist film The Hot Rock.

Then there’s Vinegar Syndrome, a Connecticut-based supplier of impossibly hard-to-find (and sometimes hard to describe) cult films. The company has become a bit of a cult fixation in itself: Its annual Black Friday sales are so popular that its eight-person staff actually shuts down its website for days beforehand, in order to prepare for customers looking for deals on movies like the evil-clown romp Blood Harvest and the 1989 Brad Pitt slasher flick Cutting Class (or, perhaps, some of the label’s restored adult-film titles from the ’70s and ’80s). Many of Vinegar Syndrome’s titles are low-budget genre horror, sci-fi, and sleaze flicks from the grindhouse and VHS eras, and were in danger of being lost or forgotten altogether.

“We’re a film-first company,” says cofounder Ryan Emerson, who became interested in archival film work in the early ’00s. “We think of ourselves not as historians, because that would be a little weird, but as preservationists. When we look at a film, we say, ‘Would this stand a chance of coming out on Blu-ray if Vinegar Syndrome didn’t exist?’ And if the answer is no, we’ll dive right in. We want to make sure these films maintain an audience, if not build one.”

Vinegar Syndrome, which operates its own scanning and restoration facilities, has digitally archived nearly 500 titles since launching in 2012. Its catalog includes seminal midnight movies such as the 1982 downtown-sci-fi epic Liquid Sky, as well as outré oddities like the wonderfully out-there 1978 nature-thriller The Bees. The latter is the kind of film that most fans likely never expected to find on Blu-ray, much less one that was digitally scanned from an original 35mm negative. “We get that lot: People saying they can’t believe that we’re doing these films,” Emerson says. “They also can’t believe that they’re actually selling.”

The company recently shipped its 100,000th order, driven in part by the annual Black Friday sale. (Emerson says that the event, which also includes the unveiling of surprise new releases, is so crucial to Vinegar Syndrome that staffers are already planning next year’s holiday.) Some of its customers engage in “blind buying”–essentially picking up a movie without having seen it, based solely on its title, its reputation, or a sense of curiosity. It’s a practice that captures the thrill of the hunt for collectors.

But it also speaks to a key facets of boutique Blu-ray culture: The sense that these films—no matter small or forgotten—are worth keeping alive, and within the conversation, at a time when streaming services are pushing a smaller, far more mainstream movie canon. Diabolik’s Nelson, a cult-film connoisseur, notes that the recent Blu-ray of Maniac, released by Blue Underground, has been a favorite among customers–including himself. “It’s a notorious movie,” he says of the famously gnarly 1980 flick, “but for some reason, I’d never watched it. I needed to have that in my collection.” It’s a sentiment to which countless movie maniacs could no doubt relate.


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