Think physical media is dead? Think again!

Jon Thompson once thought he'd never have to rewind a VHS tape again, but now discovers the vintage AV format is threatening a comeback

'It's dead!' is a term I have heard all my life about many things. Most recently, it's been popping up over and over again regards physical movie media. Then Oppenheimer came out on 4K Blu-ray and sold out all across the US in only a few days. People were crossing state lines to try and find a copy, and as always, the eBay scalpers kicked in with copies going for $500 to $1,000 for a very short period of time.

So if the medium is dead, then why did it go crazy, and who was buying it?

Let's sort some things out: physical movie media is far from dead. What has happened is that discs have transformed from a mainstream medium to a collector's medium, and it's selling very well – ask the likes of Arrow Video, Shout Factory, Kino Lorber, Powerhouse Films and Second Sight Films. The likes of Sony, Universal or Warner Bros. don't seem to have figured out this shift.

Okay, Oppenheimer is a Universal title, and what's interesting is that the only version that replicates its theatrical IMAX experience – with a variable aspect ratio – is the 4K Blu-ray. The streaming version is fixed at 2.2:1. Nolan went on a PR blitz, saying if you want to see his vision as he intended, you need to buy the 4K disc, and it worked.

Something that I had thought was dead, buried and gone forever is VHS.

It turns out I was wrong – VHS is back as a collector's medium. UK-based Vice Press Home Video has released Sam Raimi's 1987 horror-comedy Evil Dead II on good old-fashioned analogue tape. Done under licence from rights-holder Studiocanal, it's offering two versions: a 'Collector's Edition' (limited to 500 copies, pictured above) or a 'Blood Splattered' edition (250 copies) – both come with cover art from industry legend Matt Ferguson.

Vice Press is the same company behind the Film Vault brand of 4K special editions of films including Jaws and Blade Runner, which are now sold out and go for silly money on eBay. And guess what? The VHS of Evil Dead II is already out of stock.

Indeed, VHS is selling well on the collector's market, to the point you might now regret giving all your tapes away to that charity shop. Mint condition copies of certain films (often Disney animations, but also the likes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and cult horror titles) can sell for five figures if they're still sealed in their original wrapper.

Eastern promises While there might be a resurgence in collecting physical media in the UK and the US, in Japan it seems it never went away. You can even buy MQA CDs over there, and Super Audio CD is still alive and well. It has a healthy vinyl market too, backed up by many high-quality turntable and cartridge makers.

Away from music, video could also be changing thanks to new 8K codecs such as AV1. Are we going to see a Super UHD disc format? If so, it will surely come from Japan.

If VHS can make a comeback, then maybe anything is now possible. Those who keep saying everything physical is dead are looking a wee bit daft at the moment as digital movie platforms struggle to make ends meet. Disney is billions down on Disney+, but in a plot twist of Shyamalan proportions physical media copies of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny sold really well and made a profit. Who would have thunk it?

There is money in them thar physical media hills, and I've bought two copies of Oppenheimer on 4K. I'll keep one wrapped as a future investment.

This column first appeared in HCC #349, February 2024