The recent BAFTA and Oscars have stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Vue and Cineworld cinemas who have objected to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video winning awards for movies that have debuted on their streaming services.

Vue and Cineworld have been spitting feathers at BAFTA because, they claim, the eligibility for films being nominated aren’t fair because Netflix and Amazon streamed films aren’t available on the big screen. Or if they are, they’re not in cinemas long enough.

I get it. They’re cinemas and want bums on seats and their sole business is to show films. Though these days, some cinemas also specialise in live theatre performances which are broadcast live. Or some even show TV shows on the odd occasion (Doctor Who springs to mind). Their bread and butter is to show things on the largest screen possible.

ALAS!

Spider-man, spider-man, shown on the smallest cinema screen..

Cinemas these days are fighting a losing battle. Have you been recently? I went last Sunday to watch the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which was absolutely incredible. Very worthy of its win, and should have won Best Picture as well. Loved it. But:

  • It was shown on the smallest screen in the cinema.
  • The seats were filthy and worn-out. And this particular chain, even in with bigger screens, the seats are uncomfortable.
  • What was once a mighty foyer with snacks and drinks galore is a mere shadow of its former self. The nachos I had weren’t fantastic. The choice of drinks and snacks are abysmal. And costly.

And my general complaint about most cinemas are:

  • Trailers and adverts are not shown in the correct aspect ratio – you have black bars (like you do on TV) for everything.
  • You’re constantly made to feel like a criminal by numerous reminders about not recording the soundtrack or video of the cinema screen.
  • Ticket prices are expensive.
  • The quality of the cinema and presentation vary enormously between different cinema chains and towns.
  • Costs of time and travelling to the cinema and back again.
  • People playing with their bloody mobile phones.
  • People walking in after the film starts.
  • People talking throughout the film.
  • Seat quality. You often pay extra for this, and I don’t mind that too much, but there should be more expensive seats on offer.

Cinema is a shared experienced – especially with family and friends. I get it. But now with the same technology being made for the living room (Dolby in particularly are doing well with their Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos systems), you can experience the same thing at home with a large(ish) TV and decent sound system. Nobody is ever going to have the kind of screen and sound system that IMAX offers, but it’s still pretty damn good – home entertainment has improved leaps and bounds over the years.

As has the ability to finance films. It’s a whole different ball game with theatrical releases versus streaming (effectively you’ve already bought a ticket), and theatrical releases are far more risk averse as a result (and to the consumer too – you spend over £40 for a family day out to the cinema for a film nobody likes, you bet you’re going to be upset).

I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (which rightly won in the categories it was nominated for at the BAFTA and Oscars), and it’s truly an excellent film. He’s done extraordinarily well with it – as writer, director and cinematographer. I watched it on a 60″ TV in 4K (without HDR) and thought it was visually stunning (my former employers, MPC, were responsible for the visual effects and there is one sequence that knocked my socks off – my brain trying to figure out how it was done – and I was wrong!). Roma deserves to be nominated (and to win) as much as everybody else, regardless of how it was financed and distributed.

Imagine the fuss if a YouTube film won an Oscar or BAFTA. The old school and the cinema chains would spontaneously combust.

Spielberg’s complaint is that he wants to preserve the theatrical experience. I get it. I really do. When I was much younger it was a treat to go the cinema. Prices were reasonable. The seats were enormous and comfortable. The big screen was the big screen. And there were very many more cinemas around. Very happy memories of watching the likes of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future (at the Empire Leicester Square no less). I’ve been on a few dates to the cinema, been to the cinema with my mates, and all sorts. But over the past 5 or 6 years, things have slowed down a lot. Cinemas have been closing down. Television has become more interesting.

Some films I’ve had real problems getting to see due the very limited theatrical run. I can only seen them via physical disk purchase, iTunes (or similar) or via one of the streaming service. Should those films still be eligible for Oscars or BAFTA? And what of screeners and VOD that the Academy hands out to members? I’m told it’s a last resort, but even civilians like me don’t have the time (or inclination) to go to the cinema or the time.

Films are films regardless of however they’re made. This is the 21st century. We have the technology. But people want their films to be wherever they are. Whether that be in the cinema, on TV, on their mobile devices. It’s high time that the old school (I include Cannes in this) wake up and smell the coffee.

A small section of my Blu-Ray/UltraHD Blu-Ray collection

With the news that Samsung intends to stop making any more Blu-Ray players, people are wondering whether this is a signal that physical media is gradually coming to an end, particularly with streaming and catch-up services becoming more and more popular. Netflix titles will forever remain on Netflix, right? Providing that you keep paying the subscription?

I would argue that the world still needs physical media. Film and TV studios still haven’t assured consumers that content they buy wholly digitally will remain with them for the rest of the lives (and beyond), and that you can play them in a format that is reasonably open and fair. I can vouch that this is a legitimate worry – I had bought a fair number of titles from the BBC Store when it was alive and well, and even then there was a very big problem:

Access to the BBC Store content was a mixed bag. If I recall correctly, you (eventually) had to use a dedicated BBC Store app. BBC iPlayer apps across different platforms could access it, but for the most part, I couldn’t view the content on my LG TV or any other device that directly connected to my TV. I couldn’t cast content to the TV unless I had a Chromecast. Which I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the platform was more open at the beginning and then slowly killed itself by limiting itself to certain platforms.

By the time BBC Store had decided to shut up shop, at least the BBC had the good grace to provide a refund or voucher for use with a rival service. But this didn’t make up for the fact that not all of the content was available elsewhere. Had I bought the content on DVD or Blu-Ray (albeit for a more substantial price), this situation would never have occurred.

Netflix and Amazon, on the other hand, are available on pretty much everything these days – even ancient Blu-Ray players. The problem that Netflix now finds itself is in interactive content. Its Bandersnatch interactive episode works with modern Netflix apps, with a few notable exceptions – the main one being Apple TV. I seem to recall reading that Apple doesn’t allow the use of Javascript within tvOS apps which is the reason why Bandersnatch isn’t available there.

Another indication that physical media is being looked over is that TV companies are seeming not bothering to make Blu-Ray versions available of their TV show season boxsets. Fox, or as I like to call them, 18th Century Dodo (because they are nearly always stuck in the past) released the first season of their excellent sci-fi/comedy series, The Orville, on DVD only despite broadcasting in HD. DVD is not high definition. Why on earth would anybody want to buy something that’s lower quality than what was originally broadcast?

Channel 4 has done the same with a season 1-4 boxet of their excellent comedy, Catastrophe. Yet you can stream it via HD and buy it in HD on services like iTunes. But there is no Blu-Ray release. Neither is there a Blu-Ray release for Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave. A DVD release, yes, but if you want HD, you’ll need to buy it digitally from iTunes.

Now let’s talk about iTunes for a moment. It’s by far the best ecosystem for non-physical media if you like movies. Not so much for TV programs. iTunes offers movies (many of which now come in 4K resolution – albeit if streamed via an Apple TV – no 4K on Mac, iPad or iPhone) that come with the kind of extras that you’d see on physical media such as behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries. iTunes for TV shows rarely does this – if at all. The only TV show I have bought on iTunes which come with extras and audio commentaries was Breaking Bad – the Deluxe Edition (seasons 1-6), and even that was problematic. I had to disable Dolby Surround to listen to the episodes which have audio commentaries. You can only listen to them when the audio output is set to Stereo. This is not a problem for iTunes movies which set the correct audio channel through the use of a special menu which comes with the movie.

But even after all that, you’re still not guaranteed that the movies or TV shows that you’ve bought through iTunes are yours to keep forever. There is always the chance that a studio or broadcaster could remove their content from the store, and thus your library. A similar situation to Amzon’s Kindle books (which has happened, BTW). And this situation can apply to any digital movie or TV show retailer. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to stop a company from removing content from your virtual library. And nothing to say that you wouldn’t be compensated, either.

So if digital media is on the rise, it seems that it’s because we like the convenience. For me, this is true. I DO like the convenience it offers – especially iTunes. I can stream to my TV, iPad and iPhone without faffing around too much. I have over 348 movies on iTunes along with a few TV shows that I’d like to watch from the iPad or iPhone if I’m travelling. So I am heavily invested in it. But I’m equally invested in physical media too. I have an UltraHD 4K player from Sony which I think is marvellous. I have an extensive collection of Blu-Ray, UltraHD 4K Blu-Ray and DVDs. Some of which cannot be purchased digitally (Studio Ghibli is one such company which has never released its content on iTunes, for example). I did have an Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player which was discontinued as they were moving away from the audio-visual industry. It was the leading 4K Blu-Ray player of it’s time, winning many awards.

But it’s disheartening that TV studios – and maybe even some film studios – don’t seem to care about what the consumer wants. I understand that mastering and duplication of physical media is expensive. But the consumer deserves a choice. A choice I didn’t have when HBO’s Silicon Valley stopped being made available via Amazon on Blu-Ray. DVD only. I had collected seasons 1 and 2 on Blu-Ray, and now future seasons weren’t going to be available in the definition that I want? Outrageous.

What I don’t understand is that it is easier to rip the likes of DVDs than Blu-Rays – they don’t take up much space. So why hasn’t efforts been made to phase out DVDs and replace them with Blu-Rays? Much effort has gone to publicise Blu-Ray as a superior quality format. It’s backwards compatible with DVD, so people’s collections will continue to work. Is it case that people don’t really care about resolution or quality? Why bother with 4K at all in that case? Should we just laugh at 8K and future resolution updates?

Are we in the battle of VHS versus betamax again? It sure as hell feels like it at times. In any event, I express my bitter disappointment at the likes of 18th Century Dodo (Fox), Channel 4 and HBO for their decision to release content on DVD only. I doubt they will be the last to do so, but one can hope the industry gives itself a bit of a kick up the arse to show commitment to all formats. I despise piracy, but I know that piracy isn’t going to stop regardless of whatever efforts are made. But if the TV and film studios don’t do something, the pirates are not only going to give people what they want, in the format that they want, but they’ll probably do a better job at presentation too.

Alas poor Xbox One X, I didn’t use you as much as I’d have liked. You became a bit of a brick sitting underneath the TV gathering dust. Hence it was off to the local CeX for you, and in with a Sony UDB-X700 mid-range UltraHD (4K) Blu-Ray player.

The problem with modern console gaming is not only having to buy the console in the first place, but you also have to factor in:

  • A Multi-player subscription (Xbox Live in the case of the Xbox, or Playstation Plus for the PlayStation) – an extra monthly or yearly cost.
  • Cost of the games. This varies – but usually between £40-£100 depending on the game and publisher. The alternative is a subscription service such as the Xbox Games Pass or PS Now for PlayStation.
  • In-game purchases. Extra skins, weapons, whatever.

I’ve determined that given the overall level of gaming I do versus the number of movies I watch via Blu-Ray or UltraHD Blu-Ray, I’d be bettter off with a dedicated player. A player which didn’t have a hard drive in it which would be a pain in the neck to replace if it were to fail.

So the Xbox One X has gone and has been replaced by a Sony UDB-X700 UltraHD (4K) player. I’ve always been a big fan of Sony products, and the UDB-X700 is no exception. It’s a mid-range device which has won many awards – including a coveted What Hi-Fi? 2018 Award. One of the things that attracted me to it was a decent remote control (you try finding a decent remote with the Xbox One X), HDR->SDR conversion (my LG 4K television does not have HDR because I bought it too early – frigging technology, eh?), and built-in app support for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc.

The Sony UDB-U700 in all its glory

Actually, the last thing doesn’t matter too much to me – the Apple 4K TV does pretty much all of the “smart” TV stuff (alongside the Sky Q box and even my LG TV’s ageing WebOS which doesn’t see anywhere near the same level of commitment in updates from TVs from 2017 onwards). The Sony apps are decent enough, though I found that when it first streams content the picture is all blurry until it’s had a chance to play catchup and buffer enough data to continue. The Apple TV and Sky Q box does not do this. But’s nice to have a backup, just in case. And besides, I DO like the big Netflix button on this player’s remote control.

The picture quality is excellent regardless of whether or not you have an HDR TV. And the HDR to SDR conversion thing is a new feature I’ve never come across before, but does – I suppose, having not seen HDR before (thanks, LG, thanks) – do a good job. Adjusting the setting during playback allows you to adjust the conversion. Apparently setting it high will result in an image that is closest to HDR, but you pay for it in reduced picture brightness.

Audio is fine. I don’t have any Dolby Atmos speakers or even a surround sound system. I usually pipe all audio through my TV to drown out the neighbours (especially their frigging noisy dogs). But very good stereo reproduction from what I’ve played so far. Very sharp, very crisp.

All in all, an excellent player at a decent price. Having owned the super pricey and now utterly defunct Oppo UDP-203 a few years ago (sold to somebody who truly appreciates the Oppo line of devices despite they’re leaving the audio-visual market), this unit certainly gives as good as it gets. And Sony isn’t about to give up making audio-visual devices any time soon!

9/10

.. and along with it, state of the art visual effects. The Box of Delights was an adaptation by the BBC of John Masefield’s children’s novel, The Box Of Delights, a sequel to The Midnight Folk.

What made it particularly special was that it was the most expensive children’s show at the time. In order to accommodate the many fantastical elements of the story, the BBC’s visual effects department invested heavily in new technologies (mainly Quantel) and even borrowed equipment from other TV shows in order to meet the complexities of the effects.

This BBC Pebble Mill interview with Robin Lobb, who was responsible for The Box of Delight’s video effects. Also, it features an interview with Devin Stanfield (who plays lead character Kay Harker) and Alan Seymour, who adapted the story for TV.

It’s fascinating to watch the original TV show (which I have on DVD) and look at the effects which seem so primitive now but were state of the art at the time. According to Robin in the above interview, they had to remove some elements from the original story because even the visual effects back then couldn’t cope with it. Now, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem.

When you look at what we had to contend with on the Harry Potter film series in comparison, The Box of Delights is the true spiritual precursor of epic fantasy films and TV series – certainly it’s one of the most beloved.