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Sound and Vision: 4K Blu-ray is getting a little too expensive

OPINION: Despite all the doom and gloom about physical media in recent months, it continues to walk – perhaps a little unsteady, but it’s still one foot in front of the other.

Streaming is where the majority of consumers have moved to, and from a convenience perspective, it’s a move that I can understand. However, in terms of long-term sustainability, I’m not sure how long the market can sustain so many options. Eventually they’ll have to be a loser, or several losers. If or when that happens, physical media will still be there as an option, but the way in which we consume it is changing.

And I’m not fond of the direction it’s going in.

4K Blu-ray has been in existence for about eight years, and after tentative launches of new films – it took Disney more than a year to launch its first 4K Blu-ray title in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 – there’s been an increasing amount of new films and catalogue (older titles) hitting the market.

Not all the titles I’d like to be on 4K Blu-ray are making it to the format. It would have been nice to see a 4K physical version of Greta Lee’s Past Lives, but I can see the logic of a small film not being the biggest seller in the market. That Poor Things and The Iron Claw are new releases that aren’t getting a 4K release (at least for the time being) is disappointing, considering I think those two films would benefit from the boost in resolution and colour performance.

But what I find more frustrating is that, like vinyl, there is an increasingly big push towards 4K Blu-ray becoming a collectors market. As I write this Dune: Part Two has hit the cinemas, the home cinema releases have been announced and the film is getting a limited edition steelbook release on HMV, and the email I received on March 1st already had the words “limited copies available”.

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Dune: Part Two

In the ‘olden’ days, you’d have expected this type of release a couple years after the film had been available, as a way of making people double dip. Instead, steelbooks are being used to push the price up while – aside from the visual design – there’s nothing particularly special about steelbooks themselves. And even more annoyingly, studios are now packaging the Blu-ray along with the 4K Blu-ray, but only with the steelbooks, so if you want a HD copy for your library then you’ll have to pay more.

More studios are employing this tactic, so what was once a 4K Blu-ray + Blu-ray combo that would (in the UK) set you back £24.99, the price has now been set to £34.99 for the steelbook, and all you’re getting is fancier looking packaging. I don’t even feel that current-day steelbooks look or feel as nice as steelbooks did in the DVD days either. I was walking through Fopp in London with a friend and they genuinely exclaimed when they saw a title going for £35.

We’re also still paying the same price for the standard release, but getting less in return. There’s very little –if any – effort with the special features which have dwindled to a few EPK vignettes. Studios such as Paramount (which seemed to start this trend), Warner Brothers, and Universal are all going down the road of single disc standard releases.

And I imagine they’ve seen what the boutique labels such as Arrow, Second Sight, and Shout Factory (US) have done with the collectors market and followed their stead. But unlike the major studios, while independent labels sell for more money, they are providing plenty more value with each release. The version I have of Drive 4K Blu-ray comes with the hardback book of the original novel, a 240-page book of essays, as well as new features for the film itself. I’m not being asked to trade up just to get a Blu-ray and different packaging design.

Philips 48OLED808 Elemental
Image Credit (Trusted Reviews)

There are other aspects that bug me about the direction that 4K Blu-ray is going in. For example, the UK is seemingly not getting standard 4K releases, but premium 4K releases instead, which again ups the price and turns it into a collector’s market; or that this side of the Atlantic is not getting 4K releases at all for the likes of Elemental, Nightmare Alley, and The Sandman.

Thankfully, 4K Blu-rays are region free, and importing isn’t a hardship if you know where to go, but there have been instances where 4K titles have been region locked – by accident, apparently –  by smaller, boutique labels, which goes against the specification of the format. And in several cases, either a region-free disc has not been offered, or it would seem in the case of the Italian 4K disc of Killers of the Flower Moon, another “region-free” release is coming except you’ll have to pay for it.

I’ll be supportive of the 4K Blu-ray format, but I’m not as willing to pay full-price for some titles. It’s becoming a more expensive hobby with what feels like fewer releases, especially of new titles. In the end, the result will be that fewer people buy it, and I can’t see how that would help anyone involved in physical media – although obviously, you can see how that would help the streaming cause…

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