Streaming service subscribers reached close to 1.8 billion globally in 2023 and the streaming industry is expected to keep growing. Despite this, the industry faces myriad issues. Meanwhile, demand for physical media in certain social circles is on the rise.

Consumers are faced with subscription fatigue due to an overwhelming choice of indistinguishable platforms. This is evident in Netflix’s loss of subscribers in 2022, the first in a decade. However, after crackdowns on password sharing, numbers began to rise again throughout 2023.

Elsewhere, ‘cloud anxiety’, the idea that a certain TV show or film may not always be available at your fingertips, is the key challenge pushing certain consumers to migrate away from video streaming back to physical media. This phenomenon is seeing an increased number of people investing in their own curated libraries.

Physical media such as Blu-rays (and vinyl in the music space) are growing in sales. The competition and oversaturation between streaming services mean that content rights are often up for grabs. Films and TV shows are continuously disappearing from streaming services due to licensing issues, but this is not always the reason content disappears.

The Power of the Dog and a history of distribution

Netflix originals—once met with booing at Cannes—are now graced with industry awards, including top prizes at the Oscars. One recent example is The Power of the Dog, for which Jane Campion won the Oscar for Best Director.

One would assume that Netflix-produced content would stay on the platform and that there would be no ‘cloud anxiety’ over an Oscar-winning original film suddenly disappearing. Yet, The Power of the Dog’s licensing rights in the UK are shared with the BBC, meaning that it was removed from Netflix in the UK in the summer of 2023, allowing the BBC to air it. The film will reappear on the platform later in 2024, but it demonstrates the uncertainty about material on streaming services, even for films produced by the streaming companies themselves.

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The disappearance of films is not an issue novel to streaming services—this is a phenomenon that goes back to physical film reels outliving their use once they leave cinemas. Many films were lost, left unarchived, or destroyed after distribution. Yes, The Power of the Dog was removed due to distribution rights but five Alfred Hitchcock films, distributed as physical copies, went missing for the same reason. For decades, Hitchcock’s films—including Rear Window and Vertigo—were left unseen because he owned the distribution rights; only after his death did these iconic films reemerge. Elsewhere, Disney would put films in its ‘vault’, unable to be purchased, creating demand for future rereleases. Even now, its streaming service counterpart, Disney+, archives countless numbers of its original films and TV shows with no physical media equivalent, in a bid to raise demand.

The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection is proving to be one solution to this issue. First started in the 1980s, the Criterion Collection helps to preserve cinema with DVD and Blu-ray releases, and physically preserves the film of older entries into the collection. There is a merit marker that comes with a film being introduced into the collection that has become almost a curated symbol of ‘important cinema’. So, while The Power of the Dog may currently be unavailable on Netflix, it is available in Criterion form. Many of Netflix’s original titles are preserved in the Criterion Collection, such as Uncut Gems and the first ever Netflix original, Beasts of No Nation.

The Collection is beloved by those working in the industry. David Bowie personally contacted them asking for The Man Who Fell to Earth to be restored and re-edited after it had been tampered with by the studio. It is no wonder that directors, writers, and actors would delight in a Criterion home for their Netflix originals if their space on the service is not guaranteed. Film fans echo this delight.

Oppenheimer’s box office success carried on into people’s homes

While the demand or revenue for physical copies will not overtake streaming, it is still a challenge to streaming services. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer broke box-office records, making $960m and becoming the highest-grossing biopic of all time. And these moneymaking records extend past the theatrical experience.

The home media release of Oppenheimer caused a rush of purchases. HMV reported that 60% of their sales for Oppenheimer were for the Blu-ray and 4K release over the standard DVD, which sold out in its first week of release. This shows a clear market for physical media. People are willing to invest in high-quality releases when building their home library.

Currently, the video streaming market will continue to grow. However, amid cloud anxiety and an oversaturation of streaming services, the resurgence of physical media makes sense. A move back to the simple and personally curated libraries that can be built with the purchase of Blu-rays and vinyl is already happening—and it is something streamers should watch out for.