Olivia Bennett’s VHS collection started at a charity stall.
She had grown up in “the type of family where we’ll always have a movie on in the background,” she says, but it wasn’t until high school that her personal interest really bloomed. It was 2010 and DVD sales in Australia were booming. People were shedding their old VHS cassettes like dead skin.
Many of them, apparently, found their way onto a Lifeline table operating out of the convention centre opposite Bennett’s house in Brisbane. At 50 cents for five, she couldn’t pass up the chance to snag a handful of beloved titles on the cheap (“It was a money thing”). And then another, and then another.
“My mum and I would take trolleys … each time we were going in. And we’d go several times a day [a day] and sort through.”
More than a decade on, she has a thousand-strong collection which adorns one entire living room wall in her family home – edge to edge – a wallpaper of plastic anachronisms. There are “obscure Disney films like Sword in the Stone and Pete’s Dragon,” she says, alongside cult classics like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. In the photo she sends me, three copies of Lethal Weapon take pride of place.
While she’s now moved interstate, her collection back in Brisbane has held steady throughout the advent – then stranglehold – of streaming. The movies themselves may have made the jump online, but one of Bennett’s treasured features has not: the pre-show ads in all their grainy, campy glory.
“There’s always that ad that’s like, ‘Don’t pirate!’ … [and] there were a lot of theatrics to trailers. You know that classic American voiceover for all the trailers? Something about that voice reminds me of a specific time.”
Nostalgia is a primary force driving collectors of physical film media, whose titles sometimes predate them. Bennett’s VHS tapes, she says, are a lens to experience “the 90s … a period of time that I was born in but didn’t necessarily get to grow up in”.
The only way to be sure that you’ll have access to something forever is to actually own a physical copy of it.
For others, a commitment to hard copy is the only way to skirt around the fickle decisions of streaming services, where availability of titles is subject to an impenetrable alchemy of considerations: audience demand, the whims of licensing, and sheer storage capacity.
“It’s insanely expensive to store stuff for it to be streamed,” says Dr Ari Mattes, a media lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, whose own DVD and VHS collection numbers somewhere in the 40,000s. “It’s not like going to a video store … you can’t have 50,000 titles on a streaming service.”
Ben Kenny, the owner of the now-defunct Film Club – Sydney’s self-described “last, best” video store – agrees. “The only way to be sure that you’ll have access to something forever is to actually own a physical copy of it.”
Over its decade-long life, Film Club gained a reputation for servicing “that five or 10% of whatever generation is obsessed with films,” says Kenny, who describes the community which formed around his store as “the island of misfit toys”. When it shuttered this February, collectors all around Sydney made the pilgrimage into Darlinghurst to snap up the goods in a closing sale.
Titles went fast. Some, like a 2008 Criterion Collection version of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, had been long out of print, with resales on eBay costing hundreds of dollars. “We just got hit hard by people who had clearly been eyeing off things … customers knew the value of a lot of the stuff we had. But it was good to see it go to a good home.”
You just like to know you have it. And if in a wild moment you think you want to see six Joan Crawford films in a night…
The scarcity of some hard copy film editions isn’t all that different to rare books, says Geoff Gardner, the founder of Cinema Reborn, a boutique film festival in Sydney dedicated to screening classics seldom seen on the big screen. There are ways, of course, to bypass the shortcomings of streaming services through what he winkingly calls “the backchannels” and “the illegitimate”, but it doesn’t compare to the solidity of “filing it away, putting it in the box”.
“It’s the same as the book collector’s mentality. You just like to know you have it. And if in a wild moment you think you want to see six Joan Crawford films in a night…”
His personal stash now clocks in at 8,000 DVDs, amassed over decades. But that’s nothing, he goes to great pains to emphasise, compared to fellow cinephiles. “A lot of people are very, very remorseless … they’ll spend hours in the DVD shops [overseas] finding films that have not been released in other places, but have been released in Italy, Spain, or Japan.”
The subculture Gardner describes is holding steadfast. But could it ever experience a proper resurgence – like its cousin, the vinyl revival of the last decade?
“With vinyl, the audio quality is actually better in terms of the range that you’re able to hear, which isn’t the case with DVDs,” says Mattes, “[But there’ll always be] something about a physical medium – the tactility of it … There’s just something innately comforting about that.”.
A return to older formats, even for the average viewer, says Mattes, might also go some way in alleviating selection fatigue – the hours spent scrolling online, undone by the tyranny of choice.
“Say you’re a normal person, not like me with an insane number [of titles] … when you go to pick something, it limits your choice in a really productive way.
“You can look at your collection and go, ‘okay, I’ve got [a finite] number to pick from’ … instead of the absolute doubt that you have on streaming.
“[There’ll always be] something about a physical medium – the tactility of it … There’s just something innately comforting about that.”