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Physical media won’t save us from streaming services

With Batgirl, Final Space, and more being removed from release on streaming services, we need better solutions than buying more DVDs or Blu-rays

Leslie Grace in Batgirl

You’ve likely heard of the Batgirl cancellation by now. In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros decided not to release the DC movie as part of a tax write-off. Initially destined for HBO Max, it’s now unlikely anyone will ever see the superhero movie.

Disappointing as this is for co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, as well as stars Leslie Grace, Brendan Fraser, and Michael Keaton, at least they aren’t alone. Final Space, the animated series by YouTuber-turned-filmmaker Olan Rogers, is being removed from HBO Max for the same reason.

Now three seasons in and available on other platforms internationally, Final Space’s fate is a particular kind of cruel. Blu-ray box-sets compiling the seasons have stopped being produced, and once Netflix’s licence for distribution outside the US ends, that’s it, the show will no longer be publicly available anywhere.

Rogers posted a message on social media regarding the announcement, and you can feel him struggling to find the words. “Five years of work vanished,” he writes. “Your memory of Final Space will be the only proof it ever existed unless you own a copy.”

Commiserations could be shared with the cast and crew of Hemlock Grove, which is departing Netflix this October. One of the early Netflix series from when the service first started going heavy on original programming, Hemlock Grove’s dilemma is one of licensing. Gaumont International Television is the rights holder for Eli Roth’s horror series and Netflix’s licence isn’t being renewed.

Final Space on Netflix

Quite a few Netflix productions have suffered this fate, and many more still could do as agreements expire, or rights-holders decide to move their intellectual property elsewhere, like the Marvel series going to Disney Plus. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Punisher, and the rest of the Defenders shifting to the House of Mouse is a best-case scenario, where the art remains readily viewable on a widely available platform.

It’s not the most convenient for viewers, since it pushes them to pay for another service, but at least the TV series can still be easily found. What Warner Bros has done is more insidious, treating art as cold business where only the bottom line matters. It’s all endemic to the continued precariousness of streaming services.

Hemlock Grove on Netflix

These decisions can be made for anything, on any platform. Everything you access via subscription only is entirely at the behest of the parent company, and you’ve no recourse if something you love just isn’t there one day.

Whenever incidents like Final Space or Hemlock Grove get wider coverage, film and TV communities at large bubble with the need for physical media. It’s more expensive and can take up a lot of room, but once you have something on disc, it belongs to you. I can’t disagree, and am frequently among the advocates for picking up your faves on Blu-ray or vinyl or whatever else, wherever possible.

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But that doesn’t really solve the underlying problems around preservation and access. Final Space DVDs are great for their owners, but if anyone else wants to see the show, they’ll have to either buy a copy second hand or kindly ask if they can borrow it.

We need more initiatives that make sure people have access to art beyond perusing the collector’s market for whatever physical copies remain. Local and state-funded bodies who work with distributors to ensure that once something enters the public sphere, it remains so. The BBC iPlayer is a perfect example.

Jessica Jones on Disney Plus

Right now, you can peruse a selection of some of the best movies of all time and various shows on the iPlayer for free. This includes recent broadcasts from the BBC itself, giving users releases both contemporary and classic to choose from. At the time of writing, Citizen Kane, King Kong, The Thing from Another World, Moonlight, Battlestar Galactica, and Devs are all on there. That’s an incredible range, offering a wealth of entertainment the length of Hollywood’s history for viewers.

People are using it, too. Data from April 2021 states that over 10.5 million users watched something on the BBC iPlayer on a weekly basis. That’s over 40 million monthly, almost four times the forecast for Netflix’s British user base. The iPlayer is a bespoke national resource that guarantees you access to TV and film regardless of your circumstances.

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Many libraries offer DVDs and Blu-rays, available to borrow just like you would books. These are crucial for anything that’s only ever gotten limited re-releases, because the hurdles that befell Final Space and Hemlock Grove have existed for some time. A great many movies and TV series have yet to even get as far as a proper streaming release, stuck in the vault of their rights holders.

Money and space should not be prerequisites for someone’s ability to access and experience art. There should be a contingency plan for when giant corporations and distributors view entertainment purely in the form of financial gains. No amount of three-disc Criterion special editions or 4K steelbooks would have changed anything for Batgirl or Final Space, and we need to find solutions that aren’t just excuses to brag about how many bookshelves full of Blu-rays anyone owns.

If you want to be transported to a time before streaming services, check out our list of the best ’80s movies, or a rundown of the best ’90s TV shows.