Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amassing Movies: The Art of the DVD/HD Collection

Ever since I was very little I've indulged in the collecting compulsion. At one time or another I collected just about everything: rocks, bouncy balls, erasers, marbles, stamps, coins, baseball cards (I didn’t even watch baseball), Star Trek paraphernalia, collectable card games (Magic: The Gathering being just one example), collectable dice games (has anyone even heard of Dragon Dice?), science fiction books, etc. I’m lucky to have missed out on Pokemon, but I played my share of videogames that preyed on the “gotta catch them all” premise.

In retrospect, quite a bit of this insatiable hoarding process was utterly useless and downright embarrassing. I mean, Pogs? Seriously? Why was I paying money for glorified bottle caps simulated with cheap cardboard and used for a game with almost no merit whatsoever? And surely I should have been too old for beanie babies, right? I certainly wasn’t collecting things in the hopes of making a financial success out of them. These days the collectable debris of games whose rules I long ago forgot are worth approximately zero, and even the more popular items are worth more to me in nostalgia than the eBay pittance they could earn.

Today I’m occasionally tempted to read my collector’s drive as purely unhealthy mental compulsions or early-childhood capitalist brainwashing, and those these are doubtlessly important factors, the truth is that I did (and do) derive a degree of satisfaction from collecting. Over time, I’ve come to prefer there to be some form of genuine utility intrinsic to the items amassed. My rock collection has long since been reinstated in the wild, though I do still fondly display a walrus menagerie, locked in an endless war with their race’s ancient arch-nemeses: Katie’s robot collection. Today the only collections that I maintain with any real monetary commitment are books and movies.

I remember a high school acquaintance boasting about his 200+ DVD collection. I asked him to name some of his latest additions and, though I forget the exact titles, it might as well be the five top-grossing Hollywood comedies and action fodder from any given month. What bothered me was not necessarily the stifling banality and narrowness of his recent purchases (his idea of a broadminded approach to cinema was appreciating the occasional romantic comedy), but the total redundancy of owning films that could be found at every video store, on half the TV channels and in the homes of all his friends.

In college I saw the same thing taken to an even greater extreme. You could probably find twelve copies of every mainstream college-themed comedy made between 1978’s “Animal House” and 2003’s “Old School” on my freshman floor alone. Almost every self-styled hipster I knew (including myself) had a copy of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Donnie Darko” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The requisite checklist of off-Hollywood films to own ran maybe a dozen titles long, and was primarily designed to signal to browsers that you were intellectual, indie and deep. I’m hard-pressed to name a foreign language film other than anime, “Amelie” and “Run, Lola, Run” that I saw in the possession of a dormmate.

Questions of taste aside, it was troublesome to see how culturally insular college could be (even for the Midwest) and to witness the scarcity of experimentation, open-mindedness, curiosity and interest in the average freshman. Fortunately, a great deal branched out as their college years went on. Even so, my frustration with the minimal “college canon” was one of my reasons for joining and later running SPLICE, an alternative film club which maintains a healthy following to this day.

So what films do I think are worth owning? Here are some of the questions I ask myself as a guideline:

1) Do I like the movie?

Seems obvious, yet people still buy films they haven’t even seen and are unlikely to enjoy just because the title is recognizable and they missed it in theaters. Or they’ll buy movies they felt vaguely positive about just to “round out” a collection, take advantage of a negligible sale or “just in case” they ever feel like seeing it again. You can get Netflix for a month with less green than most DVDs, and you’ll have time to peruse for a film you don’t regret later. This test is also a great defense against completionist collecting, an expensive and generally overrated task.

2) Am I likely to rewatch the movie?

If no, why are you buying it? If the answer is “rarely,” maybe you should reconsider. A negative answer to this question can be offset by criterion #3.

3) Is this the type of film that I’d want to show or lend to other people?

This is absolutely key for me. One of the main reasons I own films is so that I can lend them out to friends who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of or seek out such pictures. Technically, I’m sure this is somehow illegal, but I doubt I’m actually cutting into the bottom line of anyone (hopefully the Film Walrus has even tossed some miniscule iota of business to distributers out there). This often combines with #4 where I find myself foisting a rare or obscure film on an unsuspecting mark to back up some exuberant review I’ve just spouted.

4) Is there any way of seeing the film outside of buying it?

I am much more likely to purchase a film I’ve never seen if there is no other feasible way of viewing it. If I can rent one of eight copies from the library or play it on Netflix Instant Watch or see it every other week on TBS, then why spend the money? On the other hand, if I have to drive five hours to a midnight screening or wire money to the Slovak Film Institute or wait for a half-razed archive in Alabama to hold an auction, then I will, but I’m only going to do it once and then I want to put a secure a copy in my collection. Besides, finding rare films generates better memories, conversations and karma.

5) Is it worth the price?

When I bought my first movies I maintained a price cap of $10. That figure has steadily climbed and has since been entirely removed. Now there is no definite cut-off, but a gradual decline in probability as the price heads skyward. I will gladly pay more for good English subtitles, a pristine transfer in the correct aspect ratio and worthwhile special features. I enjoy indulging in Criterion DVDs, because I also find a definite value in tasteful box art and informative essay booklets.

6) Is this likely to be the definitive release of the film?

It pains me greatly to have to pay for something twice, so I generally like to get things right the first time. Obviously format changes make this a little difficult. Basically, if I’m on the fence about a particular release and I think a better edition will one day come along, I usually wait. An example that comes to mind are the cheap cardboard snap-case DVDs for Stanley Kubrick films. The movies are must-see, but I won’t own copies until they give him the high-quality treatment his films deserve (Blu-Ray, are you man enough for the task?).

Much of these principles can be reduced to the concept of getting value for your money and utility from the value. Before you buy a film you haven’t seen, do a little bit of research and make sure the odds are favorable that it’s worthwhile and see if you can view it first through a free/cheap resource.

My personal collection is a little odd because my stash is relatively lean (for a film-obsessed nerd of reasonable means) and tips towards my favorite categories: Czech New Wave, Italian horror, foreign arthouse, cult, sci-fi, noir. I still keep around VHS tapes when few other options exist (An Actor’s Revenge, Blood and Roses, My Twentieth Century, Phenix City Story, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Death Watch (1980) to name a few). For digital media I often insist on having subtitles, even for English language films. As for presentation, my movie collection is currently colorbatized (courtesy of Katie), since we reasoned that it increases browsing attractiveness for others and only mildly inconveniences us.

[Images: Previously, even the black and white DVDs were ordered by font color, but it only made things more confusing.]

Of course, everyone who collects movies will have their own guiding principles and preferences. Some will focus on genres, actors, directors, countries or time periods. Price may be no object or a deal breaker. Some people prefer box sets or collect multiple editions while others could care less about cases and like the minimal storage hassle of a disc album. I’ve met collectors who are more interested in the transfer quality or bonus materials than the actual movies and others who never watch any special features and don’t notice or care about sins as egregious as pan-and-scan.

Anyways, I’d love to hear about everyone else’s collections. Are there important factors in your purchasing decisions that I’ve left out? Do you have eccentric specializations or deep convictions about what should and should be on any self-respecting cinephile’s shelf? Do you have the world's largest collection? Let me know.


Derek said...

Number 3 is absolutely key for me--I practically never watch a movie more than once, but I love showing my movies to other people.

Looking forward to visiting!

Patti said...

I don't have a film collection to speak of, but I can say that the art of the music collection would be another story... or maybe not. The main issue stems from the differences in general experience and replayability, since I've listened to most albums I own at least ten times, and for albums I really like and have had for a few years, it'll be far more. (I bet I've listened to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness a hundred times or more.) I suspect that you've seen your favorite movies a dozen times or more, but still, the differences in media make it a different story.

Mad Dog said...

Oh god, something that's close to my heart. I do enjoy building a collection of movies. The way it started for me was that there were certain movies that I was interested in and loved that I couldn't get my dad to buy or that I would love so much I knew that renting it over and over would be the pricier option. I'm trying to think back on what the first one was that I bought with my very own money... It was most likely Cowboy Bebop Vol. 4. (And I hope to god it wasn't Gundam Wing Vol. 1.) Anime's been a genre that I could really never interest my father in, and the availability if it in rental form (before Netflix and especially after I moved away from the awesome resource that was Video Library) was laughable.

I sort of have slightly different criteria that I use between movies and TV series. And when thinking about it, it's sort of backwards, logically speaking. I'm more choosy about buying movies because they're a one-time experience and I need to be able to know it can hold my interest a second or third viewing. For TV series, I'll often buy the next installment of something I'm only moderately interested in because I want to know how the story continues. So I manage to spend more money on something that holds my interest less. It seemed like sound logic at the time!!

I think buying things because it makes it easier to lend out to people is a really interesting aspect of buying movies for me, too. Back in college, when I was popping roommates' anime cherries left and right, I'd buy shit just to watch with them. I spent, like, $40 each on these DVD boxed sets of a series that ended up not being very engaging once I meditated on the prospect of having to watch it by myself. I've tried lending out some stuff of interest to a co-worker (namely Lady Vengeance and Battlestar Galactica's miniseries) and to this day I am certain that they went unwatched. BLEH.

I'll also hold off on buying incomplete or unauthoritative versions of movies. It's the only reason I haven't snatched up Kill Bill parts 1 & 2 on Blu-Ray yet, as well as Grindhouse.

But I also have some part of me that thinks a person's film collection should reflect an accurate picture of that person's taste. So I find myself buying movies on Blu-Ray that I really like and admire, but don't have any burning need to rewatch just yet, just because I'm building a film collection apart from my parents and want to fill in the blanks when it comes to my favorites. (Hellooooo, Baron Munchausen.)

And when it comes to boxed sets and the like, I'll always prefer a nice boxed set with individual DVD cases slipped into a nice thick chipboard box. Going down the hierarchy of collections, after that would be thinpak boxed sets, then "brick" keepcase sets, then really weirdly-shaped boxed sets, like the giant eye for Giant Robo that houses jewel cases. But really, when it's a series, I haaate having to buy singles without a nice, complementary place to put them together.

And I generally organize my (inadequate) shelves by franchise and live-action/animated, and within animation, Eastern/Western.

FilmWalrus said...

Wow! Great response everyone!

Looking forward to the visit as well. I finished up the tentative calendar with branching paths yesterday. Interestingly, there is a film playing with almost an identical premise to Plague Train.

Funny that our movie/music behaviors overlap so often, but not on this topic. I approve a certain amount of rewatching within moderation, but I've rarely seen even my favorite films more than 3 times so far in my life.

Mad Dog,
I've always felt you did a much more sensible job collecting films than your dad.

The way you are with anime applys to many foreign films for me (region 2 stuff is rapidly filling in my collection because buying is the only option available).

I'm a little pickier with TV as I tend to be the one borrowing from someone else when I first see a show and then buying only after I'm sure the whole series is worth it. As Katie will testify, this comes from a innate mistrust of TV and frequent feelings of betrayal by shows that turn bad after I've committed myself (I hate to give up).

Strangely, I really like a good boxset, but I often file the DVDs independently and store the box elsewhere. This is especially true for actor box sets (I generally keep director box sets together) since I don't think that actors are a good organization principle. I do haaate TV shows that don't come in box editions, since I keep TV shows separate from movies and ALWAYS grouped by series (colorbatizing can only go so far).

Anyway, good to hear from you all and glad to hear we're all keeping the movie industry profitable.

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

Two other things.
I definitely agree that a movie collection does (and should) reflect the personality of the owner. It may not make great sense, but I've used this as an excuse to fill in gaps, too. It's also why I'm reluctant to display films like "Phantasm" and "Bedazzled" in my official collection.

And I'm glad you mentioned Baron Munchausen. The next review I'm posting is of the original version that inspired Gilliam.

Pauline M said...


I seem to collect Italian genre film from the 70s (though buy the occasional movie from the 60s or 80s) and am pretty close to getting a full set of Fulcis. I tend to watch the movies on rotation (and since there are a few hundred titles in there it means revisiting a movie maybe once a year) though there are exceptions- the frightened woman gets a fair bit of play as does street law and new barbarians amongst a few oters, Fulci titles get replayed hell of a lot too,

For me the main reason for buying is that my nearest cinema, a pretty unappealing multiplex is unlikely show any of them and fwe get onto the tv. So for me its see the films this way or not at all.

Since we don't have movies on demand here it is also nice that I can watch a film when I feel like- so this weekend when me and my wife do our supernatural night weekend I may well dig out bava's Shock again as my little contribution.

Also to add, maybe part of me still has the collecting bug from childhood as I went through, Star Wars Weekly, Fossils, Coins, Stamps, Football Cards, once collected elastic bands and made a massive ball, Tv related year annuals, Dr Who card figures that were free with a cereal, viewfinder slides, etc, etc. Later it was vhs, twotone ska records, more elastic bands (another ball), fishing books, beermats, and now its dvds of italian genre cinema. :)

Mad Dog said...

Brian, I'm guilty of almost kind of liking Bedazzled.

Anonymous said...

Like yourself I've been a "collector" for most of my adult life. I didn't have a lot when I was growing up and my family had trouble getting food on the table so I suspect that my "collecting/hoarding" bug might have sprang from my desire to have more than what I actually did.

It started with small inexpensive things like rocks, marbles and collectible sports cards as well as cards for movies and TV shows when I was a kid (I still own my collectible cards for Ridley Scott's Alien!) and as a teenager I got hooked on comic books and record collecting. During the '90s I worked at a comic shop and that just fueled (for better or worse) the collector mentality and led me to start collecting Japanese dolls, vintage toys and of course, movies. I also have a small rare book collection that I'm rather proud of.

I've sold a lot of things in recent years (including DVDs) and made a fair amount of profit so I can't really complain about my habits.

Horror films and rare foreign/arthouse films are my real weakness when it comes to movie collecting. 90% of the movies I own fall into these categories.

It started with videos during the VHS age and later on Laser Discs when they were released. I literally own a thousand videos, but I've been slowly getting rid of them and recording hard-to-find favorites to DVD (this is why I review things like Black Lizard, which has only been released on VHS).

When I buy movies on DVD now I ask myself two questions:

1) How rare is the film and could the DVD eventually go out of print?

2) Will I watch it more than once?

If I answer yes to both questions I'll buy something. My latest purchase was the new Hammer Horror DVD collection and I bought my guy the Yokai Monster DVD collection for his birthday a few weeks ago. Thankfully he and I have very similar tastes when it comes to film and we both enjoy getting DVDs as gifts.

FilmWalrus said...


I forgot about rubber bands. I collected those too. And I can understand why the multiplex is pretty useless to you. As a sidenote, I'm insanely jealous of your Italian genre collection. I'm only just getting off the ground floor with mine.

Mad Dog,

No matter the breadth or rarity of items in my collection, the most common reaction I still get from browsers is "You own Bedazzled?!?!" I think "One Night at McCool's" is even more embarassing, but that one gets fewer exclamations. I should put in a copy of "Seabisquit" or "Coyote Ugly" and see if I can give people heart attacks.


I never got into comic books, but I came awfully darn close. My dad collected SF, fantasy and horror novels and I really enjoyed unpacking the endless boxes of his stuff and alphabetizing them (is this related to the collection bug?), at which time I uncovered evidence of a closeted comic book interest. I still find myself reading his old <$1 paperbacks more often than new books.

As with Nigel's, I share your taste and would love to bask before your collection. I'm watching Teorema tonight on your greats-of-68 suggestion and I've been beating myself up about not watching Black Lizard ever since reading your review. The VHS was staring me in the face for three years when I worked at my college library and I almost rented it nearly a dozen times. Now I can't get at it.

Patti said...

Brian, just consider that if you want to rent a movie from Olin, we have a mutual friend who recently began attending grad school there. Also: is it possible to go in and watch the movie on-site like you can at Webster?

Mad Dog said...

Brian, I have a theory that every pawn shop in America has at least one copy of One Night at McCool's.

Pauline M said...

Hi again,

Just been rewatching the Lickerish Quartet- where the castle owner is in the library with the visitor. The visitor asks whether the owner has read all his books. He replied that he didn't really need to read all the books, many of which he did not undertsand the language anyway, after all he owned them.

Got me thinking about this blog post and the subject of collecting. For example I have collected shameless screen entertainment releases from the start- butt his month they released Bianchi's "Strip Nude For Your Killer", I already have that. I will buy the shameless release so my shameless collection remains complete even though I didn't need this title, I have the film from a prior release. Shameless releases have a spine builder that spells shameless btw.

So maybe in this case this particular purchase will be collecting for collecting sake.

Pauline M said...

So does colecting only really become a problem when you become a completist I wonder? Cos being a completist could surely lead to some dodgy dvd purchases- Aenigma springs to mind here.

Mad Dog said...

Oh, extra special bonus moment of collecting shame: I bought a volume of the Wolf's Rain anime that was nothing more than a collection of clipshow episodes simply to fill out the box. Yes, it was heavily discounted from its original $30 asking price, but still. I paid money for something I literally never intend to watch just to have it look nice on my shelf. And the kicker is that I have the spine facing outward so you can't even tell I collected all the discs.

Steve Langton said...

I used to be an avid DVD collector, often buying films I would watch only once or sometimes never get round to viewing. Store and online sales always used to burn my wallet big time, with impulse purchases adding more and more titles to my collection. As cash flow got tighter, I was forced to sell many titles from my stash. Stuff like The Beyond tin box, Blood And Black Lace in velvet slipcase and the 3 disc Suspiria. Nowadays, I tend to rent, and only jump if it's a film I KNOW I'll watch over and again. No more blind buys for this punter! That said, my wife has a hell of a job keeping me out of a nearby Poundland and I'll admit I did manage to snag a handful of Fulci, Franco, Ferrara and Shadow Of The Vampire. Can't go wrong for four quid. It was a moment of weakness that I'm assured won't happen again anytime soon.

FilmWalrus said...


I understand that certain completist purchases are the only way to bring closure to a collector's itch. There's a couple of directors whose work I track down even though I know it won't be 1st (or 2nd... or 3rd) tier. And I can't find it in me to blame you about collecting Shameless DVD. They make me so happy!


Somehow I still manage to make an impulse purchase DVD every time I enter BestBuy, especially with those discount movies. It almost makes me think it is a good thing that their crap ratio is climbing through the roof, because it makes me less tempted to get anything.

Mad Dog,

I think I have a Gumby DVD from Walmart. I'm not sure rather I should be embarassed or proud.

Patti said...

Brian - I guess I was thinking of movies like Brazil or Blade Runner. The old classics and favorites, you know. Certainly you've seen those two more than three times! However, I can understand the most of the favorites from the past five years might have had less replaying for you.

I do know some people who buy CDs, listen to them for a few months or a year, and then seel them because they claim that they know them too well and the whole thing's in their head. Even though I could say that about some albums, I'd still never sell them!

Mad Dog said...

Another fun/sad fact: I think I had the song "Inner Universe" playing in my car for like a month on repeat.

Anonymous said...

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I'd love to hear from you about your experience of being a film major at Wash U. plz email me at
thank you1

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