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Surviving the Hunger Games at Wal-Mart

Through a devilish cocktail that was both beautiful and horrible, crafted from equal parts boredom, morbid curiosity, and my own thriftiness, shaken thoroughly in a crucible of suffering and then poured over icy despair into a crystal tumbler of misery, I found myself at a Super Wal-Mart this past Thursday–aka “Thanksgiving”–evening.

Or… How Physical Media is Alive and Well

Through a devilish cocktail that was both beautiful and horrible, crafted from equal parts boredom, morbid curiosity, and my own thriftiness, shaken thoroughly in a crucible of suffering and then poured over icy despair into a crystal tumbler of misery, I found myself at a Super Wal-Mart this past Thursday–aka Thanksgiving evening.

While you were likely spending time with loved ones, a warm fire gently crackling in the background as you were surrounded by the remnants of a picked-clean turkey carcass and piles of dishes and lounging in front of the gentle electronic phosphorescence of a flat panel TV and letting metabolism and liquor take their natural courses, I opted to spend more than three hours–surrounded by thousands, and yet, alone–waiting for a slim shot at obtaining one of the pre-Black Friday mega door buster deals. (They had an HP laptop on sale for $178. Granted, this computer certainly wouldn’t have the prowess to run Maya, play God of War 2 or probably even run SMPL or Composer, but its specs were certainly up to the punishing amount of Pinterest, Instagram, and e-mailing that my wife will be throwing at it. Also, my wife has been a real trooper about using my old, hand-me-down laptop that just might have fallen out of my backpack during CEDIA Atlanta and slid about 20 feet down the sidewalk and then had a full cup of coffee spilled on it and now runs with all the speed and fury of virus-laden Windows 95 machine with a fan that thinks it is part of an industrial kitchen’s convection oven.

(Also, I might have gone out and watched Catching Fire just hours before my shopping trip to the Cornucopia that is our Super Wal-Mart. Part of some subliminal training and readiness plan to prepare to handle the crowds? Maybe. Either way, after watching Katniss for nearly three hours, I felt more than ready to go all Finnick on anyone that tried to stand in the way of securing that mega deal for my District!)

So, I found myself standing in line–sadly sans trident or sugar cubes–realizing that it was a wonderful opportunity to people watch. Granted, the people you see on a pre-Black Friday sale at Wal-Mart are not what most would consider “salt of the earth,” but most also aren’t the trolls and monsters that the newscasts would lead you to believe are seeking to burst through the doors, trampling anyone into their path and willing to kill each other over some deeply discounted Roomba. While I did see one girl crying, and several people parading around with 32-inch flatscreens held high aloft above their heads like conquering District 1 careers returning from a successful marauding, for the most part people were pretty orderly and remained queued up. (Though, now that I think about it, the PA announcements could definitely be analogous to the cannon blasts, the sale fliers like the parachute rewards from sponsors, the Black Friday tip sites like mentors, the hourly sales shifting to different parts of the clock-faced arena, the store manager the gamemakers… My god! Wal-mart really is The Hunger Games!)

But while I was standing in line, watching people shuffle with that feral, wild and hunted look in their eyes, I started to notice how many people have stacks of movies. Armloads of DVDs. Shopping carts full of Blu-rays. Piles and piles of movies being purchased by nearly every person that I saw.

When I finally secured the lime-green wristband guaranteeing me my laptop–I got the 21st of 21 available laptops!–I headed over to the dairy section where the insidious gamemakers had (naturally) set up all the sale DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
Here I discovered racks and racks filled with DVD and Blu-ray movies that were being swarmed by hundreds of people–many working in teams–feverishly hunting through the stacks looking for a specific title. There were random shouts of, “Got it!” and “Found it!” and “No, that’s the DVD! I want the Blu-ray!” (That last one might have been me.)

In the racks–strewn about with all the care and precision of a meth lab explosion–were old movies, new movies, TV series, collections, and box sets. And people were snatching them up by stacks of 10, 20, 30, and more. Granted these were cheap movies, some selling for $1.99, others as much as $10.99, but still, people were buying physical discs like they were going out of style. (I grabbed Monster’s University and Jurassic Park on Blu-ray to feed into my Kaleidescape vault. I swear, that Black Friday fever is powerful juju!)

And according to the writing on the wall, they likely are. And I’m sure that many of these titles were available for streaming on services like Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Apple, and more, but instead, these people chose to spend their evening at Wal-Mart buying them. Now, I’m sure that some were caught up in the fever of Black Friday shopping–it’s a kind of giddy euphoria where everything looks just a little bit shinier. That is until it wears off and you see people starting to look haggard and dazed, or what I like to call the immediate pre-zombie phase–and others were probably scoring gifts on the cheap, but to me it also clearly demonstrated that people still have the desire to collect and own films, rather than to just be able to stream them.

Ever since VHS movies moved past a rental model and into a sales model, people have wanted to collect and own their favorite movies. Sure, they may only watch them a single time, but there is a comfort in knowing that movie is there, waiting, if you feel the mood to watch it.

Watching these people, I couldn’t help but wonder how they planned on managing all of these new movies. Were they destined to get lumped into a cabinet or lined on a bookshelf or maybe catalogued into an Excel spreadsheet? How many movies would be forgotten and never actually watched, lying in wait in a plastic, jewel-cased prison because no one remembered it?

It really showed me how there is still such a need for disc-based management solutions like those offered from Kaleidescape, Fusion Research, and Mozaex. But even though the price of movie servers has come way down–the first Kaleidescape system I reviewed retailed for over $30,000; the company’s latest offering, the Cinema One, does far more and sells for under $4,000–they are still outside the range of mass affordability. As a Twitter follower of mine pointed out, “I think a Venn diagram of those two groups [Wal-Mart Black Friday movie buyers and Kaleidescape owners] is just two non-overlapping circles.”

Hopefully the prices of these server-based systems will continue to fall, giving a longer, more meaningful and usable lifespan to all these existing plastic discs. And offering custom integrators an avenue into an entirely new client base. Will it happen? Maybe. We can certainly hope. As they say, hope is the only thing stronger than fear.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.