Video shops are dead – but streaming video ain’t perfect

Let’s see if I can go a whole week without writing a blog post about level crossings.

Video shops are dead. For a while there was one (or more) in every suburb. Where I live now in Bentleigh there were at least two. Even Glenhuntly, where I lived in the late-90s, had two.

They were close enough that mostly, I could walk to them. M’s house in Footscray was the exception — the video shops around there dealt with the local migrant populations, and you had to go further afield to find English language movies (or even movies with English subtitles).

Over time the video shops ditched VHS and morphed into DVD shops. But in the last few years, almost all of them have closed, disappeared along with CRT non-widescreen analogue TVs. As with many industries, the internet is taking over.

Ye olde CRT TV (November 2004)

Blockbuster was one of the biggest video shop chains — they now seem to have only four stores left in Melbourne. I’m not sure about Video Ezy — if the White Pages is accurate, they still have about a dozen stores. Any number of individual stores have vanished.

(From my observations, a surprising number of old video shops seem to have turned into fitness centres. Some kind of transformation from couch potato to gym junkie.)

For a while, DVDs by snail mail was the thing. It never caught on at my house. It’s just not the way we watch movies. Usually the decision to rent something is spontaneous. You need to go to a physical shop, or stream it. The other option I’ve tried is renting on iTunes. Unfortunately this isn’t streaming – downloading a movie in HD first can take ages – far longer than it would take to find one of the few remaining video shops.

Streaming video is good, the technology and infrastructure around it has matured, but none of the services are perfect — I’ve now sampled most them.

I used Presto ($9.99 per month for TV or movies, $14.99 for both) for about 6 months. It had a good range, but no HD, and is more expensive than the others if you want TV and movies.

Then I moved onto Netflix ($11.99 for HD). Good range, terrific apps (virtually every platform you can think of) and hooray for HD.

Then I tried Stan ($10, including HD). Good range, slightly clunky iPod app which looks like it should be able to use a cable to your TV, but can’t.

I haven’t tried Quickflix.

The problem with all of these is that the range is good but not brilliant. There were just far too many times I would think of a random movie, go looking for it, and discover it wasn’t available. Ditto with TV.

In a great discussion on the Talking Headways podcast from late 2014 (I’m working my way through the earlier episodes) they talk a bit about Netflix and other streaming services vs the old video shops, and come to the same conclusion: the range isn’t great. It’s probably more restricted than at many of the old video shops.

And even today, the biggest range of TV and movies is at your local JB Hifi store… as long as you’re prepared to buy, not rent.

At the moment I am without a streaming service — we’ve got a few of those old-fashioned DVDs to watch. But I have slowed down DVD/Blu-ray purchases. Barring Star Wars: Force Awakens (out on Wednesday), I’m not planning to splurge on any more discs for now, so I may get back to streaming again soon.

Which one? Depends what I want to watch. I have found these web sites which let you search their databases to see what’s available, without being a member:

These are useful tools, but I’m amused that Finder’s intro text talks about Game Of Thrones, which isn’t available on any of the services they compare.

It seems the streaming rights to that are locked up by HBO for their streaming service… which is only available in the USA. Sigh. Given the range of programming they’ve got, I reckon if they were to launch in Australia, they’d get a lot of happy subscribers.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem with the current streaming services — the content owners have much greater control over what each service can offer, so unlike those old video shops, whole ranges of movies from particular studios are just completely missing. “The long tail” was meant to solve this, but other factors have come into play.

Ten years ago: Arise Lord Vader

Here’s another in my series of ten year old photos.

Arise Lord Vader — episode 3 got a lot of promotion. Or, as I joked at the time: Connex was aligned with the Dark Side.
Arise Lord Vader - Flinders Street station, May 2005

The Dungeon: platform 13 at Flinders Street. The screens have been replaced with a flat model, and an escalator was installed to the concourse, but I’m not sure it’s changed that much otherwise.
Platform 13, Flinders Street Station, May 2005

M and I must have been out on a dog walk and found this sign. Edgewater (then under construction, now a thriving infill suburb) is in that abyss somewhere.
Edgewater, May 2005

Also on the dog walk. Evidently the residents of Rippon Street were very proud of their second prize from 16 years earlier. Google Streetview shows the sign was still there in March 2014.
Near Vic Uni Footscray Park, May 2005

It was ten years ago this month that we had the funeral for Tram Stop 7 (on Collins Street and Russell Street) — since merged with the Exhibition Street stop in favour of a mid-block tram stop. I think it was the first time the “one stop per block in the CBD” rule started to be diminished — these days it’s near-impossible to know where the closest stop is to Street X. It got plenty of media interest. Naturally to this day you see trams stop there for the traffic lights, but unable to pick up or drop off passengers. (More pictures)
Funeral for a tram stop, May 2005

My desk back then. Old computer (bought earlier that month), old fat screen, old bulky printer. Copy of Train Simulator on the desk. Blue Linksys router in the background — WiFi antennae up, I don’t even recall if I used WiFi for anything back then.
My desk, May 2005

Crowdfunded documentaries

I’m aware that my blog has evolved… these days most of the posts are about transport, reflecting my current interests.

I wonder if this is a bit dull for those who have been on the old Toxic Custard mailing list, which is the descendant of the humour-based email list I started while at uni.

Yet transport posts get by far the largest number of comments. Hmmmm.

Here’s a post to mix it up a bit.

Crowdfunded documentaries

Last year I helped crowdfund two documentaries:

Bedrooms To Billions — the story of the beginnings of the computer game industry, from the perspective of UK developers. In the 80s, the first games were written by schoolboy (mostly boy) coders with cheap computers in their bedrooms, manually copying tapes and sending them out by post. I was in that age group, and tried to write my own games too…

I knew much of the story, but the extensive interviews with those involved at the time made this really interesting, especially the first half or so.

I probably got a bit carried away: I contributed enough money that you’ll find my name in tiny writing in the credits somewhere.

Well worth a look if you’re into retro gaming.Thumbs up!

The Outer Circle — Melbourne’s forgotten railway — many would know that the Alamein line and linear parks and bike paths are all that’s left of a line which once ran from Fairfield via Camberwell to Oakleigh.

This documentary manages to have a lot of detail in it, without ever being dull, and has some terrific accounts from actual users of the line, as well as archival footage and photos. I for one had no idea that John Monash built the line. Well worth catching.Thumbs up!

I’m pretty happy my contributions helped these two get made.

I’ve since donated to the sequel to Bedrooms To Billions, and I’ll be on the lookout to see what others get proposed which are worth a look.

Back in the mid-70s when Monty Python was developing The Life Of Brian, they got a sizeable contribution of funds from George Harrison, because he “wanted to see the movie”. That’s not an option most film makers have, of course.

Crowdfunding is something that has probably only become practical since the spread of the internet. The long tail of interests means a special interest group like this can reach the numbers of people necessary to make it viable.

It’s nice to see technology being used in this kind of way — something that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade or two ago.

1978 film “Mouth to Mouth” includes scenes of Melbourne anti-freeway protests

The recent anti-motorway protests in Melbourne are nothing new. In fact the very same area was subject to protests in the 1970s, when it was proposed to link the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway by way of an aboveground link, by converting Alexandra Parade to a freeway, ploughing through neighbourhoods in Collingwood, Carlton and Fitzroy.

Film and television can sometimes provide little glimpses of these events. M told me that on Sunday night, Channel 31 as part of their classic Australian film series, was showing 1978’s Mouth To Mouth“, about four youngsters trying to survive on Melbourne’s streets.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

About 43 minutes in, there’s a scene were one of the characters looks out of a window and spots one of the anti-freeway protests. I assume it was staged for the film, as they are marching to an audience of nobody, but the placards look to be directly inspired by real life, one criticising the then-Premier — partly out of shot, but I think it says “What about your 1972 promise – No more freeways, Mr Hamer”.

Others such as “Melbourne needs a transport plan!” and “Freeways – Money for jams” wouldn’t be out of place today.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

I missed the scene on Channel 31’s broadcast, but found the DVD for the bargain price of $5 plus $1.30 shipping on Umbrella Entertainment’s web site.

In other scenes you can glimpse bright orange trams, safety zones, rows and rows of telephone boxes, a red rattler train, the old Coles cafeteria, and numerous old cars. There’s also a scene set in a plush hotel — possibly the Southern Cross.

And apart from the scenery, the film itself isn’t bad either. Apparently it got three AFI nominations.

Doctor Who breaks new ground for television

It would seem Doctor Who is breaking new ground in some interesting ways.

They’ve engineered a “world tour” which involves the show’s stars jetting around the world for live appearances in 6 cities around the globe over about a week. It’s just about finished now… I’d imagine they’d be suffering horribly from jetlag by the time they get back to the UK. It was a set of public screenings for fans, but given limited capacity at each venue, I suspect was mostly set up as a media event.

Doctor Who: Deep Breath cinema ad, The Age, 15/8/2014

Next week “Deep Breath”, the new series opening episode will be simulcast on the ABC at the same time as it airs in Britain — 7:50pm Saturday in the UK, 4:50am Sunday in eastern Australia. It’ll then be available on iView straight afterwards, with a prime time repeat at 7:30pm. The same occurred with the 50th anniversary episode “Day Of The Doctor” last November.

It’ll also be shown in the cinemas on the Sunday: from the looks of listings on, almost 100 cinemas in Victoria alone will show it.

Cinemas do seem to be moving into this kind of special event area. Perhaps they are looking to diversify from traditional movies, and also sensing that people will willingly pay a higher “event” price: Village is charging $25 for tickets, about $6 more than the normal price, and $40 for Gold Class, which is about the usual price.

They’ve recently taken on screenings such as showing the Monty Python live concert from London, a similar Stephen Fry event, classical music concerts and operas — and Doctor Who episodes — “Deep Breath” follows “Day Of The Doctor” in this regard, and some cinemas have also shown other episodes in the past (though well after the TV broadcast).

I guess the production of TV programmes in 1080p HD now allows projection onto the big screen, and digital media allows distributors to rush it to cinemas worldwide without messing about trying to get physical film out there. But still, in the world of television, this and the simulcast appear to be almost unique to Doctor Who.

Of course there’s long been a relationship between TV and cinema. In the 60s in particular it was common for TV series (particularly in the UK) to be remade as films, sometimes with the same cast and writers, and considered part of the TV series; sometimes independent (as with the 1960s Doctor Who movies).

Many of our family is going to see “Deep Breath” in the cinema. The kids are going to screenings with their friends — M and myself have splurged on Gold Class, and will most likely avoid the early TV broadcast and try and avoid spoilers until we see it on the big screen. (I avoided seeing “Day Of The Doctor” because it was only shown in 3D, which doesn’t work on me.)

Notably, booking on the Village Cinemas web site, we found that on top of the ticket price there was a $2 booking fee for standard tickets… but a whopping $10 for Gold Class. Using the identical web site of course, and you have to print the ticket or show it on your mobile phone. The cheek of it.

Oh well, cost aside, it should be great — but it makes me wonder: Doctor Who is probably helped into this situation by being a cult show that’s also very popular, and being targeted at all ages… but is any other TV show getting this kind of treatment?